Will sommeliers be the next group elevated to celebrity cheflike status, or become reality TV competitors?
"The guy on the street is getting an idea of what a sommelier is," says Chris Ycaza, president of the board of the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience (NOWFE). "Fifteen years ago, before the cooking competitions started, people starting watching chefs on TV. They started to recognize that that's a real job."
Mixologists have garnered some of the spotlight in recent years, and maybe sommeliers are next.
Wine enthusiasts attending NOWFE, the annual Memorial Day weekend festival, may be excited to meet rising-star sommelier Rajat Parr, author of Secrets of the Sommeliers, or Ian Cauble, the youngest person to earn the title Master Sommelier (a credential attained by a total of 200 people in the last 40 years). But the festival has something for everyone, from casual wine drinkers to drinks enthusiasts who want to jump onto the learning curve of familiarizing themselves with sake, the Japanese rice wine sometimes mistaken for a stronger spirit. For those interested in the culinary side, the Grand Tastings include food from dozens of local restaurants, and The Big Gateaux Show is a top-level pastry competition (see Three-Course Interview with pastry chef/restaurateu Pichet Ong on Gambit, page 27). There's a seafood cooking competition at Saturday's Grand Tasting.
In its 22 years, some of the festival's largest events have drawn crowds for the festival-like bounty of food and drink. Grand Tastings at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center on Friday evening and Saturday afternoon (tickets $99 in advance, $119 at the door) feature vintners from around the globe and food from local restaurants. Thursday's Royal Street Stroll stations vintners at Royal Street art and antique galleries and Zonin Prosecco Park is a new edition to the Stroll. Italian sparkling winemaker Zonin offers prosecco, sparkling rose and bellinis, and food trucks La Cocinita, Food Drunk, NOLA Girl and the NOCCA truck will serve food on the 900 to 1000 blocks of Royal Street.
The Vinola (tickets $150) tasting features only wines that retail for at least $75. There also are seminars for those interested in exploring wine more seriously. The cleverly named "Talk Dirty to Me" panel discussion delves into winemakers' experiences with vineyard soils. "Simply Sake" is an introduction to sake styles, regional differences and tasting and food-pairing notes. In "Temper Tantrums," pastry chef Rhonda Ruckman shares tips on using chocolate in sauces, cakes and candy.
The Big Gateaux Show is a cooking competition featuring architectural-scale cakes with a burlesque theme. Celebrity judges include Ong and New Orleans' Tariq Hanna, owner of Sucre and competitor on TLC's Ultimate Cake Off, Bronwen Weber, a Dallas pastry chef and frequent guest on Food Network Challenge baking competitions.
NOWFE is a nonprofit organization with a mostly volunteer staff, and one of its goals is to support culinary programs in the New Orleans area. It has donated more than $1 million to education groups and nonprofits. This year, the primary beneficiary is Cafe Reconcile, the restaurant industry training program for at-risk youth. Other 2014 beneficiaries include Delgado Culinary Arts School, New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts Culinary Program, Edible Schoolyard, John Folse Culinary Institute, Education Foundation's ProStart Program and the Louisiana Restaurant Association. The education programs may help the next celebrity chef get started. Or maybe a sommelier.