Cabrillo’s Perfect Pairing: A Day for Culinary Students to Shine – Edible Monterey Bay

April 30, 2024 – Sesnon House at Cabrillo College was the setting for a remarkable food and wine event last Saturday that teamed some of the well-established winemakers of the Santa Cruz Mountains with budding talent from the Cabrillo Culinary Arts & Hospitality Program.

The idea was to showcase the students’ abilities to create an original dish that would strike the perfect match with a wine provided by a participating local winery. And yes—in this voting season that highlights the power of our democracy—ballots were cast.

The event featured 11 teams of culinary students, some cooking dishes on the spot, others serving items they had created in advance, alongside their partner wineries. The throng of attendees, mostly food and wine lovers from our coastal towns, were in for a treat on this brilliant day, sunshine spilling onto the grass, as they tasted through the matchups, each of which had something to appreciate. The tough part was determining which three teams were deserving of our ranked choice votes.

Despite the seriousness of the task at hand, it was a most congenial atmosphere. In addition to the wineries pouring as part of the competition, La Vida Bella and Sante Arcangeli helped augment the garden party atmosphere, made all the more enjoyable by the incredible vocal talents of Alex Lucero.

Few things are more delicious than a well thought out food and wine pairing, and nothing is more rewarding than being recognized by a diverse group of palates for a dish that’s perfectly tuned to its dance companion wine. Both skill and art come into play when crafting a memorable, satisfying experience.

How does one teach this skill? How does one arrive at art? Fundamentally, it requires the appreciation of balance and harmony. Moreover, it requires experiment and experience, two things that only time and dedication to one’s craft can bring.

As I tasted through the lineup, comparing notes with fellow attendees, I found it very difficult to vote for only three of the pairings, as were our instructions. There was so much talent on display, from beautiful presentation to skillful assembly of diverse flavors. Elements of brilliance were to be found on every table. Sure, there were some faults to be found: somewhat mushy shrimp, soggy pastry, servings too large, crostini too crusty.

Inherently, some teams had to work with a wine that had an edginess or even some warts, but they all played to the wine’s strengths, creating dishes that made the wine taste better, even superb.

The bottom line in any food and wine pairing is, does it parry or pair? Does the dish fight with the wine or engage it in harmonious collaboration? Sometimes it’s like a jam session, where one of the musicians is frightfully out of tune and can’t be gracefully drowned out.

We admitted that our biases came into play. Among the comments: It’s a no-no to use previously frozen shrimp. I can’t vote for a dessert with prepackaged puff pastry. That dish was too salty/fatty. Pork belly needs to be cooked more to render the fat. The sauce was the best part of the dish. Should have been served hotter to melt the cheese. The wine was too floral. Never heard of that varietal. The rosemary overpowered the meatball. I loved/didn’t love the wine, but it didn’t/did go with the food. I can’t eat pork/gluten. And so on.  First world problems.

We agreed to find virtue in the dishes where the wine really kept time with the food, like natural dance partners.

After much rigorous debate and changing of minds, we turned our ballots in. The winning results were as follows:

1st place:  Team 7 — Aneliz & Dominique’s Lemon Curd Puff Pastry Blossom paired with Birichino 2022 Pétulant Nat Malvasia Bianca

2nd Place: Team 6 —Jostin & Michaela’s “Plead the Fifth” Turkey Herb Meatballs with Red Wine Raspberry Sauce paired with Aptos Vineyard 2020 Alternate Juror Santa Cruz Mountain Pinot Noir

3rd Place:  Team 2 — Kris & Cameron’s Braised Beef & Ricotta Ravioli paired with Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyards 2020 Alicante Bouschet Red Wine (San Antonio Valley, Monterey)

4th Place: Team 3 —Aidan & Zoey’s Champignons à la Fondue Gruyère paired with Storrs Winery 2019 Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir (Christie Vineyard and Spring Hill Vineyard, Corralitos)

5th Place: Team 5— Geneva & Anii’s Banh Mini paired with Sones Cellars 2022 Torontes (Silvaspoons Vineyard, Lodi)

The remaining six student groups were neck and neck in the voting, with each team earning between 25 and 30 votes. Those six student groups and their pairings were:

