The Winefest Florida Chefs Dinner at Bern’s highlights local culinary talent

Oh, and there was lots of bubbly.

click to enlarge WINEFEST WINNERS: The six chefs in the kitchen boasted more than 13 acknowledgements - from the James Beard Association. - PHOTO COURTESY BERN'S WINEFEST
WINEFEST WINNERS: The six chefs in the kitchen boasted more than 13 acknowledgements from the James Beard Association.

The Annual Bern’s Winefest is a weeklong event during which attendees can purchase tickets to fine dining experiences celebrating food and wine. 

This year, the Winefest boasted 14 events ranging from wine blending seminars to multi-course meals, one of which was the inaugural Florida Chefs Dinner Sponsored by Moët Hennessy

This year, some of the finest chefs across the state of Florida were tapped to participate and flex their culinary skills by creating a dish for the five-course meal.

The lineup included Chef Steve Phelps of Indigenous Restaurant in Sarasota, Chef Lindsay Autry of The Regional Kitchen & Public House in West Palm Beach, Chef Michael McKinney of Restaurant Orsay in Jacksonville, Chef Brandon McGlamery of Winter Park’s Luma on Park, Pastry Chef Rabii Saber of the Four Seasons Orlando, and Chef Chad Johnson of Tampa's Élevage and Haven handling reception bites.

I scored a media pass, and I was thrilled.

The dinner constructed by the heavy hitters was hosted at Bern’s Fine Wine & Spirits within the Élevage Hotel

Upon arrival, my car was valeted, which would’ve been even better if I didn’t panic and toss the empty water bottles and Kahwa cups from my floorboard to the backseat before handing my keys over.

I’m not the only one, right?

Anyway, after my less-than-graceful arrival, I found my way to the Florida Chefs Dinner, and was greeted with a glass of Veuve La Grande Dame 2008.

As I fought the urge to gulp down the bubbly, I looked around to see a room of nearly 50 attendees mingling around the wine cellar and hovering over their name cards to their designated table.

Sticking to the Florida theme, each placemat was adorned with a mandarin — a Cutie to be exact. 

The Veuve was paired with Chef Johnson’s crispy snow crab with fresno pepper jelly and chive hoe cake constructed of smoked egg, Florida caviar and pickled ocra. 

Once the dinner was set to begin, Chef Chad Johnson made his way to address the guests, as the room went from chatty to complete silence awaiting the chef’s announcements.

“Good to see you all again,” Johnson said and was met with a roar of laughter.

You see, when these Winefest tickets go on sale, they get snatched up quick, and usually by the same people. 

It's arguably the most well-fed they will be all year, every year. 

“I don’t know how you all are still eating — I would know, I’ve been feeding you,” Johnson said with a laugh.

There was a type of infatuation vibrating off of the crowd for Chef Johnson. 

As the saying goes, the way to someone’s heart is through their stomach, and in this case, Johnson had snatched the hearts of everyone in the room and I was awaiting my turn.

“For the longest time [Florida] was known for Olive Garden and Outback,” the boisterous chef continued, “so I am proud to have five chefs in the kitchen who, together, been recognized over 13 times by the James Beard Association by either nomination or award.” 

With every meal was a wine pairing provided by Moët Hennessy and introduced by Jason Guerra, a brand ambassador for the company's Estates & Wines portfolio.

Once Guerra was done discussing the notes of each selection, the chef responsible for the paired meal would enter the dining room, introduce themselves and the dish and scurry back to the kitchen.

First was Chef Steve Phelps of Indigenous Restaurant.

click to enlarge The Winefest Florida Chefs Dinner at Bern’s highlights local culinary talent

Chef Phelps kicked off the meal by preparing a cobia crudo made with Thai green curries, radish, cucumber and chicharron furikake. In a blink of an eye, the servers were back to collect clean plates from each table. The dish was paired with a class of 2014 Cloudy Bay Te Koko Sauvignon Blanc, which felt like an afterthought since the cobia crudo consumed our full attention. 

Next, the powerhouse finalist on Bravo TV’s Top Chef, Lindsay Autry of The Regional Kitchen & Public House, presented her rabbit and dumplings dish in her unapologetically southern accent. Comprised of country ham wrapped loin, braised leg, herb dumplings and spring legumes, yet another plate was nearly licked clean. Oh, and here comes the wine, a 2014 Cloudy Bay Te Wahi Pinot Noir. 

Damn, 2014 was a good year.

The following course was handled by Chef Michael McKinney of Restaurant Orsary: 

Wagyu beef cheeks.

As if I needed another reminder that this wasn’t my typical Thursday-night dinner. The beef cheeks were dressed with spring onion, delta asparagus, rhubarb, bone marrow and puffed farro. This was to be washed down with a heavy pour of 2014 Numanthia Toro Tempranillo. 

The final dish of the night was a duo of Border Springs lamb prepared by Chef Brandon McGlamery of Luma on Park. The chef roasted lamb rack and house-cured lamb bacon, nebrodini mushrooms, fiddlehead ferns, fennel, poached fingerling potatoes and lamb demi.

Ah yes, and a pour of the 2014 Terrazas de los Andes Cheval des Andes. 

I could tell my counterparts were nearing the point of being uncomfortably full. 

But who can tap out before dessert?

click to enlarge The Winefest Florida Chefs Dinner at Bern’s highlights local culinary talent

That’s what Chef Rabii Saber of Four Season Orlando was ready to serve. A peach "mel-baba" arrived to the table. Chef Saber incorporated Florida peaches, Chambord and vanilla gelato. The galaxy-like orb floated to the table, with gold leaf adornments. 

Can something be too pretty to eat? If so, it would be the peach "mel-baba." 

This creation should be featured on Zumbo’s Just Desserts on Netflix, or could be confused for a brainchild of Willy Wonka himself.

Anyway, spoons began to crack through the perfectly tempered chocolate, followed by a sip of Moët & Chandon Nectar Imperial NV. 

What a way to end the night. 

All in all, I’m thankful for the abundance of talented chefs sprinkled throughout the state of Florida, and more importantly, thankful for that media pass.

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