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Flavor! Napa Valley 2013

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[Photos: Courtesy Flavor! Napa Valley]

Now in its third year, the Flavor! Napa Valley festival is designed to highlight the best culinary contributions from local restaurateurs and wineries, sprawling over five days of decadence at a panoply of Napa locations, most notably the Silverado Resort & Spa and the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. We headed up for three days of festival indulgence, catching demos and dinners from the likes of Michael Chiarello, Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone, Christopher Kostow, Masaharu Morimoto, Roy Choi, Cindy Pawlcyn, and more. Read on to find out which chef steamrolled his cohorts in a demo, which airline's stewardesses were partying hard with wine lanyards, and why foam really isn't as bad as you think it is.

1. Though participation in the festival is exclusively limited to Napa Valley restaurateurs and graduates of the Culinary Institute of America (whose Greystone campus is located in St. Helena), that subset turns out to include a surprising number of festival-circuit regulars like Masaharu Morimoto, Todd English, Larry Forgione, and Michael Chiarello, whom organizers frequently cited as the festival's guiding spirit. The former trio cooked at the Welcome Dinner, alongside Richard Reddington, Roy Choi, and Jeffrey Jake.

2. Cindy Pawlcyn held court at a Mustards Grill lunch to launch the new Bing Food & Drink platform, but the ubiquitous Microsoft Surfaces dotting the tables may have been too much of a draw: we saw more folks playing with the tablets than paying attention to her chocolate truffle tart demo. Short attention spans know no bounds.

3. The Appellation Trail event on Friday night packed two floors of the CIA, but the folks clearly having the best time were a gang of uniformed Delta stewardesses sporting wine-glass lanyards, who appeared to have won a trip from their employer (a sponsor of the festival). It was nice to see the flight attendants getting looped for a change.

4. Highlights of the culinary offerings at the Appellation Trail included a knockout sour cherry bread pudding from Norman Rose Tavern, spicy-smoky shrimp from The Q R&B (perfect with a glass of Rombauer chardonnay), and chicken-liver mousse toasts from Press.

5. While the San Francisco Chronicle apparently doesn't have enough cash to keep their food section afloat, they had no problem sponsoring both a branded photobooth and a charging station for attendees' smartphones at the Appellation Trail event. We wonder if there were sniffles as the photobooth was packed out of the Tower of Bauer.

6. The 2013 Flavor! Napa Valley Ubiquity Award goes to Todd English and doppelganger son Oliver English, who seemed to pop up everywhere: sidling into Cindy Pawlcyn's lunch around the dessert course, working the room at the Appellation Trail, signing cookbooks in the CIA's store, and showing up to hug chefs before their demos kicked off. By contrast, most of the other participating chefs skipped out on any event in which they weren't directly featured.

7. Christopher Kostow of The Restaurant at Meadowood demoed a guinea hen roasted in a salt meringue, trading off public-speaking duties in a charming double act with CIA adjunct instructor and food scientist Ali Bouzari. While Kostow cooked, Bouzari made a passionate case for foams: "Foams are not some fouffy culinary innovation. Ice cream is a foam. Bread is a foam." Kostow added that Meadowood guests often request a foam-free meal, but "they all end up eating it in some form before they leave."

8. Chiarello's demo with NYC mover-shakers Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone (Torrisi Italian Specialties, Carbone, Parm) drew a massive crowd, heavy on baby boomers who began lining up more than an hour before it started to score a prime seat for an event they all described simply as "Chiarello." Both chefs ended up making meatballs: Torrisi and Carbone tackled a more classic red-sauce variation with a fresh-corn polenta, while Chiarello and Bottega chef de cuisine Brian Bistrong made grilled, flattened Sicilian-style meatballs with fresh ricotta, raisins, and pine nuts. Many, many ball jokes ensued, all of them seemingly new to the over-50 crowd.

9. It was a good thing that most of the audience at Chiarello's demo was primarily interested in seeing him, because he completely dominated the proceedings, referring repeatedly to the three younger chefs as "boys" and talking at a motormouth pace for the full 90 minutes. Carbone and Torrisi looked increasingly pained at their inability to get a word in edgewise, and when Torrisi raised an eyebrow at one of Chiarello's comments, the chatty chef correctly interpreted his expression via a raised middle finger—though it didn't break his stride. Bistrong, clearly used to this routine, didn't even bother speaking unless spoken to.

10. Don't feel too badly for Torrisi and Carbone, though: we later spotted them headed to Meadowood with their significant others, the entire quartet dressed to the nines.

11. As with most culinary festivals, female chef representation was a completely epic fail. While several female winemakers and sommeliers brought their perspectives, including Andrea Immer Robinson, Danielle Cyrot, Gillian Ballance, Margrit Mondavi, and Julianne Laks, Pawlcyn was the only woman to host a demo, and only six women cooked at the Appellation Trail event.

12. The Silverado Resort & Spa, the festival's host resort, appeared to be on a single-minded mission to send attendees into food comas, depositing nightly deliveries of Cabernet, chocolates, macarons, and other goodies to welcome already sated diners back to their rooms.

13. Given said overeating, the concluding Terroir to Table brunch was something of a gotcha: it commenced with fruit plates, coffee, plenty of Model Bakery baked goods, and even more wine in a side room, before opening up to a main room where a full sit-down brunch with still more wine was offered. A handful of attendees opted to call it a day then and there, relaxing with coffee on the Silverado's fire-pit-studded back deck overlooking the golf course.

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