A Tour of The Summit Wine & Food Festival

Last week I attended the Third Annual Summit Wine & Food Festival.  The three-day schedule showcased celebrity chefs, sommeliers, local and international wine makers and competitive mixologists at a sophisticated and educational event at the Grand Summit Hotel. I attended three sessions on the third and last day and got just a tiny taste of all that this festival has to offer to foodies and wine connoisseurs.

After a busy morning with my family, including various sports and religious commitments, and a September 11 memorial service, I headed up the big hill to Summit. I didn’t have much of an appetite and figured that I’d hold out for the big foodie fest. Why eat my standard bagel or oatmeal when countless gourmet goodies were certainly waiting for me. They were not. I had assumed there would be a big room where local artisan bakers, cheesemakers and chocolatiers would be offering. No such luck, but something they may want to consider for next year. My two choices were beer tasting or wine tasting, but I knew I could do neither on an empty stomach.

On any day the choice between a Cheese and Beer Tasting and an East Coast Cult Wines Tasting is a good problem to have. But I was sad, nostalgic and hungry. So odd as it sounds, I started my time at the Wine & Food festival spending $18 at the brunch buffet at the Hat Tavern, conveniently located on the lower level at the Summit Grand Hotel. I couldn’t be too annoyed since I was invited to the festival as a guest and my return would be well worth the investment. I accepted my fate and figured I had 20 minutes to work the buffet. Wanting to best leverage the $18, I passed over the omelet station and pasta salads, and instead filled my plate with items from the raw bar and some grilled vegetables. The oysters on the half shell were plump and succulent and just the right amount of indulgent. I was about to sip some pricey wines and wanted to start my journey off on the right epicurean note.

I selected the wine tasting and entered the room just as Darren Palace was finishing his introduction about the nascent Red Hook Winery in Brooklyn. With its first vintage in 2008, the winery has a loyal, and growing, following among wine drinkers with a sense of novelty and adventure. Red Hook Winery takes some liberties in mixing barrels of wine to create unconventional blends. For example, their Red Hook Winery BF “Black & Blue” Red Wine 2008 Cabernet Franc/Merlot mix was the result of having a few barrels of each as they finished their bottling. Named after the color of the grapes, this unconventional blend, aka “the bruiser,” was a success. Darren claims it was a no-brainer. “Together, they made a statement better than either did by themselves.”

Here’s another no-brainer – in less than an hour you can visit Red Hook Winery and crush grapes, bottle your own, or sample them in their tasting room, opening in the Spring of 2012. Among the other wines I tasted, I was intrigued by the Red Hook Winery AS “SK” Sauvignon Blanc Reserve 2008, with its citrusy tones that I’m told will pair well with anything strong & stinky like a stilton or wild salmon. They only produced 24 cases this year. I also enjoyed the Red Hook Winery BF “Jamesport Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 which was a jammy powerhouse of 100% Cab. If you are looking to purchase locally, these hard to find bottles are only available at the Summit Wine List, retailing at about between $40-$70. While there, you’ll want to meet the owner Ian Ruiz, who organized the Summit Wine & Food Festival.

My next session was an entertaining cooking demonstration on searing and braising proteins by Chef David Martin. The seminar was called “Animals! Animals! Animals!” The product display table prominently featured a t-shirt with the slogan “I’m not your bitch, bitch!” Can you see the personality yet? To be one of Bravo’s Top Chefs, you need that extra something, and he’s got it. And he has managed to channel it into his cooking style, recipes and homemade rubs and marinades. He developed over 20 French fry dipping sauces for the Frying Dutchmen Food Truck in Manhattan, including Vampire Repellent (garlic & nutmeg aioli), Truffle Shuffle (white truffles with parmesan cream) and Guacahummus. He wouldn’t reveal specifics, but he is opening a restaurant in downtown Manhattan that will serve upscale comfort food like truffled mac & cheese, Canadian poutines and turducken meatballs. Simply put, this guy is nothing short of amazing, and it all comes through in his original cooking style.

Chef David is all about versatility. His original recipe Flavor Quest products worked equally well with meat and fish and were used before, during and after cooking as a marinades, dry rubs and dipping sauces. The Sweet & Sassy Smokehouse Rub and Pepper Monkey Poblano BBQ Sauce worked equally well with seared shrimp and braised pork shoulder. His technique is pretty simple and consistent. Sear first, then braise until meat falls apart. Anyone can braise, but does everyone go to the soda machine down the hall and braise in Coke or Ginger Ale? Chef David loves when the sugar breaks down the meat and does “magic in the oven.”

