Last weekend was the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s tenth annual Cooking for Solutions event. This three-day event celebrated sustainable seafood bringing in celebrity chefs from around the country and county. The highlight of the weekend is a strolling dinner gala at the aquarium, and of course yours truly wouldn’t miss it for the world!
I was greeted by throngs of foodies waiting eagerly in line to meet chefs the likes of Charles Phan, Chris Cosentino, Cindy Pawlcyn and Rick Moonen. After what seemed like an eternity waiting in line—of course made all the worse by my grumbling stomach ready to devour some delicious dishes—we crossed the threshold. The aquarium was transformed into a foodie’s dream: chefs lined up around the building serving up a variety of small bites. And did I mention there was wine? Lots of it, in fact. All available for tasting. (Though I didn’t partake.)
I was honestly a little overwhelmed at first—there were so many chefs to choose from! On a tip from a friend I bumped into, I headed over to the outside deck, transformed into the High Tide Pub. In the corner, were three delicious dishes: pork and shrimp dumplings from Charles Phan (of San Francisco’s The Slanted Door fame); haddock fish and chips from local chef Dory Ford; and mackerel over a warm potato salad served up by Top Chef alum Casey Thompson.
Wow, what a way to start off the night—all three dishes were outstanding! Casey’s mackerel had a great hint of smoke and the fish was perfectly cooked—a crispy, scaly bottom and tender fish. What surprised me the most was the warm potato salad. I’m not usually a fan of potato salads since they’re usually greasy and packed with mayo—not so here! The potatoes were sliced thin and they were lightly dressed in cream. Dory’s fish and chips might honestly be the best fish and chips I’ve ever had! The breading was flavorful and light. The chips still had the skin on and were perfectly seasoned and salted. I loved the presentation in a newspaper cone for a true British feel. The only chef that disappointed—just ever so slightly—was Charles Phan. And honestly, his dumplings were great—I was just disappointed he didn’t bring the pork belly buns he brought last year! Mmmm. Pork belly.
From there, I visited several other chefs, methodically making my way through the aquarium’s exhibits in search of tasty cuisine. There were so many choices! Some were tasty, others less so. Some of the highlights included Jamaican jerk-spiced shrimp sandwiches, sweet and sour catfish and sablefish with oranges. Try as I might to hit up all the chefs, I’m sure I missed some—namely the Sushi Lounge that was cleared out of sushi by the time I arrived. (Waa waa waaaa.)
Casey Thompson wasn’t the only Top Chef alum at the gala Friday night. I also stopped by to see Carla Hall (hootie hoo!) and Bryan Voltaggio, both set up on the other side of the aquarium. Carla prepared a salad with shiitake mushrooms and golden beets with a delicious dressing. It always refreshing to find vegetarian and non-seafood dishes at the gala. I mean I love seafood, but every now and then bite after bite of fish gets a little old, so Carla’s salad was a refreshing change of pace. Bryan used liquid nitrogen—of course—to make a smoked sablefish with essence of everything bagel. His was quite a fascinating dish to watch come together with the liquid nitrogen billowing steam.
Both Carla and Bryan were more than happy to chat with the crowd and pose for photos. (Casey was too, when she wasn’t mobbed by the line of foodies cosmogony for mackerel.) It was nice to see them so down-to-earth, even after their newfound fame following the show. But Carla in particular was a hoot and half! I swear, that woman needs her own reality show—and I think finally those network bosses realized that too, as she’s now in the lineup for ABC’s The Chew food talk show (think The View, but all about food). She was gabbing it up with everyone who stopped by for a photo, as if they were an old friend she’d known for years. But more on the Top Chefs later—check back for my post on the Top Chef seafood challenge!
As the night wore on, I sought out something sweet to cleanse my palate. This year’s sweet offerings were a little smaller than last year’s. I did enjoy a sample of chai tea from a new chai tea vendor—they were giving samples of their tea prepared with vanilla soy milk, along with a new chai ice cream at Santa Cruz’s Polar Bear Ice Cream shop made with their tea. The old standbys of amaretto-injected chocolate-covered strawberries and banana cotton candy were both a welcome treat.
Wow, I’m stuffed just thinking about all the food I ate at the Cooking for Solutions gala!
I had a blast at the gala, as always, and I’m looking forward to seeing what’s in store next year. Until then, stay tuned for my take on the sustainable seafood challenge with Top Chef alums.