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Local Chefs Shine at 28th Annual American Wine & Food Festival

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Considered one of the premiere culinary events in the nation, the American Wine and Food Festival, held Saturday on the Universal Studios Back Lot, was a feast for the senses. Among the pantheon of American food and drink stars were a host of local chefs who shone while representing the dining landscape of Los Angeles.

The event, in its 28th year, is a benefit for Meals on Wheels, organized by restaurant impresario Wolfgang Puck and his ex-wife, Barbara Lazaroff. Of the nearly 60 Festival chefs and pastry chefs, over a dozen were from Los Angeles.

The Puck family of restaurants was represented in full force in the events central plaza, where a live band entertained the swirling masses who were lined up for bottomless glasses of premium spirits mixed into cocktails, generous pours of wine from over 80 wineries--many of which hail from California--and plates of food from the many Puck eateries. On behalf of the local Puck spots were Ari Rosenson and Matt Hurley of CUT (Beverly Hills & Las Vegas); Rene Mata of Chinois on Main; and Lee Hefter & Tetsu Yahagi of Spago Beverly Hills.

Engaging the kid in all of us were Nancy Silverton and Dahlia Narvaez of Pizzeria Mozza and Osteria Mozza, with their sausage dog, miniature Reuben, and what can be described as none other than the world's best corndog, thanks to the snap of the meat's casing, the texture of the batter, and the perfect exterior salty-crisp fry of the entire treat. More delight on a stick came via Narvaez, who dipped small bananas in a velvety dark chocolate coating--not too sweet--and then rolled it in your wish of either toasted coconut or roasted peanuts.

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Showcasing beautiful local produce--plump, colorful heirloom tomatoes from farms in Oxnard and Riverside--was Joe Miller of Joe's, whose simple tomato salad with an iced gazpacho help take the sting out of the evening's intense, 90+ degree heat. Down the way Gino Angelini of Angelini Osteria was wowing the eaters with his lamb dish, and in another nook was Octavio Becerra of Palate Food + Wine.

Deeper into the venue, Charlie Palmer (of, among others, Bloomingdale's at South Coast Plaza) was in a courtyard alongside a fire-eating woman, and at an illuminated stand serving up soup, a summery Patron cocktail, and, quite possibly one of the most coveted finds of the night throughout the massive event, bottles of Fiji Water.

To showcase the impressive range of food offerings to debut in the coming months at the new Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas (opens in December), chefs from the resort's restaurants were on hand at a set of tables lined up towards the top corner of the Festival, as it reached out like branches on Universal's "Little Europe" cobble stoned streets. Among the Vegas-bound is David Myers of Comme Ca; for AWFF he had a plump, handmade ravioli.

For the seafood lovers, Bouchon's main man, Thomas Keller, and the Beverly Hills main man, Rory Hermann, were on hand with a raw bar (scaled back considerably from last year's epic feast) and the ubiquitous Bouchon beach ball, which they lobbed over the heads of those lined up for plates of fresh oysters, crab legs, and mussels. More fresh seafood, but in sushi form, came thanks to Nobu Matsuhisa of Matsuhisa Beverly Hills & NOBU West Hollywood.

At about half-way through the festivities a crew of energetic people decked out in black t-shirts and light-up jewelry opened the doors to the Sweet Sanctuary Champagne and Port lounge, where another live band was set up with a dance floor, and the crowd pushed in to get desserts and their dance on. A great idea, always awkwardly executed, the dessert area is in a dead-end spot, and in high demand, which means the crowds here are more intense, more apt to cut you off, and would send a claustrophobe running for the open air in the blink of an eye. Curated by Puck's Pastry guru, Sherry Yard, the dessert area included a table piled with Payard chocolates, and seven other dessert-makers, including Yard herself on behalf of Spago Beverly Hills, and Sally Camacho of WP24.

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Dark, sweaty, loud, and crowded, I'll confess that the dessert area was the most frustrating, if only because my memory of getting a hold of something creamy and in a cup is tainted by the experience of having a man behind me thrust himself so far into me from behind to get to the table that I thought I might need to make an appointment at a free clinic first thing the next morning. Sorry, but it's true. The lines at the dessert tables, especially those right at the front, ruined the dessert experience.

The desserts were imaginative and whimsical, however, and with bellies full from all the incredible eating done in the main Festival, just a few select bites could be squeezed in, once we got plates in our hand. Who goes to food festivals to dance? Turns out I do... hitting the dance floor in this area was a great release from the intensity of the evening, and the fastest way to start burning off all those calories, not to mention a reprieve from the unpleasant body contact where the food tables were.

While AWFF offers more than the average--or even super--human can consume in one evening, it is tremendously fun, decadent, and satisfying. It is expensive (tickets are $300 each) so it is not for everyone. However, it only comes once a year, and it benefits Meals on Wheels. Since 1982, the AWFF has raised over $15 million for the cause, and with Saturday's event, that number has risen.

Cheers to Puck and Lazaroff, the nearly 200 food and drink folks who were present, and, in particular, to the fine food of Los Angeles well-represented.