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Iron Giants

If celebrity culture has taken the food world by storm--and it has--the Masters of Food and Wine makes our own Monterey Bay the hottest culinary spot in the world for one weekend a year.

By Steve Billings

Nothing else is quite like it. Like a carefully reduced stock, the flavors assembled under the roof of the exquisite Highlands Inn, Carmel for the Masters of Food and Wine are potent, heady; the best bits from the culinary world have been highly concentrated and reserved to be spread generously over an entire intimate weekend of gastro/oeno-indulgence on the remote Central Coast.

Go to only one event. Go to more. It's your choice. Feb. 17-20 you can partake in vertical tastings of world-class wines, rub elbows with Alice Waters and inquire where she sources her vegetables while sipping from one of 50 wineries' offerings on opening night. Talk to the winemaker or the owner because, well, they're there. Drop $3,500 to experience an eight-course meal prepared by chefs totaling seven Michelin stars paired with 22 of the world's rarest wines set in a Tuscan-style villa overlooking Wildcat Cove in Carmel.

Well, you can't do the last one--it's sold out, all 24 spaces. Baby's college fund is safe for one more year.

Insiders refer to the Masters of Food and Wine as the Oscars of the culinary world for its ability to corral and showcase so much talent and pedigree in one venue.

Though destined for greatness and media coverage since the beginning, it wasn't always the bon vivant event that it is today. Nineteen years ago, the Masters debuted with five chefs and 12 wineries and was attended mostly by peninsula and Bay Area folks. This iteration will feature 36 chefs, 50 wineries and 1,500 ticket-buying participants, about a third of whom will travel from outside of California.

Horn of Plenty

The Masters is the succulent brainchild of Helmut Horn, a German businessman and president of the Coastal Hotel Group, which, in 1984, owned the Highlands Inn property. According to corporate legend, Kohl conceived the event on one of his frequent trans-Atlantic flights, wanting to create an event that "would link Europe's rich Epicurean traditions to the excitement of America's contemporary culinary scene." Once inspired, Kohl began to use his rich network of contacts in the world of high-end hospitality, food and wine to assemble an elite selection of German and American chefs and wineries for the debut of this event back in 1987, which featured none other than the now ubiquitous Wolfgang Puck of Spago, Postrio and Chinois.

Kohl wasn't just a savvy business guy with a good idea. He's also an avid traveler, diver and published photographer whose credits include National Geographic and Stern and exhibitions at Gallery Sur in Carmel. Interestingly, Kohl also has munificent ties to Santa Cruz dating back to 1996 when he, through the Highlands Inn, helped arrange an exhibition from UCSC's Edward Weston Collection and gourmet feast, the proceeds of which benefited UCSC's Special Collections Endowment. Nice one, Helmut.

Our Changing Food World

But those were the old days, when a jet-setting German Renaissance man could coordinate an international gastro-summit with his wealthy and influential friends for apparently altruistic reasons or at least in celebration of the good life. Now the Highlands Inn is owned by Hyatt, Mr. Kohl is no longer involved and chefs are both bling-bling celebrities and franchise operations in a world where the Food Network is a heavy presence on cable television.

Truth be told, though, under Hyatt's management, the event has blossomed. The hotel group, and the Highland's Inn staff in particular, have taken the event to grand heights by expanding and fine-tuning the core program of luncheons, dinners, cooking demonstrations and wine tastings that has been the basic recipe since the beginning. Nothing is done unless it can be executed with excellence both in terms of service and experience. For better or worse, the Masters planners have actually put an informal moratorium on off-site events such as mushroom foraging, not only because the demand was small but also because logistics and costs made it impossible to deliver a service and experience that met with their strict standards.

Yet what is it exactly that sets the Masters apart from other noteworthy events such as the Food and Wine Classic in Aspen, the South Beach Wine and Food Festival and the Dallas Wine and Food Festival?

"We spend $100,000 alone on décor and flowers. It [the event] does not make money. We try to bring in business during a slow time of year and keep the staff busy," says Robert Weakley, Food and Beverage director for the Park Hyatt Highlands Inn, Carmel. "Our service level is way above everyone else. Every stem [read: wine glass] is polished with bottled Panna water. From the linen to the chairs to the flatware, no detail is left undone."

Weakley also stresses the importance of the event's singular setting. "These are all citywide events," he says of the pretender-to-the-throne events. "Ours is hosted at one location and all of the chefs are under one roof. When I was at Aspen, I attended a cooking demonstration with 3,000 of my closest friends. At the Masters, our cap for demonstrations is 90. Lunches and dinners are capped at around 190 people. The Rarities Dinner, 24."

Gene Burns, radio host of Dining Around for KGO radio in San Francisco, provides some backup for Weakley's boasts.

