The lights hanging from the ceiling of the tent were one of the first clues that it wasn’t going to be remotely close to Taco Bell or any run-of-the-mill Mexican meal.
One of the shades over the light bulbs was a Charles Chips can. Another was an industrial size coffee can. A flower vase on a celery-green tablecloth sported a cutting of Carolina jessamine and a sprig of rosemary. Beer margaritas were among the cocktail choices.
Indeed, the six guest chefs cooking for Friday’s Taco Turf Wars as part of the BB&T Wine + Food Festival turned tacos inside out and sideways, at least conceptually. Under the big top at Lowndes Grove Plantation, with a sparkling blue Ashley River passing by, Ford Fry of JCT Kitchen in Atlanta stuffed his tacos with pork belly, roasted bananas, microgreens and peanut sauce. The line indicated it was the crowd favorite.
But Pam Richards of Charlotte was torn between the pork belly and “Tacos Arabicos” being served across the way by Rene Ortiz, the executive chef of La Condesa Austin. His bacon-fat tortilla held seared venison, pickled cucumber, chipotle harissa and fennel pollen yogurt.
Kyle Hinton of Charleston also couldn’t decide immediately between the two. “Part of this one and part of this one,” he said, holding a plate of each.
Nearby, chef Michael Laiskonis of New York, formerly of the city’s renowned Le Bernardin restaurant, had the sweetest gig of the day: dessert. He wasn’t bound to the taco form, only to the south-of-the-border idea. His composition was layered in clear plastic cups, and included white chocolate roasted to a dulce de leche state, mango foam and mango “caviar,” and dehydrated polenta tortillas that had puffed up from frying.
“This was a brand-new invention for this event,” he said.
The blue crab salad taco with arugula and creme fraiche, prepared by chef Melissa Perello of Frances in San Franciso, hit the spot for Mary Gallagher of Goose Creek. “I’m not a spicy food eater, and that was mild. But the others were good and unique. And beautifully garnished.”
Richards and Gallagher are old pros at enjoying the festival, the 2012 version of which officially opened that morning at Marion Square. Both women have attended the festival five times in seven years. Gallagher said she actually moved here from Washington, D.C., because the festival initially attracted her to the area.
Richards, who was with five friends, liked the Taco Turf Wars idea a lot. It was a first-time event for the festival, but not a full house. “It’s too cool, just fun,” she said. “In all honesty, it is a little expensive ($100) but from our perspective it is dollars well spent.”
It was anything but cool during opening ceremonies at 11 a.m. that morning in the center of Marion Square. Shorts, T-shirts and perspiration broke out in warm, bright sunshine as organizers and dignitaries spoke about Charleston’s rising culinary reputation and the festival’s growth.
“Now this is a national event, because people worked so hard on it,” said Charleston Mayor Joe Riley. “Nothing about the festival is contrived. It’s natural.”
Third-generation shrimper Wayne Magwood was named the recipient of the festival’s Laura Hewitt Culinary Legend Award. Sean Brock of Husk restaurant choked up when he was presented the Marc Collins Chef Award. “Charleston is the most amazing city in the entire world,” he said. “I mean that from my heart.”
The festival also handed out checks to its designated charities. Mickey Bakst of Charleston Grill also teared up when given $25,000 for Charleston Chefs Feed the Need, a nonprofit he started to help the area’s hungry. Lowcountry Local First accepted $15,000 for its Farm Incubator Center that is training new farmers.
Later that afternoon, people filled the two Grand Tasting Tents at the Culinary Village for an afternoon of eating and drinking. About 90 vendors were on hand, and most were giving away ample samples of wine and food.
Cheryl Savage was offering meatballs on a stick, bathed in Slatherin’ Sauce. She is vice president of the local sauce-making business. “We love this event,” she said. “Last year we sold almost everything we brought.
Bloody Marys were going out steadily from Fat and Juicy, a locally based cocktail mix. Next door was a California product called Miracle Noodle, which was billed as gluten, soy and calorie-free, and Kosher to boot.
Around the corner, though, barbecue was hot stuff at 17 North Roadside Kitchen. People were snapping up plates of 12 hours-smoked pork butt with housemade Maker’s Mark sauce and fresh local collards.
Brewer Ben Dobler traveled from Portland, Ore., with Widmer Brothers Brewing, a maker of 23 different craft beers. “We’re trying to get the public to understand that beer is as complex as wine if not more so,” he said, especially in pairing with food. Tastings of the beer were accompanied by nibbles of cheese and a dot of sauce, such as pomegranate molasses and balsamic.
Heads bobbed in approval as Sumter-based Manchester Farms, the country’s oldest and largest producer of quail and squab, served up spoonfuls of quail confit and wild mushroom risotto. It is Manchester’s first time participating in the festival, but owner Steve Odom said he wasn’t daunted by the large crowd. “This is par for the course. This isn’t my first rodeo.”
Chef Demetre Castanas of Grill 225 restaurant also was having no trouble getting people to pick up his food: prime tenderloin beef tucked inside house-baked rolls with arugula, pickled red onion and horseradish aioli.
If you go
Tickets remain to the following events at the 2012 BB&T Charleston Wine + Food Festival. To purchase, go www.charlestonwineandfood.com or Marion Square. Today11 a.m.-2 p.m.: Culinary Village and Grand Tasting Tents, Marion Square, $100.11 a.m.: Hendrick's Gin, a Deconstructive + Cocktalian Study, Palmer Campus of the Culinary Institute of Charleston, $55.2 p.m.: Celebration of Krug tasting, High Cotton, $195.3-5 p.m.: Premier Wine Tasting: E. Guigal, Charleston Place Hotel, $450.3-6 p.m.: Culinary Village and Grand Tasting Tents, Marion Square, $100.4-6 p.m.: Winemaker + Private Home Receptions, $100.4-6 p.m.: Celebrity Authors Reception, Governor Thomas Bennett House, $50.7 p.m.: Craft Beer Dinner at Closed 4 Business, $125. Sunday1-4 p.m.: Culinary Village and Grand Tasting Tents, Marion Square, $75 or $70 (locals).