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James Beard Foundation's Taste America Tour "Best Chefs: Southwest" Celebration

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The James Beard Foundation's "Best Chefs: Southwest" event brought hundreds of food lovers and a handful of the region's best culinary brains to the Westin Kierland resort on Friday night.

From start to finish, guests enjoyed an array of handcrafted dishes and drinks prepared by award-winning chefs and their volunteer sous chefs. The dinner and cocktail reception were some of the final events on the foundation's Taste America tour that brought a series of them to 10 cities over five weeks to celebrate "local flavor."

See also: James Beard Foundation Taste America Tour, 10/18/13

The outdoor event began with a cocktail reception with hors d'oeuvres provided by local James Beard Award winners Robert McGrath, Janos Wilder, and Chris Bianco.

ACME Oyster House provided the goods for an oyster bar featuring three different preparations of the salty delicacy. Though the classic raw variety was a popular choice, guests tended to favor the garlic parsley butter grilled and deep-fried oysters all courtesy of chef and the evening's host, Robert McGrath. At the bar, guests could choose between wine, beer or a craft cocktail created by chef Janos Wilder of Downtown Kitchen and Cocktails in Tucson. The "Cuban Sunset" included habanero-infused vodka, passion fruit puree, and a splash of simple syrup to offer a perfect balance of heat and sweetness.

Wilder also offered up small bites including hamachi sashimi with pickled shiktake, seaweed salad and foie gras snow. His second dish, a fresh corn masa gordita with lamb barbarcoa and spicey tepary beans indicated his talents using authentic Arizona ingredients, a skill he used when he opened Kai at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass in 2002. Wilder was named Best Chef: Southwest by the foundation in 2000.

Also during the cocktail reception guests could see Phoenix chef Chris Bianco plating dishes of handmade pasta made from Arizona-grown durum. Accompanied by a delicate but flavorful white sauce and market vegetables, the dish was a great example of the chef's signature style of cuisine.

Once seated for dinner attendees began a four-course dinner prepared by chefs Nobuo Fukuda, Vincent Guerithault, Suzanne Goin and Christopher Gross. The evening's host, chef Robert McGrath of Check, Please! Arizona, introduced each dish and chef and thanked guests for helping raise money for both the foundation and CCAP, or the Careers through Culinary Arts Program.

The first dish, prepared by chef Nobuo Fukuda, arrived in a set of spoons. The five bites of fish offered a rainbow of flavors and colors, the most memorable of which was the spoon of house-cured salmon with a dressing of basil oil. Wrapped inside the fish the chef tucked an almond, to provide a pleasing mixture of textures and taste. The dish was was paired with 2012 Mollydooker Violinist Verdelho.

Chef Vincent Guerithult's second course brought a plate of baby spinach to the table. With roasted butternut squash, Gorgonzola cheese, dried cherries and a light coating of balsamic dressing the fall salad highlighted fresh ingredients and simplicity.

Chef Suzanne Goin's dish followed the salad course. The chef, a Taste America All-Star, came from Los Angeles, where she operates several restaurants. Over the years as a chef and restaurant owner Goin has been nominated for or won a total of six James Beard Foundation awards, including consecutive nominations for Outstanding Chef of the Year by the foundation from 2008 through 2011.

Goin's dish, a tender cut of braised short rib, came with a tasty accompaniment of cornbread and Cavolo Nero kale, cherry tomatoes and chimichurri. It was the heaviest and possibly the most popular savory course, aided by the wine pairing: 2010 Ridge Vineyards Lytton Estate Petite Syrah.

To finish with a bang, chef Christopher Gross presented a beautiful parnassian of passion fruit and berry sauce. The dish also featured a fruit sorbet and white chocolate. Paired with a 2020 Paul Jaboulet Muscat Beaumes de Venise, the sweet dessert made for a satisfying ending to the event.

On Saturday chefs Suzanne Goin and Robert McGrath headed to Scottsdale's Sur la Table for a day of free events including book signings and cooking demonstrations. The events wrapped up the two-day Taste Phoenix celebration. For more information about the tour or other James Beard Foundation events visit the foundation's website.

View more photos from the "Best Chefs: Southwest" dinner here.

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