Now in its 31st year, the Santa Barbara Wine + Food Festival at the Museum of Natural History on Saturday, June 30, is widely known as our region’s marquee tasting event. The setting, beneath ancient oaks and along Mission Creek, is prime; the cast of winemakers, who will often share older vintages if you ask politely, is classic; and the crowd is friendly, familiar, and fanatical about their favorites.
But, especially in recent years, the food offerings have emerged as yet another highlight. (No wonder it sold out faster than ever this year.) And for those who aren’t able to travel to the Santa Ynez Valley and points north to sample the culinary treats being prepared on that side of the mountains, the festival provides a one-stop shop for checking in on a series of top North County restaurants. To see what’s in store this year and why they bother coming down this way, I asked a few of the participating chefs about their strategies for serving at an event like this.
“We have been so supported by the wine and nonprofit industry over the years; this is our way of giving back,” said Jeff Olsson of Industrial Eats in Buellton, who plans to make spring lamb curry with papadum and raita. “It’s important to me to bring your A game to these events. There is no point in doing it if you are going to give it 50 percent effort.”
Drew Terp of Pico in Los Alamos plans to bring two dishes, one savory (beef and bacon skewer with yuzu kosho) and one sweet, likely a play on their strawberry shortcake. “The strategy I use is multifaceted,” he explained of his technique for serving at festivals like this. “It has to be able to be mass-produced, easily stored, and transported; translate into single bites; and still hold the essence of the restaurant. Oh, and it has to be economical enough to bring to an event and give it away like crazy!”
Up at The Bear and Star in Los Olivos, John Cox isn’t afraid to go big at events like this. “I have done some really crazy things for these types of events in the past, from serving a whole American paddlefish filled with caviar to building an entire booth out of living mushrooms,” said Cox. “At the end of the day, I think the strategy is to create a dish that stays true to our restaurant and that the guests will enjoy.”
This year, that will most likely be jalapeño poppers with smoked bacon and Wagyu beef raised at the Fess Parker family ranch (they also own the restaurant). It’s a recipe that Chef Jeremy Tummel, who grew up a few blocks from the museum, has been working on since he and Cox entered the barbecue championship in San Angelo, Texas, years ago. “I would love to be smoking the poppers over live embers and passing them to guests right off the smoker so they get the full sensory experience,” said Cox.
Like the other chefs, wine pairing is also on his mind — they scrape the jalapeños to make sure the heat won’t conflict with tannic red wines — and he likes to get put next to Fess Parker Winery to complete the circle. Said Cox, “It’s also pretty cool to have a bite of Wagyu beef and then take a sip of syrah that was literally grown 20 feet away from the pasture.”
TASTINGS TO DO: Come down to El Paseo tonight, June 21, 5-8 p.m., to taste the finalists for the second annual Official Drink of Santa Barbara Cocktail Contest. Tickets are $25, which include tastes of the five finalists, and you can watch four other judges and me crown the winner. … On July 14, 6-9 p.m., chefs Brooke Stockwell and James Owens are putting together a tribute to Anthony Bourdain at K’Syrah Kitchen in Solvang, including spins on some of his favorite dishes. Tix are $50. See independent.com/ksyrah-bourdain. … On July 7, 5-10 p.m., Dare 2 Dream Farms in Lompoc is hosting a farm-to-table dinner with ingredients from their property, wines by Liquid Farm, and recipes you can take home. Tix are $125. See dare2dreamfarms.com. … Deeper into the future, mark your calendars for Kathy Joseph’s always-delicious Fiddle Fest 2.0 on July 28, noon-4 p.m. (fiddleheadcellars.com), and then the 15th annual California Wine Festival comes to the waterfront July 19-21 (californiawinefestival.com).