May 17, Zach’s birthday, was the first night of the 12th Annual Cooking for Solutions in Monterey, and the evening’s series of events took place at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. We got tickets for all three parts of the night, beginning with a private talk with one of the biggest celebrity names in seafood sustainability; then tasting the freshest, most guilt-free seafood dishes and more; and also we had access to the private lounge for the big-ticket holders.
“Amuse-Bouche: A Conversation with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall,” hosted by Russ Parsons, was the start of the night in the Aquarium’s auditorium. We felt very dapper since we were among the crowd that actually followed dress code (see below for how snazzy we looked when posing with Sam Choy). The Hess Collection of Napa was the official wine sponsor of the night, and during the private talk we sipped on chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. As big-ticket holders, we got to keep the magnum glasses, plus the fancy bamboo platters pre-loaded with dungeness crab tarts, potted mackerel crostini, and spinach and thyme empanadas. We learned that 1.9 million visitors came to the Monterey Bay Aquarium last year, and with all the efforts put towards the Seafood Watch Program, now over 70,500 retailers and restaurants in this country follow the sustainability guidelines.
The Gala, open to us after the private talk, was an array of tasting stations with food, wine, and beer spread throughout the two floors of the aquarium (okay, only two beers and lots of wine, but even more food). Our first stop was A Taste of the “Big Easy” by Baum & Blume Cafe and Catering with robust jambalaya, slaw, and sweet potato mini pies.
This event could have been held anywhere. It’s hosted by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, but they easily could have found a community center or somewhere else for the events. Therefore, we love that the entire aquarium was open for us to explore while we walked, talked, and ate. We will share with you a few of the scenic snapshots we got, like these leviathan models of a mother orca and her baby.
One thing we have to say, is that all the tastings and servings were artfully created and presented. These spoons with huge lumps of dungeness crab and a saffron aioli by One Market Restaurant‘s Chef Mark Dommen were sumptuous, and crafty.
Earthbound Farm Organic and Chef Sarah LaCasse tossed a delightful salad with some of the tastiest greens we’ve tried. The sesame vinaigrette just put it over the top.
Chef Susan Feniger was there to represent STREET, her eatery in Los Angeles. Her Korean-inspired salad with vermicelli and tangy vinaigrette was very popular.
We met Chef Mike Minor a week ago for the first time at Vegas Uncork’d, and we were happy to see him again here. Zach’s cousin Alex works at Border Grill in Las Vegas, one of Chef Mary Sue Milliken and Mike’s restaurants, so we laughed about the increasing smallness of the world. Tonight they made griddled corn cakes to support a snow crab salsa, which were wonderful bites worth returning for seconds.
One of the more artful bites, Chef Matt Bolton of the Hyatt Carmel Highlands Hotel prepared crostini with two types of trout, baby (caviar) and adult (cured filet).
Whole Foods Market highlighted three Bay Area purveyors when making these smores cakes. Also described by the preppers as “deconstructed smores,” we enjoyed not just tasting them but also watching them being freshly brûlèed.
At night, many of the animals go to bed in their own way; the octopi were curled up and sleeping, but still in sight to show off their beauty.
So many processes went into this small serving. With scented albacore tuna, edamame-beet slaw, and chipotle-infused olive oil, Chef Russell Young of the Hyatt Regency Monterey Hotel & Spa demonstrated his knowledge and aptitude.
Chef John Ash came not for a restaurant, but for himself. He is a cookbook author and culinary educator from Santa Rosa. The butteryness of the arctic char with the rich nuttiness of the kale pesto was a feat in robust flavor. You may have noticed by now that we have already gone through lots and lots of paper plates and cups; don’t worry, all serving ware and utensils are biodegradable.
We didn’t eat these, just looked at their calm beauty.
Can you find the fish? Fishy fishy fish!
Eating seafood amidst such scenery was sublime.
