Time to turn up the heat

Just completed dishes on the judges' table after the cook-off at Charleston Food + Wine Festival Saturday.

Nico Romo's words, and even his accent, sounded exactly like Desi Arnaz in the old "I Love Lucy" show.

"Happy anniversary, honey, I love you!" he crooned from the stage, waving to his wife in the audience.

"He's going for the sucker vote now," quipped host Virginia Willis.

Ploy or not, it didn't work for Romo, chef of Fish restaurant, and teammate Marc Collins, chef at Circa 1886. They lost a cook-off Saturday at the BB&T Charleston Food + Wine Festival to chefs Sven Lindroth of The Boathouse and Nathan Thurston of Jasmine Porch.

The chefs had only 35 minutes to prepare as many things as they could from a "mystery" basket of South Carolina ingredients that included shrimp, snapper, quail and pork. Each team managed to get four dishes to the judges as time expired.

The crowd loved the action, regardless of the winner. They cheered and shook red or yellow cardboard paddles in the air for their favorite twosome while getting large-screen views of the furious slicing, dicing and sauteeing.

Aside from the cooking competitions, the Culinary Village at Marion Square was a popular place all day. The tasting tents filled quickly with people juggling morsels of food with glasses of wine as they yakked with each other and the vendors. Many seemed thrilled with the increased space and new design of the tents.

"My hat's off to the reorganization," Laura McMaster of Isle of Palms said. "What a fabulous job they have done. Everything is moving in here and moving like it should."

Vendors were happy, too. Mariano Oliver, a sales representative for Crimson Wine Group in Napa Valley, Calif., said his booth had been busy all day but not overwhelmed. "People have been asking a lot of questions and the wines have been very well-received. It's exactly what we hoped for."

Suzanne Goin, chef and owner of the acclaimed Lucques restaurant in California, traveled to the festival for the first time. She had cooked with chef Mike Lata of FIG at one of the restaurant dine-arounds on Friday night and was selling and signing her new cookbook at the village on Saturday.

"This is wonderful ... It's so intimate and friendly," she said. "I've been to bigger festivals where there are too many people, too loud."

Likewise, Jerry and Melora Bush of Columbia were newcomers to the festival. Inside one of the tasting tents, they were making the rounds and toting bags filled with purchases — sheets of cedar plank for grilling, a wine bottle holder and playful cocktail napkins.

"We have been pleasantly surprised," she said. "The great part is that I'm getting the food, but I'm also getting the menus and learning about the little out-of-the-way places the tourists don't know about."

In the I'On Community Views tent, organizations and chefs were giving presentations about local culinary traditions. A group of people gathered in close to see how Carolina Gold rice was harvested and hand-milled by slaves with tools like mortars, pestles and winnowing baskets.

Meanwhile, a 150-pound dressed hog was drawing curiosity-seekers outside the village along King Street. Some were having their pictures taken with the butterflied hog, which had been laid open and covered with barbecue seasonings. The hog was about to be smoked overnight for a demonstration and barbecue today.

Pat Votava of Sullivan's Island said her festival experience had been great, and that locals were lucky to have the Lowcountry's culinary heritage. "This is Charleston's moment. It's drawn attention to something that's been secret to us."