Team 1: Sabrina & Hannah, Citrus Goat Cheese Crostini, paired with Madson Wines 2022 Arroyo Grande Sauvignon Blanc

Team 4:  Noah & Max, Pork Loin with Brie & Apple Butter, paired with 2019 Silver Mountain Vineyards Tondre Vineyards Chardonnay (Santa Lucia Highlands)

Team 8:  Itzel, Tiki & Adriana, Shrimp Puff Pastry Bomb, paired with Bottle Jack Winery 2022 Cienega Valley Viognier

Team 9:  Caleb & Brian, Kumquat Glazed Pork Belly with Equinox 2019 Pinot Rosé Sparkling

Team 10: Jackson P. & Jackson M., Skirt Steak Taco con Vino, paired with 2021 Windy Oaks Estate Pinot Noir Estate Cuvée

Team 11: Emerald & Jacob, Honey Hazelnut Cake with Orange Dark Chocolate Chocolate Mousse, paired with Lester Estate Wines 2019 Syrah SCM Lester Family Vineyard

Best Marketing Display: Team 6 went full on with a gavel and prominent signage —“Incriminatingly Delicious!”— to hammer home the legal connection. Case closed!

Best Dish Presentation: Team 1, Sabrina and Hannah’s citrus goat cheese crostini with lemon drizzle and flowers, paired with Madson Wines 2022 skin contact Sauvignon Blanc from Arroyo Grande, was simply beautiful, and accented the wine’s lovely citrus notes.

Best Original Elements: Team 10, Jackson P. & Jackson M., for their housemade tortillas, mole, and mango salsa that went into the tasty taco dish served with 2021 Windy Oaks Cuvée of Pinot Noir. These young men should open a taco stand forthwith at local Farmers Markets. They can call themselves The Jackson Two or the Jackson Twins.

Best Dance Partner: Team 4, Noah & Max, for bringing out the baked apple and oak flavors of the 2019 Silver Mountain Vineyards Tondre Chardonnay with their pork, apple butter and Brie dish.

Andrea Mollenauer, Chef Instructor and Culinary Department Chair at Cabrillo College, says that students in the Catering and Advanced Restaurant Service classes were a bit nervous at first about the process. Some of the partner wineries participated in a sip and stroll planning day, where they brought multiple bottles for the students to explore, while others selected and provided the wine they wished to profile. Either way, it was game on for the students as they got busy cooking and testing, in hopes of tuning their dish to perfection.

Being in front of the public for the first time, cooking for over 200 people, representing themselves and their food, and interacting with guests, was definitely a new and intimidating experience for most of the students, says Mollenauer. It definitely took many of them, especially those in the back of the house, out of their comfort zone, as being social might not come naturally.

However, it taught all the students some valuable real-world skills. “Many of them expressed a huge shift in confidence, in their dish as well as in their skill/ability by the end,” says Mollenauer. “There were big smiles during the post-event debrief, despite being really exhausted, and many felt really proud of their final product and excited to have met so many food enthusiasts at their table while serving.”

It truly was a pleasure to give encouragement and praise to these talented students, as they passed one of the most rigorous hospitality tests they’d personally ever had to face: the General Public is a scary, powerful thing. Hopefully, in this case, they were all as bolstered by the positive experience as were the attendees. There’s so much hope for the world of wine and food when this level of talent shows up together.

The Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers was a major supporter of the event, by soliciting member wineries to donate their wines, by marketing the event, and by facilitating the two seated seminars, led by wine studies instructor Deborah Parker Wong, that took place earlier in the morning at Sesnon House.

Cabrillo College is truly to be commended for putting an event like this together, and for encouraging a new generation of talent to come forward and shine. With all the news of restaurants closing, these students should be encouraged to follow their dreams, and to step in where like-minded souls have gone before, pick up the spatula, spoon and potholders, and keep the flame alive.

Laura Ness is a longtime wine journalist, columnist and judge who contributes regularly to Edible Monterey Bay, Spirited, WineOh.Tv, Los Gatos Magazine and Wine Industry Network, and a variety of consumer publications. Her passion is telling stories about the intriguing characters who inhabit the fascinating world of wine and food.

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