Chef Michael Clark, of Michael’s on Main, veered from seafood and made beef brisket bites. Seafood is delicious, of course, but it was appreciated that some of the chefs followed sustainability ethics while giving our palates a break from the bounty of the sea.
Four cuts of sturgeon were utilized for Chef Buu “Billy” Ngo‘s nigiri. Skin, roe, filet, and… can you identify the fourth? A prize awaits the first reader who comments with the correct answer!
The color and the delicateness caught our photographer’s eye.
From Panama hails Chef Elena Hernández, representing the flavors of Panama’s own food festival, Panamá Gastronómica. The shrimp were meaty, succulent, and very well seasoned.
No paper plate for this, the salmon tartare was on an edible dish of a watermelon radish chip. The chef from Asilomar Conference Grounds, Chris Vaughn, prepared one of the more whimsical bites of the night.
The American Culinary Federation sent a team to put together these desserts. The polenta was dense and lightly sweet (well, more so than polenta typically is) due to rose honey. The two most expensive spices in the world, saffron and vanilla, combined for a tasty sauce.
Blackflower & Co. made a chai ice cream that reflected the real, traditional spices used in chai, not the hyper-sweetened Americanized version.
As the sun set, the view got prettier.
Lula’s Chocolates, headed by Chef Scott Lund, provided more sweets, like the hand-made caramels and huge, hand-dipped strawberries.
Chef Gabriel Rodriguez of Il Fornaio Carmel made a pasta of orecchiette con fave e cicoria to go along with aged cheese and crostini with a broad array of spreads.
The little cups of Chef Chad Greer’s gumbo were rich, a fine representation of the quality at Lark Creek Blue.
3 of a Kind brought their three famous drinks, lightly carbonated freshly squeezed fruit juices infused with herbs and spices. The strawberry basil was a favorite of the night with cups going quickly, but August loved the Thai summer tea with mint.
Friend in Cheeses Jam Company‘s Chef Tabitha Stroup went above and beyond in envisioning and preparing these bites, deliciously combining sweet and savory.
The crab, cashew, and mango was a surprising combination. Chef Jefferson Seay of Fishwife made the rustic, gourmet.
As more wine plied the lips of many attendees, the night became lively and bustling.
Chef Mo Tabib of The Fish Hopper presented a whole common dolphinfish, aka mahi mahi (August had never seen one before). It’s generally difficult to find mahi mahi fresh, but this was beyond fresh.
Personally prepared by Chef Michele Ragussis, traditional New England lobster rolls were decadent. With celery, a tender bun, and buttered lobster, we almost wish these were full size (but then again, maybe not, because we needed to save room for all the other treats yet to be tried).
Mission Blue Confections with Chef Mark Ainsworth brought four types of chocolates, but the hypnotik with coffee was August’s favorite and Zach loved the banana white chocoalte. We had met Mission Blue before at the Chocolate Salon, so we were happy to see another familiar face here.
Tiny, delicate, and supremely rich, Chef Chris Kobayashi delighted us with these bites. Like the titular restaurant Artisan, we relished in these rustic morsels that demonstrated a fine touch of a knowledgeable hand.
With a nod to Spain, Chef Jeff Jake from Silverado Resort & Spa brought August back to her favorite culinary region with the padrón peppers. The duck breast, though, was very sumptuous, and we’d love to go to Napa some time to see what else Chef Jeff does in his kitchen.
Many patrons were flocking around Chef Art Smith like he was Elvis. We were just happy to try his fare. An extra dash of sriracha made this southern-inspired food very West Coast, and clearly tasty.
Chef Jason Giles may not have dived for the abalone himself, but as a representation of the fresh seafood we have access to here in California, his étouffée of Cajun inspiration got us thinking about trying to get out to Louisiana sooner than later. Anyone dining at the Portola Hotel & Spa will thoroughly enjoy their food.
