Monday, October 22, 2018

Where to Eat: Judging Desserts (Again!) @ The 2018 Gelato Festival America, Santa Barbara

Exciting news: I recently returned as a technical judge at the Gelato Festival America’s stop in Santa Barbara!

As part of the larger European Gelato Festival that’s now in its ninth edition, Gelato Festival America visits various cities throughout the States. Each year, there’s one gelato maker winner in each participating city. All winners from both the European and American festivals between 2017 and 2020 compete in the 2021 Gelato Festival World Masters Final in Italy for the biggest title yet: World Champion.

Similar to last year, the Santa Barbara portion of the festival took place in the same open-air La Cumbre Plaza, over the span of two days (Saturday, Oct. 13 and Sunday, Oct. 14). Once again, it was actually sorbet — the non-dairy version of gelato — featured in the contest. And, there were three juries: our Technical Jury, the Kids Jury and the Popular Jury, where all festival attendees had a chance to select their favorite flavor. Scores from the juries were tallied and combined, to find the 2018 Santa Barbara stage gelato maker winner. Below are my fellow judges, other travel / food / wine writers, influencers and bloggers (full list here!).

There were a few changes to this year's festival, too. It expanded from four to seven cities. Specifically in Santa Barbara, instead of 10 gelato maker contestants like in 2017, there were only five this time around. And while last year, our technical judging portion was towards the end of the day, this time, it took place before doors officially opened at noon on Saturday, Oct. 13.

In order of appearance, here’s a brief look at the five contestants and their respective flavors:

California Dreamin’ by Noël Knecht (San Clemente, CA)
Noël was a contestant last year, too. She took a similar approach as she did with her 2017 flavor: she sourced her gelato ingredients from a particular region and built a gelato love story from there. For California Dreamin’, she used passion fruit from Santa Paula and the Green Keitt Mango native to the Coachella Valley, topping it all off with a subtle raspberry-rosemary drizzle. She got the balance of sweetness and tartness just right; it was such an invigorating flavor and a perfect creamy texture. During her presentation, Noël also shared that her ultimate goal when creating gelato is to make it in a way that supports our environment and local farmers.

Mike Guerriero’s Blueberry Basil (Montclair, NJ)
Hailing from a family of gelato makers who have ran various Gelotti shops in Jersey for the past 30+ years, Mike paid homage to his state by using a fruit that apparently grows rampantly there: wild blueberries. Mixed in with the blueberries was a little lemon juice to cleanse the palate and pureed basil to cut the overall sweetness. Mike shared that he’s all about “mixing the art with the business” and that you can’t just make a flavor that’s good; it has to be something you can enjoy an entire cup of. This particular flavor definitely checked off both requirements on my end!

Filippo Cianciosi’s La Dolce Vita (Carlsbad, CA)
By far, this was probably the creamiest sorbet and in IMHO, the most unusual flavor. Using local Black Mission figs, Filippo, who moved to the U.S. seven months ago to launch his Gelato Love shop, dedicated the flavor to his grandfather and father. Both were in the gelato business, along with his sister. You could hear the passion rise in his voice as he reminisced about picking figs with his grandfather to bring to his father's shop to make gelato. When I asked him how he was able to create such a smooth texture, he joked, “I want to ask that question to God,” and slyly revealed a secret ingredient: salt. While I wasn’t too fond of the taste — it was a little too savory for me — some of the judges mused that it would pair well with wine.

Savannah G. Lee’s The SoCal Sunrise (Millbrae, CA)
Savannah also has a culinary family background; her parents were chefs. Plus, her travels around the world as an Emirates flight attendant were the inspiration behind all of the international desserts now available at her own shop, Savannah's Gelato Kitchen. Incorporating the juice from 100+ pounds of Valencia California oranges and hand-cut Royal Hawaiian pineapples, The SoCal Sunrise should feel as if you're sipping an orange pineapple mimosa in somewhere like London or Dubai, she explained during her presentation. And she was quick to add that “you’re the happiest when you’re the healthiest,” sharing some of the health benefits of oranges and pineapples. The flavor itself was strongly citrusy, but quite refreshing!

Marilyn Way’s Fresh Passionfruit Lemonade Sorbetto (Calgary, Canada)
Marilyn told us that she was going for a fresh and summery lemonade vibe with the Passionfruit Lemonade Sorbetto. Using Ecuadorian passionfruit, California lemons and lemon lime zest, her team actually made 12 different variations of this flavor, during the research and development stage of this sorbet. This particular rendition at the festival was so popular back at her Fiasco Gelato shop in Calgary, that it’s now been added to the shop's standing menu. This, too, was very refreshing and had a very tart and crisp taste.

