As 25 minutes counted down, the final round of the Sonoma Steel Chef competition proved to be the most suspenseful moment of Saturday’s Taste of Sonoma.
More than 2,500 people paid $135 and up to come to the signature food and wine event of Sonoma Wine Country Weekend on the sprawling MacMurray Estate Vineyards in Healdsburg.
It was a sun-kissed, warm afternoon, so tasters did their best to seek out shade.
The competing chefs also endeavored to keep cool under a white tent, while converting a bag of groceries into a feast.
Jack Mitchell of Jack & Tony’s Restaurant and Whisky Bar in Santa Rosa, emerged as the winner from a four-chef field after wowing the judges with his creative hijinks.
His dishes included seared venison with a huckleberry coulis, flat-iron steak with exotic mushroom ragout and veal broth and a mustard-crusted rack of lamb with ratatouille and smoked paprika.
“I get to do this every day, but this is a different animal,” Mitchell said. “I don’t know the ingredients I’m going to be working with, and it’s in front of a live audience, so it’s exhilarating and gets the creative juices flowing.”
Mitchell said cooking under fire is his forte.
“This is not my first rodeo,” he said. “I do this for a profession and for my lifestyle, so it comes naturally and easily and it’s what I enjoy.”
In between watching the competition, tasters found their way to other tents to sample wines and food pairings.
Sheila Bangalore of Las Vegas was grazing on a chicken croquette from Kenwood’s Palooza Pub & Wine Bar.
“This is a really nice event today, a little bit hot, but it’s a place for relative wine novices to be able to taste different styles and flavors,” she said.
Nearby, Dee Ahlin of Windsor was standing in line for Kendall-Jackson’s specialty tasting.
“The black wine glass interests me,” Ahlin said.
Executive chef Justin Wangler led the tasting and referred to the black glass in the line-up as “the mystery glass just to tease the senses.”
Tasters were asked to guess what kind of wine was in the black glass, which turned out to be a rosé produced from pinot noir and grenache grapes.
What followed were a trio of wines, each paired with a dish. Wangler highlighted his commitment to fresh food, pointing out the portable gardens outside the tent. The 3-by-4-foot table beds revealed a range of exotic herbs, including chocolate mint, pineapple sage and lime thyme.
While many, like Ahlin, were busy with food and wine pairings, others were learning about sustainability. In a barn on the property, people watched a slideshow on the confusion of labels like “cage free” on a carton of eggs.
Hayle Cutri said her group, the Lexicon of Sustainability, was invited to the event to help consumers navigate labels.
“Cage-free does not mean that chickens are in a liberated environment,” she said. “They can still live in a densely populated space.”
Consumers should prefer the term “pasture-raised, so you can trust the chickens have access to land.”
Outside the barn, others were more concerned about cooling off than debating labels.
Olav Strawe, of Sebastopol’s Woodflour Brewing Co., was serving unfiltered Gold Ridge Lagers to an enthusiastic crowd.