For the longest time, August thought macaroon had coconut. Since knowing Zach, she’s learned otherwise, and now snaps them up at every chance she gets. These tiny cookie sandwiches were intended for Chef Gerard Bechler of Patisserie Bechler‘s dessert fondue station, but we ate them plain in order to savor the unique flavors without the hindrance of chocolate.
Marriott Monterey was another local hotel that sent its finest chef. Willi Franz and his team made tiny versions of a dish that either of us would order on any given day. The trout was moist, the almonds sweet, the chili glaze zesty, and all over it was yummy.
La Mar Cebichería Peruana flips around the standard Spanish and uses local pronunciation for its spelling of “cevichería” and “ceviche,” but that didn’t make it any less intriguing. Chef Diego Oka’s ceviche was the most inventive and creative that we have ever tried.
Squid spaghetti is quickly gaining traction, as we are seeing it more and more. Chef Cal Staminov of Bernardus Lodge presented us his take, with a light sauce and delightful herbs.
We conversed with Chef Tim Wood for a few minutes about the ingredients he used in his ragu. His preferred salt, for example, hails from the Monterey Bay Salt Co. Carmel Valley Ranch is fortunate to have him (well, all the restaurants are lucky for having any of these fine chefs!).
The Girl and the Fig sounds more like a fairy tale than a restaurant, but maybe that’s intentional. Chef Sondra Bernstein prepares “country food with a French passion,” which was very apparent in the ingredients of this dish.
Chef Carlos Canada of CoolEatz and Flea Street Café made a vegetarian item that did not underwhelm in flavor. Too often we succumb to the stereotype that vegetarian is bland, but we’re learning that that is rarely the case when a thoughtful chef is behind the preparation.
Ceviche was a go-to item for the night, but every chef made theirs unique and memorable. Chef John Trunk of Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen was one of the more tropical yet traditional, with shrimp and brightly flavored fruit and cilantro.
Chef Cindy Pawklin of Cindy Pawclin’s Wood Grill and Wine Bar (naturally) made a few types of flatbread pizza, but it was the artichoke fontina that captured our attention. It seemed to be popular among others besides ourselves, too, since a fresh one was brought out as we walked up.
Cindy’s Waterfront, also by Cindy Pawclin, is one of the eateries inside the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Chef Jeff Rogers made this curry stew, with a rich broth and perfectly cooked mussels.
Sweet, savory, umami, and delicious, Chef Michael Foster of Mustards Grill made riblets without a lot of frilly garnishes, but a whole lot of flavor.
These samplings were true fusions. Chef James Walker of the Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa concocted pan-global versions of bread wrapped around a filling that was smoky, moist, and refreshing with the slaw on top.
Even with so many ingredients with this cod, no single one overpowered another. The balance produced by Chef Hákon Már Övarsson of the Culinary Institute of Iceland was masterful.
In “Sam and Carla’s Lounge,” big ticket holders got to rub elbows with a couple of big names and try their fare off of real plates (not biodegradable ones). We spoke with Chef Sam Choy about Hawaiian food and how Zach’s grandmother used to rave about him every time she returned from a trip to the Islands. His tuna cakes were kupaianaha.
Chef Kristina Scrivani is imaginative with marbled chocolates from Stone Creek Kitchen. Rich spices illuminate the depth of chocolate that you wouldn’t find with big-name chocolates.
In addition to the magnum wine glasses and bamboo platters, we also got copies of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s The River Cottage Fish Book (with recipes for the treats we had during his talk); booklets containing all the chefs’ recipes from the evening; and two tins of Carla Hall‘s petite cookies, one with Mexican chocolate chips and the other savory with goat cheese and cranberries. The only drawback of the night was that there was so much food! We barely visited each of the chefs’ tables downstairs, and never made it to the second floor because we ran out of time. Regardless, we had a marvelous experience in the Aquarium learning about nature, food, and our big role on this planet not as king pins but as cogs on a gear. When possible, buy and order seafood that follows sustainability guidelines, because it impacts so much more than your palate.