Eats3 wrap-up

By: Carey Sweet - October 2008
The Arizona Republic

By the time the After Party for Eats3 got underway at 10:30 p.m. last Saturday, organizing team leader Peter Kasperski had clocked in what he estimated at two hours sleep since the culinary festival's kick-off bash started at 9 p.m. Thursday.

Chef Nobuo Fukuda (Sea Saw) still looked fresh, despite having spent the hot afternoon sprinting back and forth from his Stetson Drive restaurant to the Arizona Grand Tasting, held on the canal walkway of SouthBridge. A last minute glitch meant he couldn't run a propane grill in his tasting booth, so the James Beard award-winning talent was creating his whole fried soft shell crab sandwiches in his kitchen across the street, then delivering them to the show in batches of 20.

About half an hour before the Tasting ended, chef Chuck Wiley (Cafe ZuZu ) ran out of the organic Ruby Streaks mizuna he'd scored from Patrick Duncan's Trading Co. in Litchfield Park, and had been using as a garnish on his Chinese oven-smoked pork pot sticker in velvety ginger butter.

Some Friday wine lunches with important winemakers were under-attended, and a few restaurants pulled out from activities while other unexpected ones were added.

At the BBQ & Bubbles finale Saturday night, a server mistakenly told our table that she was passing a family-style plate of gnocchi that was instead hominy in red sauce.

And ultimately, those tiny, tiny things were the only outside indications that the fabulous Eats3 was anything but effortless for the group of restaurateurs who pulled together the Valley's salute to independent Scottsdale eateries.

For an event that spanned three days over a virtually non-stop schedule of cocktail-fueled art walks, in-gallery art dinners, library wine tastings, an Iron Bartender competition, cooking demonstrations and appearances by national celebrity chefs, it was an impressive, near-seamless success.

This was the first attempt at such a major celebration, from an idea conceived just more than a year ago, so it was an almost impossibly brilliant accomplishment. If this inaugural Eats3 was supposed to be a test run, it's difficult to imagine how subsequent efforts could be any better.

Granted, a group of pros put it on. The non-profit event, formed by the new Savor Scottsdale group, was chaired by Kasperski (Cowboy Ciao, Sea Saw, Kazimierz, Digestif ), James Porter (Tapino), Aaron May (Sol y Sombra, Over Easy and Autostrada, which opens next week), Don Carson (Don & Charlie's) and Deborah Knight (Mosaic), with support from a long list of culinary luminaries like Robyn Lee and Barbara Fenzl.

The commitment was obvious in the high caliber of food served, such as meltingly tender grilled cured tongue and homemade sauerkraut on rye gnocchi (Atlas Bistro), fiery-blissful bourbon- and pasilla chile-spiked apple cider alongside pumpkin cake with chipotle cream frosting (Cowboy Ciao), and decadent foie gras torchon with brown butter and dates in pastry (Elements).

No pre-fab food here: Digestif's Payton Curry and Pavle Milic laboriously hand-pulled fresh mozzarella to order, resulting in a warm, gooey rush that makes eating ordinary cheese almost impossible from now on. Not to be outdone, Digestif chef Zac Scott used his experience growing up on a Colorado ranch to create outrageously delicious, liver-free pate: a pork-sauerkraut-cornichon-pickled mustard seed model and rabbit-soppressata-pickled red onion version.

And unlike other major culinary events in town, not a single restaurant ran out of food or packed up early from the five-hour presentation. (For a full list of Tasting dishes, go to www.azcentral.com/ent/dining/, click on "Seftel grades restaurants at Eat3." Some other event highlights included:

In the Taste cooking tent, Kevin Binkley (Binkley's and Cafe Bink) demonstrated how to make magic with seared duck breast, frisee, fennel, bee pollen, pomegranate seeds and root beer extract whipped into foam.

But the real showstopper was what he called Passion Numb, sampled after the class. A powdery mix of salt, sugar, dehydrated passion fruit juice and Szechwan flower buds, it's "like licking sorrel and a 12-volt battery," Binkley noted. Indeed, the blend tastes like dry flour at first, until suddenly your palate sizzles, then your tongue tingles with electricity and, finally, your entire mouth loses feeling for about a minute. All in a good way. Curious? Dine at Binkley's in Cave Creek and tell your server you'd like to "get numb" at the end of your meal.

At BBQ & Bubbles, chef Jacques Pepin joked to our table that he'd had enough of repeatedly being called "legendary" by the emcee. He preferred "living legend," he said, as "legend means old, and at this point, 'living' is a key word."

The champagne-sipping Pepin also created a new word we should all use as often as possible: "well-libated."

Public television's Ming Tsai admitted to the BBQ crowd that after eating at Sea Saw, he had "stolen three recipes from Nobuo for (Tsai's) next cookbook." Later, at the chefs-only After Party, he squired around his own new concoction of blueberry Vodka, graciously (OK, after being hounded), sharing sips of his limited supply.

So what changes would I suggest for next year?

Just one. The sit-down dinner portion of BBQ & Bubbles, catered by Smith Hospitality, was hardly needed after a sumptuous reception of creative takes on barbecue from Knight, Fukuda, Tsai, May, Texas chef Tim Love, Cowboy Ciao's Bernie Kantak and Bravo Top Chef champion Stephanie Izard .

After nibbling gorgeous ribs from Michel Nischan (Dressing Room in Connecticut), and divine braised short ribs with Israeli couscous-studded mashed potatoes from Eddie Matney (Eddie's House), Smith's cold, fried green tomatoes and shrimp couldn't compare. Guests were constantly mingling throughout the meal anyway. Why not just extend the lavish reception with table seating?

In the end, Eats3 accomplished what it set out to. By press time, it wasn't clear how much money had been raised for Scottsdale charity Waste Not or Food & Wine's Grow for Good, but unquestionably one goal had been broadly achieved: Putting Scottsdale on the forefront as an exciting dining town that can compete with any other major restaurant market in America.