Food and Fights: Highlights of the 2009 Scottsdale Culinary Festival

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Everyone who's anyone in the Phoenix metro culinary scene, from local foodies to the stars of Hell's Kitchen and Bravo's Top Chef, turned out for this weekend's Scottsdale Culinary Festival. Libations flowed at the Southwest Festival of Beers and inside the Robert Mondavi wine garden. Restaurant chefs whipped up crowd-pleasing appetizers and small samples, while food vendors offered larger portions of barbecue ribs and enchiladas for those whose palates weren't satiated by dozens of tiny noshes.

Highlights of this year's event included a cooking demonstration with Chef Chris Curtiss of Noca and Sunday's Bombay Sapphire "Challenge to the Chefs," which pitted four notable names -- Chef Aaron May of Autostrada, Chef Wade Moises of PastaBAR, Sedona-based Chef Jeff Smedstad formerly of Los Sombreros and Sushi Roku's Chef Tim Fields -- in an hour long Iron Chef-style battle.

Honestly, we weren't holding out much hope for innovative gastronomy when the "secret ingredients" were revealed. Prawns, cream cheese and Greek fig spread? Really. Where's the octopus? The Uglifruit? The challenge??

When a missing judge was announced as having been in a car accident and poor Chef Fields was faced with a broken stove straight out of the gate, things really started to heat up -- or, in Fields' case, not heat up. An hour of bad jokes and culinary faux pas later (really, how many times can a host possibly mispronounce Sol y Sombra?), Chef May rose to the challenge with a creative pairing of prawns two ways: one glazed with fig spread and pan-fried, and the other served atop a bed of peppers and soft-cooked egg laced with cream cheese.  

Another of the festival's signature events was Cooks & Corks, a casual gala with wine and food samples and celeb chef demonstrations held throughout both days on the Viking Kitchen stage.

Chef Christina Machamer, Culinary Institute of America grad and winner (or should we say, survivor) of Hell's Kitchen, talked through her recipes and chatted about Hell's Kitchen while making risotto. "Nothing ever goes as planned," she told the audience. "Every day you have a different struggle -- like my vendor dropped off leeks when I ordered ramps, and that was supposed to be for my sauce. So you roll with it." When host Jan D'Atri remarked on her youth and exuberance, the cute, petite blonde remarked that she's "not that young, or that innocent." True, she'd have to be pretty tough to weather Gordon Ramsay's TV tirades.

Next in Sunday's lineup was Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard, who proved Chef Christina's point when her mini cooking show was interrupted by a fist fight that broke out among patrons who'd clearly had a few glasses too many of the complimentary wine. Chefs and other guests broke the conflict up in record time, and gave Chef Izard a chuckle. To her credit, she continued with her shrimp dish demo unfazed -- albeit with a few audience comments about "food good enough to fight for."

Food fights may have been an unintentional theme at this year's Scottsdale Culinary Festival, but the focus was definitely on Phoenix as a dining destination. Cooks & Corks showcased an eclectic mix of wineries and eateries, from a small independent bakery offering mini chocolate muffins with bacon brittle -- inspired by Sweet Republic's "I Love Bacon" ice cream -- to a salmon topped waffle dished up by the creative chefs at Ahnala Mesquite Grill at Fort McDowell resort.

Exhibiting chefs reported dishing out over 500 samples in the course of a few hours, and Regions Bistro & Bar Executive Chef Todd Paige even had one surly gentleman scream at him for temporarily running out of food. "See what food does to people?" he quipped. "My food is so good it will make you fist fight to get it!"

Check out Jonathan McNamara's slideshow for more photos of the 2009 Scottsdale Culinary Festival.

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