On Friday night some of Arizona's best chefs gathered at the Royal Palms Resort for the James Beard Foundation's Taste Phoenix event. This was the third consecutive year the ten-city national tour made a stop in the Valley, and for the third year the benefit event offered diners an experience unlike anything else in town. We were invited to attend the event, which included a reception, dinner, and "dessert extravaganza."
The evening began with a reception featuring small bites from five Arizona chefs. While mingling and sipping One Hope Chardonnay, we sampled dishes from chefs including Matt Carter of Zinc Bistro and The Mission, Kevin Binkley of Binkley's Restaurant, Mel Mecinas of The Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale, Mark Tarbell of Tarbell's, and Rochelle Daniel of L'Auberge de Sedona.
Binkley's spoons of flash frozen melon and proscuitto were easily the most playful bites of the night. The tiny spheres of orange and white liquid reminded us of Dippin' Dots, and tasted exactly as the ingredients promised. Cool, salty, and sweet at once — this made for a memorable experience of textures and temperatures.
We were also particularly impressed with the hors d'oeurve from Rochelle Daniel of Sedona. Daniel presented each diner with a delicate tube that looked almost exactly like bark, stuffed with foie gras and complemented by plum, creek cress, and peanuts. Not only was the small dish full of mighty flavor, it was one of the most photo-worthy plates we've seen in a while.
Next we moved onto a four-course dinner featuring three Arizona chefs — host chef Todd Allison of the Royal Palms Resort, James Beard Award-winning chef Chris Bianco of Pizzeria Bianco, and James Beard Award-winning chef RoxSand Scocos McCreary — plus Taste America All-Star chef Michel Nischan.
The first course, created by Royal Palms' Todd Allison, combined golden beets, Arizona's own Crow's Dairy goat cheese, watercress, cherry-pistachio pesto, and barrel-aged sherry bourbon. The golden beets' sweetness shone through despite being pickled and contrasted nicely with the tart cherry-pistachio pesto. Arranged artfully on a plate, Allison's dish highlighted regional ingredients and flavors with elegant style.
Next came chef Chris Bianco's pasta course, featuring handrolled Arizona durum garganelli with heirloom tomato passata and smoked ricotta. Simple and rustic, the plate presented Bianco's signature Italian flare.
The savory courses ended with a stunning plate from Taste America All-Star chef Michel Nischan, a two time Beard winner who's as much known for his cooking as he is for his work as an advocate for the sustainable food movement. Nischan's plate offered a bed of perfectly-cooked ancient grains and tender wilted greens on which sat a flaky piece of wild salmon. Light but full of vibrant flavors, Nichan's creation was our favorite dish of the meal.
For dessert, the party moved outside, and for the second year attendees were treated to a firework show and glasses of champagne. As the bright explosions lit up the Phoenix sky to the sounds of "Por Ti Volare," we couldn't help but think of Will Ferrell singing at the Catalina Wine Mixer in the movie Step Brothers — though the show did make for a dramatic end to the night.
With glasses of Coppo Moscato d'Asti in hand, attendees were then treated to a full dessert spread from chef RoxSand Scocos McCreary. With more than a dozen sweet options it was nearly impossible to try them all, though highlights included Italian cheesecake, a cookie assortment (options ranged from gingersnaps to coconut macaroons), and rich chocolate truffles.
Though the pace of this year's event felt slower than in years past, the Taste Phoenix event still offered a luxurious evening to celebrate Arizona chefs and ingredients. With top-notch talent — including All-Star guest chefs and past Beard winners — and one of the best venues in town, the James Beard Foundation's stop in the Valley continues to be a energetic kick off to the fall event season.