My fellow technical judges and I had to give scores for each gelato, based on the following criteria:
  • Presentation (max. 10 points) – how well the gelato maker described his sorbet in 60 seconds
  • Flavor (max. 20 points) – our personal and subjective evaluation of the gelato's taste
  • Structure (max. 10 points) – assessing the gelato's structure such as its softness, creaminess, freshness and permanence of flavor
  • Creativity (max. 10 points) – our personal and subjective evaluation of the specific flavor and ingredient choices
Can you guess who the winners were? 
Without further ado, here they are! 
  • Mike’s Blueberry Basil won the overall first place, a combination of all Technical, Kids and Popular Juries' scores. Second place was Filippo’s La Dolce Vita and third was Savannah’s The SoCal Sunrise. Mike will be off to compete in the 2021 Gelato Festival World Masters Final in Italy!
  • Noël’s California Dreamin' won the Technical Jury prize, based exclusively on our Technical Jury’s favorite flavor.
  • Marilyn’s Fresh Passionfruit Lemonade Sorbetto won the Popular Jury vote, based exclusively on the most popular selection from all attendees who voted.
  • Savannah’s The SoCal Sunrise received the Kids Jury Special Mention certificate.
There were also other mini-contests throughout the event. Marilyn won the “Speed Cup Race by ISA” for filling cups with gelato as perfectly as possible in 30 seconds. Mike continued to rack up the awards; he also took home the Gela-to-go Award for selling the most gelato and the “Stack It High by PreGel” recognition for putting as many scoops of gelato as possible — 22 total — into a cup in 30 seconds.
All in all, I had a great time. I mean, who doesn’t love spending a day sampling some of the most amazing sorbets out there?? I'm looking forward to participating as a judge in future festivals and who knows, maybe I’ll even make it to the 2021 Gelato Festival World Masters Final in Italy!

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Monday, October 8, 2018

Where to Drink: Introducing VIK Wines @ Fogo de Chão Brazilian Steakhouse, Beverly Hills

The Drinks: Introducing three wines from VIK Winery in Chile, now available at Fogo de Chão, a traditional churrascaria serving all-you-can-eat cuts of fire-roasted meats

The Location: Beverly Hills

The Vibes: Open and spacious, reserved, indulgent

Good for: Dates, Groups (small and large), the kiddies

When-To-Go: Weekdays, 11:30 a.m. – 2 p.m. & 5 – 10 p.m.; Weekends 11:30 a.m. – 10:30 p.m.

The $$ Factor: Weekday lunch $39.95+, Weekend brunch $41.95+, Dinner, $63.95+

The 4-1-1: At a churrascaria, barbecued meats — including chicken, pork, beef and more — are often passed around rodízio style, where servers come to your table to slice off thin pieces of meat, all throughout your meal. Use a card with both green and red sides; green to signal to bring more, and red to indicate that’s enough for now.

Parking Situation: Valet parking only (although there’s limited metered parking on La Cienega Blvd., too) 

I’ll Be Back…: To check out the 4:30 – 6:30 p.m. weekday happy hour! 

The high-end churrascaria Fogo de Chão Brazilian Steakhouse on the famed Restaurant Row section of La Cienega Blvd. recently introduced wines from VIK winery, based in Chile’s Colchagua Province.

To celebrate the occasion, the Fogo team rolled out the red carpet for an evening of wine pours, its world-renowned fire-roasted meats and delectable Brazilian fare, during a special private event for members of the press.

The night started off with all guests packing the bar. Passed bite-sized apps and two cocktails freely flowed, including the Mint Smash (on the right, below) and Fogo's version of a Caipirinha (on the left).

We were eventually ushered into a private dining area where Fogo de Chão CEO Larry Johnson and VIK Winery CEO Gaston Williams shared more about their brand new partnership.

“The thing that attracted us to VIK was excellence,” Johnson proclaimed, adding that “Fogo and VIK were made for each other.” With more than 38 Fogo de Chão dining establishments in the U.S., it’s interesting to note that 60 percent of Fogo’s restaurants hail from South America, per Johnson.

Williams walked us through VIK’s origins, history, location and wine-making process. Launched in 2006 after a two-year search across multiple countries for the right property, the winery now offers three red blends — La Piu Belle, Milla Cala, and its namesake, VIK. He showed gorgeous photos of the horseshoe-shaped property that has six valleys and 12 sub-valleys, with mountains and lakes and vineyards scattered throughout. I was so ready to hop on a plane that night and head to the winery (fun fact: you actually can visit the property; there's a luxury hotel on its premises).

What I found most interesting about VIK was its nuanced approach to the wine-making process. Striving to be as natural as possible, no pesticides are used and grapes are harvested at night. Plus, an optical sorter runs the best grapes that have been selected through an x-ray, to ensure they’re of the highest quality.

Throughout the evening as we feasted on 13 of Fogo’s fire-roasted meats and dozens of all-you-can-eat sides from the Market Table & Feijoada Bar, we sipped on all three VIK wines:

The 2011 La Piu Belle was the first one up and was solidly smooth.

Sweeter than La Piu Belle, the 2013 Milla Cala had a bit more bite to it.

The 2012 VIK had the most body and was the most oaky. We were advised to let it sit for a few moments prior to tasting it. Also interestingly, La Piu Belle and VIK have the same grape concentration but come from different parts of the winery's land, ultimately giving them such unique and distinctive characteristics.

These VIK wines are available now at the Fogo Beverly Hills location, so the next time you visit, order a glass (or bottle!) and let me know what you think.

See you there soon!

For more information: