On the lamb
hough there’s been a slightly competitive touch to the annual Taste of Vail since its inception 15 years ago, this year the event will feature a first-ever affair titled as such: The Colorado Lamb Cook-Off.Currently 13 of the valley’s paramount chefs are busy scheming their respective plan of attack for the kick-off event on April 6.”I don’t know if I can really talk about it,” Angelee Aurillo, executive chef of The French Press said, but she promised patrons wouldn’t be disappointed.”Some of the things I’m making for the lamb dinner are quite unique; it’ll be very unusual.”After all, it is in Aurillo’s best interest, as well as the other chefs competing, to keep their personal strategies under wraps. The first place winner will be heading to Napa Valley for a weekend, complete with roundtrip airline tickets, use of a Hertz rental car, accommodations at the Paradigm Winery and $500 spending cash. The second and third place prizes aren’t too bad either: a gas grill, which is being donated by The Home Depot, and a set of copper cookware by Cephalon.The American lamb board, in conjunction with Rosen Lamb of Colorado, has donated 500 pounds of lamb. Each chef will receive 32 pounds of lamb to manipulate into the ultimate lamb dish.”There are some major, national judges coming to judge the competition,” Executive chef and owner of La Tour, Paul Ferzacca says. There will also be a People’s Choice award, which will award one lucky chef a 10-piece stainless steel cook set, also from Cephalon.Ferzacca is particularly excited about the accessibility of the Lamb Cook-Off.”This is our first event that’s actually going to take place live, in the middle of town,” Paul says. “I’m very excited about this event because anybody can go to it. You don’t need to spend $375 on a full event pass to go to it it’s $1 for a lamb sample and $2 for wine samples.”Ferzacca says that 12 wineries are signed up to participate and that all of them have tried to specifically match wines that will complement the lamb.Truly, competition is the name of the game in a town where 22 of the local restaurants are Wine Spectator award winners, more per capita than any other city in Colorado.And even though the Taste of Vail event originated based on the idea of local restaurants collaborating in the name of charity, Ferzacca says that there’s bound to be a bit of sibling rivalry when so many chefs are trying to be the best they can be.”The chefs really go to town with putting their best foot forward,” Ferzacca says. “The other events (other than the lamb event) are not a competition but there is definitely a friendly competitive feel.”Ferzacca, who has traveled to other wine and food festivals around the country, says that the Taste of Vail clearly stands apart from the rest.”I’ve been to others, and there’s no other event that puts out the quality food and wine that the Taste of Vail does.”Whetting the palateGoing over the top is a nightly tradition for many of the chefs who man the lines in restaurants like Sweet Basil and Grouse Mountain Grill. Oftentimes though, special ingredients are brought in for the Taste of Vail, or new recipes are saved to introduce specially for the event. Chef Aurillo, who is originally from New Orleans, is planning on using some specially cured ham called tasso ham.”It’s a cured, dry rub ham that is really flavorful,” Aurillo says. “We’re doing mushrooms stuffed with tasso and shrimp for aprs,” Aurillo says. “And for the grand tasting I’m thinking maybe a smoked scallop with a fava bean base or something kind of springy, along with a grilled pineapple salsa.”Bruce Yim, the executive chef of Sweet Basil for the past nine years, says they’ve also been gearing up for the event, juggling schedules and making sure the ingredients they need are all lined up.”We just try to do what we’re known to do,” Yim says. “We try and have a nice display, put out good food and have fun at the same time. Oh, and taste a lot of wine. Hopefully I’ll have a few bottles to take home at the end that’s always a goal.”It’s kind of our last hurrah for the season it’s a nice way to end the season and get ready for spring.”In the beginningFifteen years ago a group of local restaurant owners and chefs got together to talk about putting together an event that would market some of the world-class restaurants in the valley. Susan Fritz, owner of Sapphire Restaurant in Vail, was one of those original meeting attendees.”We felt like we didn’t really market all of the wonderful things to do in Vail,” Fritz says. “We marketed athletics and that was about it. We have these great restaurants here and we thought we should let a few people know.”The group decided that April and the start of the off-season would be a perfect time to hold such an event, giving people a reason to come to Vail outside of skiing.This year’s Taste of Vail organizers are expecting 5,000 people for the event, with 60 to 70 percent of attendees specifically coming from out of town for the culinary event.Each year, after the event culminates, festival organizers sit down, tally up the proceeds and start calling local charities.”We try to go through the whole community and find things that we could do that would specifically benefit community members,” Fritz says. “We really do take the time to poll individual charities to see how we could help them most effectively.”We’ve raised, cumulatively, way over $250,000 over the years for various charities in the valley. We’ve donated money to Vail Mountain Rescue, the Shaw Cancer Center, the Literacy Project, Habitat for Humanity, and the list goes on.”Other happeningsThe Taste of Vail offers festival attendees a multitude of chances to chat with winemakers at the Mountain Top Picnic on April 8 or at one of the special multi-course wine dinners hosted by various restaurants throughout the valley. At the Grand Tasting event people will have the opportunity to meet some of the chefs who are out in front of the people (rather than stuck in the kitchen) offering up their delicacies along with a bit of conversation.Besides mingling with local talent, the Taste of Vail offers the chance to get to know the featured guest chef, Traci Des Jardins. Jardins is the executive chef and owner of Jardini re and MIJITA and managing chef of Acme Chophouse all in San Francisco. She is one of the country’s most acclaimed chefs and has accumulated a number of awards for her culinary expertise. Catch Chef Traci Des Jardins at the Guest Chef Luncheon on April 9 at Terra Bistro. She will also be participating in the Grand Tasting at the Vail Marriott from 7 p.m. to midnight on April 9.If the $375 price tag for the full-event pass is beyond your means, check out some of the more informal and affordable events (tickets range from $20 on up to $150 for the Grand Tasting) like the Cigar Seminar (April 7, The Sanctuary 6:30 8 p.m. Individual tickets are $35), The Cheese and Sherry Seminar, (April 8, Vail Marriott 9:30 10:30 a.m. Individual tickets are $35) or the especially delectable Chocolate Seminar (April 8, Vail Marriott 4 5 p.m. Individual tickets are $35). All of the events are included in the full-event pass as well.Another equally fun and accessible event is the Battle of the Bartenders Martini Mix-Off. Bartenders from the valley will be vying against each other for the honor of being named the 2005 Taste of Vail’s Master of Mixology. (Included in the full-event package or $35 for an individual ticket, April 8, The Sanctuary 4 5 p.m.). VTFor more information about any of the Taste of Vail events, or to purchase tickets, check out http://www.tasteofvail.com or call (888) 311-5665 or (970) 926-5665.