Epcot: First Bites Opening Reception
For many people, when feeling the urge to break out singing: "It's the most wonderful time of the year!", it means the Christmas holidays. For foodies in Central Florida (and a good chunk of the world's tourists) it means Epcot's International Food and Wine Festival has begun at Walt Disney World in Florida.
It's the 15 year anniversary for the Festival, and this year, there will be 27 food pavilions from all over the world -- from Argentina to Japan -- including specialized booths for Desserts & Champagne, and Charcuterie & Cheese.
This year, Epcot was offering a "First Bites Opening Reception" to preview the flavors of the events. Foodbuzz was able to give FotoCuisine press access as part of their Foodie Correspondent Program, and Christey and I went to the event, the day before the Festival officially opened.
One of the hosts of the Reception was Keegan Gerhard, the Food Network's Emcee for baking challenges He was there to offer commentary and hosting for several of the culinary demonstrations of the evening.
But! Spaced throughout the reception area in the Festival Center (for those Epcot history buffs, it's where Body Wars used to be) were samples from several countries and booths that will be serving throughout the Festival this year.
These two were an Australian lamb chop with red wine reduction, and a South African seared beef tenderloin with a mango barbecue sauce. Both were absolutely mouth watering, and we half thought about camping out here for the rest of the evening, but we had several more booths to try!
This was a rabbit sausage that went around on a platter, so we didn't get a booth/country associated with it, and it wasn't present at the charcuterie station either...but it was really tasty.
Wine is the second half of the Festival, of course. This was a Caposaldo Prosecco, which Christey and I enjoyed as we browsed the tables.
Matt Lewis and Renato Proliafito wrote a book called BAKED. They were there with fleur de sel brownies with caramel and fresh vanilla ice cream. I don't think I need to say more than that -- let your imagination run wild with the thought of it, and it'll probably be pretty close to what an experience it really was.
John Sarich, the James Beard award winning chef, demonstrated a Alaskan King Salmon with Chanterelle Mushroom dish. His demonstration was loaded with fun tips. In a dish for four, he dumped in some cream to give the sauce some body -- but, he added, it's two tablespoons for four people. 1/2 tablespoon per person wouldn't dent the diet of too many people, but the cream added such texture to the sauce -- it was a great tip balancing culinary technique with the real world eating habits of people who are looking for home meals. He also repeated the tip: "Don't cook with wine you wouldn't drink." He expanded that to say, don't cook with a $50 bottle of wine, but if you find a $8.99 bottle of wine you'd drink, then definitely cook with that.
One of the explanations he gave was the expanded thought processes he puts into ingredients. Cabernet and Chardonnay grapes are common in the Burgundy region of France, but that's also where Dijon mustard originates. Cooking with Dijon mustard and wine has been common there for many generations -- they're purely local ingredients to that area. So, we can trust that it's a flavor combination that works, just because of local history. A great tip!
Here I am, talking with another journalist from AOL while waiting for Steamed Mussels with Roasted Garlic Cream from the Belgium table.
I also spoke with the cook for the table from Belgium, who was actually from Nicaragua. He is cooking full time at Disney World, after working in many restaurants prior to joining the force here. He cooks in the Event Kitchen, which is the catering kitchen (though catering at Walt Disney World is a high profile position with all the international exposure that special events provide) as opposed to cooking at the on-site restaurants. He told me that almost all the cooks at the Food and Wine festival come from the Event Kitchen staff (again, as opposed to the on-site restaurants), though approximately half the cooks are hired on just for the festival. They get trained by the Disney chefs for each pavilion, master each dish, then do their best to keep us all happy during the Festival.
This was perhaps my favorite dish at the Reception -- the Asopao de Pollo from Puerto Rico. It translates to "Chicken Stew", but doesn't even come close to expressing the layered flavors. Cilantro and olives and rice and chicken and spice and meaty broth... oh, man this was good.
The desserts will be featured throughout Epcot. There are chocolates and caramels and truffles and puddings and compotes and waffles, and... okay, there will not be a problem with desserts this Festival.
Some of the featured cocktails were really impressive, one of which was the Red Stag Lemonade. Jim Beam makes a whiskey infused with black cherry, which works really well with lemonade.
Charcuterie -- the art of preserving meats -- is gaining exposure in culinary circles in America lately. The charcuterie samplings this Festival include cured duck, ham, and beef. What other theme park in the world serves cured duck, I ask? Six Flags? Universal?
To (ahem) kick it up a notch, the charcuterie pavilion also serves cheese... in the form of fondue with bread and roasted potatoes. Show me that plate at Sea World.
The USA pavilion served a bison chili that I was all "yeah, yeah, yeah, chili, whatever" about...then I tasted it and gulped down the rest. There was also a vegetarian heirloom tomato dish with blue cheese that was so so elegant...and really, it complemented the chili just from its simplicity. I have to say (and I seriously forgive the guy), I asked exactly which breed of heirloom tomatoes were served to us, and the cook told me with some embarrassment that he missed the orientation and couldn't tell me. But, he took such careful time with each plate (when he could have just tossed them out in front of us), stacking the onions and just perfectly placing the cheese, that the dish (and the presenter) stood on the merits of the ingredients and presentation.
Here's where you start to hear the "Hallelujah" chorus. Hand made chocolates, local to Fort Myers (about 2 hours from Disney). Norman Love is well known in American chocolate circles. He gave a seminar demonstration that explained the molding-color-shell-white-chocolate-interior chocolate process that he uses, but really, everyone was just hypnotized by the colors and the shiny coatings of his artistry.
I mean, there was everything. Cookies and cream. Mint chocolate. Any of the nuts you would expect (hazelnut, almond...). Pretty coatings to grab the eye, but painstaking craft to ensure that the flavor and texture were exactly what Norman Love wanted to express.
Then...there was this thing called "sipping chocolate": Chocolate and milk and heated up. You would be forgiven to think that, okay, this is hot chocolate -- milk with some chocolate flavoring. No, this was chocolate itself with the research to include enough milk to enhance what was already there with the flavor and texture and experience of chocolate. It was as similar to hot chocolate as freeze dried coffee is to Jamaican Blue Mountain.
We wound down our tour around the evening with some South Korean lettuce wraps, always a favorite, with some really nicely tender pork.
Some performers from Cirque du Soleil entertained the guests, and this lady in particular grabbed our hearts. We walked by with prosecco, and she sniffed our glasses, and with a sigh and a single eyebrow expressed fluently an entire sentence: "Ah, that looks lovely, and I wish I might partake, but, alas, I must perform, so enjoy for me!"
Christey is six-foot and actually leaning down, so you get an idea of how petite this performer really was!
Christey and I enjoyed the evening -- it was a fantastic sneak peek, an evening before the Food and Wine Festival officially opened. We'll be back for the Festival with more posts, and can't wait to sample the world at Epcot!