Food & Wine Festival debuts in Latin America (video)

March 28, 2011

IXTAPA-ZIHUATANEJO, MEXICO - In what is quickly becoming a monthly occurrence, there was another food and wine festival this past weekend. But unlike events in Aspen, Pebble Beach and Las Vegas - which draw top-tier culinary talent and more winemakers than you could possibly sample in 48 hours - this one was held in Mexico, thousands of miles south of the glare of North American TV crews and "celebrity chefs." But the inaugural Food & Wine Festival in Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo was remarkable for at least one thing: the organizers brought in Chicago's Mexican food major domo, Rick Bayless, and made him the headliner.

With posters plastered all over town featuring Bayless (noting his "Top Chef Masters" win rather than his connection to Frontera Grill and Topolobampo), the organizers established the event with some tried-and-true talent to attract U.S. tourists, but also filled in the rest of the schedule with Mexican chefs, tequila experts, and even fellow American chef Stephan Pyles, who plies his trade in Southwestern cooking in Dallas.

Unlike the "one ticket" events in Aspen, this was an a la carte event, offering cooking classes for $40 per person; nighttime "grazing" events ran slightly more than $100 per person. Most impressive were the sheer number of Mexican winemakers, most of whom flew more than three hours to get here, from the Guadalupe Valley, just south of San Diego. Pouring their impressive blends of tempranillo/granache and chenin blanc/chardonnay, every winemaker kept telling me their Valley is reminiscent of Napa - only 20 years ago. Yes, despite the daytime climate, it does get cool at night, they would reassure me, which results in wines that have structure, body and ample tannins, just fine for matching up to the prodigious amounts of beef, pork and lamb we ate all weekend.

At night, it was strictly grazing, moving from one booth or table to another, but they managed to actually offer flavors that I would expect from various regions of Mexico. On Saturday night, the theme was "32 flavors," which refers to the number of states in Mexico. One booth offered four different ceviches alone, while other chefs would grill entire cabrito (baby goats) while women pounded out homemade corn tortillas between their hands and cooked them on large, round comals. After guests roamed around Playa La Ropa in their bare feet, sitting at tables and nibbling, Bayless led another live cooking demo with MC Sissy Biggers, showing her how to make a fresh tortilla and a quick steak taco. Interpreters were at the ready, but Bayless moved easily between English and Spanish, realizing about half of the 500 people in attendance were from Mexico.

The decision to hold a Food & Wine event in this tourist retreat is two-fold: for one thing, the country has been hammered recently in the news, with a slew of bad publicity about drug deals and shootings. However, the area where all of the events were held - near the water - was as safe as ever. By holding a major culinary event here, it not only brings some much-needed culinary caché, it also fills up hotel rooms. The other reason is that local tourism leaders now realize there is a market for all things "local," be they chefs or ingredients. Not once did the term "Tex-Mex" rear its head, and while some of the older-line hotels with American and Canadian tourists still catered to - how shall we say - less-adventurous palates, there was a lot of talk about the local produce markets in Zihuatanejo; there might even be organized excursions at next year's event (the planning for which is already underway).

Personally, two highlights for me came as a result of what Bayless tweeted while he was here. He discovered two local restaurants - his methods are almost anthropological in approach - and my group decided to follow in his footsteps both days for lunch. At El Tiburon (the shark), the theme was seafood, and Bayless told me later that this is the true food of Ixtapa: supremely fresh catches of shrimp, sea scallops and snails, either combined with fresh lime juice and onions for ceviche, or grilled on a flat-top plancha and served with corn-studded rice. On Sunday, we visited Carmelita's, a local favorite in Zihuatanejo, and had just the most incredible meal. This is home cooking at its finest - from the homemade cheese, tortillas and moles, to the salsas and other main dishes that all had such wonderful depth of flavor. See my video above for more details.

Last night, we took a ride around the coast on a huge catamaran, settling into another tasting/grazing in Ixtapa's Marina. The food was fine, the wine was, again, impressive, considering I came in with pretty low expectations. They had a live band and some more cooking demos from some of Mexico City's top chefs, but when I saw Carmelita walk in, I gave her a big kiss, and showed her some of the pictures I took from our lunch earlier in the day. There may have been some big-time chefs and winemakers in the house, but for all we cared, this diminutive woman with the giant smile was the biggest star in the room.