"You have a great deal more access to the major players who have been invited--and the major players here are the crème de la crème," says Burns. "You just don't have the personal interaction at other events. For an attendee, the Masters really is a rare opportunity to be cheek to jowl with the movers. And the setting is paradise."

Running With the Big Dogs

There is also the question of value--which, granted, is relative when you consider that ticket prices for singular events start at around $100. Yet many other events or festivals either encourage or require that you buy a festival pass, which could cost $900 or more. The Masters charges on a per-event basis, giving hardcore foodies the potential for some major-league experience.

Consider Saturday night's dinner at the Masters. For $350, attendees begin their evening with a Dom Perignon champagne reception followed by appetizers prepared by Michael Ginor of Hudson Valley Foie Gras in Great Neck, N.Y., and Ken Oringer of Clio in Boston. Six chefs will then create the dinner, including Angela Hartnett of the Connaught in London; Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz in Errenteria, Spain; Philippe Legendre of Le Cinq at the Four Seasons in Paris; retired chef Gerard Boyer of Reims, France; and Mark Ayers of Highlands Inn, Park Hyatt Carmel, with desserts by Sam Mason of wd50 in New York.

Between the chefs are a total of eight Michelin stars. You are eating directly from the best of the best--and in the case of Boyer, since he's retired, this is the only place one will be able to experience his food.

And to put this admittedly high-end idea of "value" in perspective, a side of asparagus in Ms. Hartnett's Connaught will cost one roughly $75. We haven't even talked about the wines being poured that night.

Letting Down Their Guard

Besides the possible benefits for attendees, there are myriad payouts for the chefs. Not only does the Highlands Inn take great pains and staff hours to pimp out their rooms with gifts and perks for the weekend, but those invited actually don't work the entire time they are on location. The Masters is intended to be as much a showcase for chefs' talents as it is a chance to socialize, share war stories and unwind with other professionals from the frenetic life of the restaurant world.

Burns was amazed by the camaraderie exhibited by those from such a competitive world.

"There is among the participating people a real collegiality that is evident event to the casual attendee," he says. "It is remarkable to see master sommeliers and chefs work in concert and to have such talent in one place." Because chefs at the Masters are scheduled for only two events, Weakley tells me that "it becomes more of a networking and bonding session. They get professional downtime together. They get to hang out with people that they don't see through out the year. We want to make it like a vacation for them; they are treated like celebrities."

The Rock Star Chef

Celebrities, indeed. Without time and space to explore the more abstract question of why celebrities are treated as such and why rich people get all the gifts and everything for free, it's worth noting that the idea of a chef as celebrity or as franchise is not a concept many of us would have entertained 20 to 25 years ago. Many of us weren't eating out enough to know that anybody besides a cook was cooking our food and the Food Network wasn't around to tell us what's hip and now and pitch us an array of lifestyle choices. We were eating more just to eat, not to experience, to know.

A lot has changed. Food has become a much more involved and complicated cultural signifier. It also has become as much about experience as about food. And as they should be, through a lot of hard work and growth, chefs are considered not just professionals, but artists. Some of them have also become extremely wealthy.

As Dirk Smillie of Forbes.com pointed out last year, Alain Ducasse, Puck and Emeril Lagasse were alongside Tiger Woods and J.K. Rowling on 2003's Forbes Celebrity 100 list. Emeril had his own TV sitcom and Crest commercials. "Celebrity chefs have turned Las Vegas, for example, into a food oasis," wrote Smillie. "Try opening a luxury hotel on the Strip without an anchor restaurant presided over by a star."

Certainly this is a long way away from the days of Julia Child and Jacques Pepin bandying back and forth through grainy PBS film quality about what they like to put on their hamburgers and then sharing with us what (for them) constitutes the perfect bite. The simple pleasure and enjoyment of something as seemingly simple as a hamburger is the kind of appreciation and reverence that a true love of food should inspire. It's at the base of why we cook and why we love to eat.

Could you imagine Child cutting to commercial (if there were any on her station), pointing a long, crooked finger somewhere offstage and telling the boys to hit it, firing the studio band into some faceless musical number?

I certainly don't have a problem with someone being paid well to share their art over the cable in my home. I like cooking shows. I guess I just don't understand why a chef, who is an artist, has to become another type of artist (i.e., an actor) or open up a handful of restaurants and be at all or none of them some of the time. That doesn't taste good; it's a flawed recipe.

Where then does something like the Masters fall? It's certainly a unique opportunity. Never having been, I can only imagine and hope that it is a pure, unadulterated Epicurean church and not the house that Emeril built. Pass the toothpaste.

The Masters of Food and Wine is held Feb. 17-20 at Highlands Inn, Carmel. For information and tickets, call 800.401.1009.

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From the January 19-26, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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