Friends of Food

By Candace Nelson - 2:18 PM

As I was driving home, I was listening to the radio when an advertisement came on boasting this fantastic five-course dinner that was a collaborative effort by executive chefs around the Morgantown area. When I went home to look up some more information, I quickly found out the Friends of Food dinner was $100 per guest. No way my college student budget would allow that. I told Chris how much I wanted to go to this event - local chefs, coming together, with local food - and he offered a solution: email the director and ask for media passes.

Media passes? For what? I'm no longer officially with a newspaper, though there are a handful I could pitch the story to. My blog, he said. My blog? Well, it has gained a bit of traffic. What do I have to lose? I emailed the director. He so graciously replied:

"We would be very pleased to have you as our guest so that you can cover the story for your blog(s). We will have a ticket at the door for you," said Allen Arnold, the director of the Collaborative for the 21st Century Appalachia. He was actually so kind as to give me two so I could bring a guest.

This grassroots organization aims to preserve the small farm, environment, and sustaining the small farm, rural communication through earth-friendly agricultural practices and buy-local emphasis. It embraces the local Appalachian farmers and the great food this state can produce. The "Friends of Food" dinner was one event they hosted to celebrate the culinary heritage of West Virginia, as executive chefs from around Morgantown teamed up to create this five-coursed, wine-paired dinner.

The dinner began at 6:30 p.m. on Monday at the Morgantown Events Center. When I and my guest walked in, an hors d'oeuvres table was already in the process of being set up. We walked to the registration table to check in, receive our program and complementary issue of WV Living's debut "Morgantown Magazine." We flipped through the magazine while the table was being set up.

Soon, waiters with trays full of champagne glasses trickled onto the scene. The wine was Montelliana Prosecco NV, and it was fabulous. The antipasto display was finalized, and it looked fantastic. A few loaves of bread sat at one end of the table, while the rest flowed with plates of cheese, mushrooms, olives, roasted vegetables, and other delicious bites. This first course was prepared by Chef Dale Hawkins of Fish Hawk Acres. I had a plate full of cheeses, which were superb. Some softer, while others were sharp and packed a punch to them. I had a pickled sweet potato, as well as some quartered beets. These were bursting with flavor - moist and slightly sweet. Some roasted red peppers added a fantastic background flavor to let the cheeses shine through. I was salivating for more.

When we were finally able to go inside, we made our way to the first table, where we were assigned, and took a seat. It was a gorgeous set-up, with more glasses at one place setting than I've ever seen before. I just so happened to be sitting with the who's who of the dinner - the director himself,  as well as a few other gentleman who were involved with the event.

We had a small greeting, then it was time for the first course. Chef Spoonhoward, VP for food and beverage at the Waterfront, introduced each of the wines. For our second course, we were served a 2010 Calera Russian River Ranches Chardonnay. I wish I knew more about wine, but I know this tasted lovely with the soup. The second course was a pumpkin soup with spicy chorizo garnish prepared by Chef Marion Ohlinger of Richwood Grill. I had been looking forward to this course for awhile. It was more like a puree, and less of a broth type soup. The pumpkin was amazing. I have no problem saying this is the best soup I've ever had. The pumpkin as sweet, with cinnamon infused and smelled like a slice of autumn. The spicy chorizo added that salt and spice, which balanced this meal perfectly. This classic blend had me wanting more.

After that course, our next one was a beet carpaccio, shaved fennel, celery, orange, vodka gellee, and a citrus vinaigrette. It was paired with a 2009 Rodney Strong Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. This dish was prepared by Chef Brian Wallace of Madeleine's. Madeleine's already has my heart as one of my favorite Morgantown restaurants, so I was very excited for this course, as well. A pile of fresh greens, with some radishes and oranges was served on a bed of thinly sliced beets, all topped with this citrus vinaigrette. It was a festival of textures - the smooth beets and crunchy lettuce with soft oranges. The flavors, of course, were tasty, too. The beets, again, were to die for. So vibrant with flavor and slightly earthy tasting, but smooth. On the plate, the vodka gellee were these four tiny cubes. I tasted one, and the tart flavor, is, well, vodka. It added something extra to this dish. At this point, they also passed around the rolls. I have to mention these because they were beyond words - bread so fresh I'm not sure how it was done. And the butter was this sweet honey butter that was simply out of this world.

Finally, time for the main course! It was a WV surf and turf with striped bass and beef tenderloin with local mushrooms, and new potato, turnip and celery root puree. This dish was prepared by Chef Joey Vessecchia II of the Waterfront Place Hotel and Chef Chris McDonald of Stefano's. It was paired with a 2007 Earthquake Zinfandel. The wine was dark and earthy - but it went well with our plate. I don't ordinarily eat red meat like this, but I was not going to pass this up. Though the tenderloin was tough, it was so moist and rich with flavor. The gentlemen at my table informed me that this is because the cattle was grass-fed so the muscles are out moving more. I didn't know that. Mine was about medium, though my guest's was well-done, and the person beside me had a rare piece of meat. I was happy mine happened to be medium because I think it was entirely flavorful. I've never had a piece of meat that I didn't feel like it needed a sauce with it until now. It was flavorful and moist on its own. I tasted the mushrooms on top - delicious. The puree was also surprisingly amazing. I never really had anything like it - it was most similar to a hummus, maybe, but so much more delicious. The bass had the crispy potato on top, and the bass was so tender and flaky white that it nearly dissolved in my mouth - in a good way. This dish had flavors unlike any entree I've had before. Superb.

Finally, it came time for dessert. We were served a Movendo Moscato NV wine, which was sweet and delicious.The dessert itself was a deconstructed honey crisp apple pie with honey ice cream and black walnuts from Chef Kaity Baltzell with the Waterfront Place Hotel. Tons of small chunks of cinnamon-y apples were on a small circle of crust, and it was all topped with a honey ice cream. Sweet, but not too sweet, with the apples slightly tart. It was delicious for a fall dinner, and it left me with a warmth in my tummy.

I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to have such a treat from the local chefs. You could really tell they put their hearts into this meal. It's such a great opportunity to dine on local cuisine prepared by local chefs to show that West Virginia has great culture and talent here. I would love if this event were to happen more often.

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