Chefs love to tell war stories, and these sessions are so valuable to the home cook like me who does not have years of braising under my belt, which I needed to loosen after his demo. He had great advice like covering braised meats and side dishes with plastic wrap first, and then topping with a second layer of foil. This double wrap locks in the moisture, and you can reheat in the oven – the plastic does not melt! Who knew? He also recommends an easy 2-hour marinade for flank or skirt steak with OJ, lemon, honey, cumin, garlic and oil. He ended the demo with a tasting of his dark chocolate malted fudge. Maybe he is my bitch.

With a break between events, I had enough time to return home to Westfield, pick up my sixth grade daughter, and return back for the Caja China Competition. The main event, which closed the festival on the final evening, was a bbq competition among some of the area’s top chefs. “La Caja China” portable spit housing hot coals that can be used to roast anything and everything. The 8 participating chefs were notified of their main course, ranging from pork to goat to fish, only one day in advance. These chefs, who live and work mainly in the Garden State, included Jesse Jones, Adam Schop, Alex Garcia, Big Lou Elrose, Wade Burch, Charles Burke, Bryan Gregg and Frank Maldonado.

Through a smoky haze that hinted of pepper, pig and hickory, my daughter and I winced at the site of an entire wild boar being scooped out as hungry guests stood in line. After NJ Senator Tom Kean Jr. opened the event with a moment of silence, it was hard not to appreciate the good life we live, and difficult to remember the many who lost their lives for this freedom.  Nothing is more American than competition, hard work and the ability to vote, so we walked around tasting food, judging the chefs and at the end cast our vote. I liked Chef Jesse’s chicken with apricot brandy sauce marinated in Savory Spices and apple cider. The banana-wrapped mahi with Haitian curry sauce and jicama slaw was presented over seaweed and ice by Chef Bryan Gregg of the Ho-Ho-Kus Inn & Tavern. I flipped over the whiskey and jalapeno flecked pecan and fig compote prepared by Wade Burch, Executive Chef at Southwest NY and the opening-soon Neely’s Pig Parlor (yes, those Neely’s!). I skipped Alex Garcia’s goat tacos but tried the 3 mole sauces that were fantastic. My daughter and I both loved the Hat Tavern ribs with picked slaw and the macaroni & cheese from food in Summit, prepared with lobster, orzo and black truffles. The judges deemed Chef Adrian Leon the winner, with his prime rib with chimichurri sauce and potato corn salsa.

Ironically, the night ended with my being stuffed and looking for a glass of wine. I couldn’t find any. There was plenty of beer, like Cricket Hill Jersey Summer Breakfast Ale that is hand made in small artisan batches of 1,000 gallons or less. There was a mixologist blending daquiries with fresh fruit and herbs. But no wine.

Maybe they should call it the Wine or Food Festival? I came hungry and was only offered drink. I left full but thirsty. All in all, it was a fantastic day and I learned a lot about wine, food and chefs. It was an honor to be in the same room with celebrity chefs who are so incredibly talented and wine producers who are solidifying NJ’s place on the map. Mostly, I got to spend the day doing what I love most: dining, sipping and experiencing a good life with my daughter. Thank you to the Summit Wine & Food Festival for inviting us to spend the day with you. See you next year!

Lauren Weiss is a freelance food writer who loves everything culinary. Weiss created her blog Westfield Foodie in 2009, chronicling her experiences cooking, dining and shopping for food while a stay home mom of 2. She also writes about foodie interests in & around Union County for JerseyBites and pens The Foodie State for The Alternative Press. Prior to her change of career as a food writer, Lauren previously served as Director of PR at the JCC of Central NJ, VP of Business Development at Impact Productions and for 8 years as VP of Conferences & Special Events at Bear Stearns. She graduated with a Masters from Rutgers University in 1992 and a Bachelors in Psychology from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in 1990. Lauren lives in Westfield, NJ with her husband, 2 girls and a floppy Cavechon. In addition to food & family, she loves running, hiking, tennis, golf, skiing, photography, music and travel.