Seeking the Soul of American Food at Pebble Beach Food & Wine

This guy in a suit is leaning up against the wall and he’s absolutely hammered—like, reeling drunk—and he’s got his nose in a glass of Pinot (or something) and he’s trying to swirl it, only he’s too gone so he’s just jerking his glass. He’s going to end up staining that suit jacket, but he doesn’t look like the kind of guy who has only one decent suit. I’m figuring he won’t care.

It’s the opening night reception at Pebble Beach Food & Wine 2014, and this is the inner sanctum: the wine room. It’s a windowless meeting room in The Inn at Spanish Bay on the Monterey Peninsula’s 17-Mile Drive. The Inn is a place of wide hallways in sandy neutrals, overlooking the golf course and a sea view where pristine gray fogs soften the jagged silhouettes of savage-looking cypresses, a vista you have to be well fixed to afford seeing from your balcony suite. The hotel is part of a meandering estate of lodges, fairways, sand traps, and restaurants. It’s bland enough so you could nail down a business deal, hidden enough so you could have a weekend fly-in with your mistress and it wouldn’t get awkward.

I’m here with my photographer-collaborator, Chris Rochelle, for a night and a day, at the invitation of the PR firm that reps Pebble Beach Food & Wine 2014, hashtag-PBFW14 on Twitter, where in the coming days guys like San Francisco media personality Liam Mayclem will tweet about the amazing things rock-star chefs are cooking, and he will use that exact phrase: rock-star chefs. Earlier tonight, a young, pretty reception associate named Candace showed us to our room, and when Chris made a joke about where’s the cocaine, she didn’t blush or pause or frown or anything—she’s that well trained—she just said, “They don’t tell us that at the front desk,” without once dropping the crisp, cheerful tone she’d use a sec later to explain how the fireplace in our double-queen room works.

PBFW is among a handful of weekend food festivals embossed with Food & Wine magazine’s branding. The most prestigious is in Aspen, Colorado, in June. Pebble Beach is smaller than South Beach but bigger than Aspen—it’s one of two Food & Wine festivals in California (the other’s in Los Angeles in August), both relatively new. Love it or hate it, the rock-star chef food festival is the flavor of gastronomy now.

Coastal Luxury Management puts on both California events; it’s been running PBFW in its current form since 2007. From the 60,000-square-foot tent (two adjoined tents, actually) that’ll host Saturday’s Lexus Grand Tasting, Coastal Luxury CEO and PBFW cofounder David Alan Bernahl II (pictured above) gives me the weekend rundown. “We’ve got 125 celebrity chefs, 250 wineries from around the world," he says, under the dome of the empty tent, as a lunch cooked by Michael Symon and Joseph Lenn elegantly rages nearby. "We’re opening 30,000 bottles of wine this weekend, going through 4,000 pounds of butter. This is an absolute destination location.”

All this for a capacity crowd of 8,000 (I’m doing the butter math in my head), psyched on getting a taste of 21st-century American Epicureanism, a blend of top-chef glamour, the spray-tan brashness of TV food, and the aura of 90-plus-point wines. The event’s official catalog calls it “unbridled indulgence,” a phrase with just enough equestrian echo on “bridle” to make it sound genteel, unlike, say, “hedonistic clusterfuck.”

Back in the wine room, where the guy in the suit is drunkenly attempting to swirl, VIP weekend-package ticket holders who’ve dropped thousands to be here mingle with winemakers, 250 of which are making an appearance at PBFW14. Chris and I aren’t even supposed to be in here—a staffer at one of the two doors won’t let us in with our press badges, so we try the other door, where a sweet (possibly confused) staffer waves us in.

There’s a table with platters of cheese cubes, an enormous triple crème swirled and hash-tagged with balsamic reduction from a squeeze bottle, and the wines, a couple of sideboards covered with opened bottles, the corks loosely jammed. This is the fantasy some of us have always chewed on: to be left alone in a restaurant’s well-stocked cellar, able to grab and pour as much as we want, to take a swig of Duckhorn Napa Cab and then a guzzle of Stags' Leap, or to stumble around with a whole bottle of Kistler Trenton Roadhouse Chard we plan to kill without sharing. There’s so much raw id on display here, so many impulses being stoked, that it’s liberating: Ain’t none of us holding back tonight. If Augustus Gloop had a thing for Grand Crus instead of chocolate rivers, he’d be here, all jammed up and sweaty in the wine room.

Côte d’Or winemaker Nicolas Potel is swaying a bit with a bottle of what appears to be white Burgundy in his hand, slurring something in French-accent English about the Chimay-type beer he’s going to make. I’m just about to ask him to pour me a glass of that Bourgogne when these other guys in sport coats commandeer it, like thugs stealing a homeless sleeper’s shoes, and walk off. “I know,” another guy yells in my ear; he’s been watching me take notes. “It’s like the 1 percent getting drunk.” The smell of hundred-dollar Cabernet breath is overwhelming.

What can seem secondary to the scale of all this, the ethos of consumption, is the food. Although, like food in restaurants generally, there’s the good stuff and there’s the not-so-good stuff. At Thursday’s Dionysian opening gala, in which the wine room is but a small part, there are chefs who seem to be making appearances (like Hubert Keller of Fleur de Lys and Burger Bar, pictured below left) and there are chefs who look like they’re trying to actually cook. And more than cook: to be ambassadors for what they do.

“It’s a weekend about exuberance,” Matthew Accarrino says. He’s the chef at SPQR in San Francisco, and I’ve stumbled on his table late, after his crew is already breaking it down. He makes somebody get me a spoonful of the California osetra his cooks had been rolling into, I don’t know, Little Gem leaves, with smoked sturgeon and whipped bufala milk. It’s so structured, this caviar, so firm and richly saline and oily in a lithe way, not a gross one, it’s actually elegant. “It’s about product,” he says about why he came to PBFW14, “it’s about process. Good food is good food, no matter where you consume it.” Not 20 feet away, Dallas chef Dean Fearing is presiding over tasting plates of tortillas piled with a ruddy-orange pile of shredded smoked-rabbit carnitas so sugary-sweet it’d throw a diabetic into shock. So, exuberance can be good, or it can be really fucking bad.

In a packed hallway in another wing of the resort, I run into William Werner, the brilliant pastry chef–owner of San Francisco’s Craftsman and Wolves. He’s in street clothes, with his sous-chef, Connie Tsai, toting wineglasses. It’s Werner’s first time at Pebble Beach (his wife happens to be a PR rep for PBFW14); he and Tsai are doing the dessert for the Hunter-Gatherer dinner Friday night, also appearing in the massive Lexus Grand Tasting Tent on Sunday. “We’re spreading the gospel,” Werner says, meaning he’s reaching people he never gets a chance to at his modern patisserie up north in the Mission.

I know other chefs in San Francisco adamant about never making an appearance here, or at festivals like this one in the Bay Area, even for a chance to spread the gospel. A lot of chefs I know have a democratic notion about what they do: Their food, their craft, comes from years of hard work and evolution, from failure and perseverance, from decades of personal sacrifice. To offer it as a glittering exclusive to an elite group of weekend ticket holders thrilled to see a glimpse of Morimoto escaping in a golf cart (pictured above, far left), or Robert Irvine’s gloriously pumped glutes disappear through the rear door of a sterling-silver Lexus—this isn’t why anybody stuck with cooking, or if they did they’re most likely miserable chefs.

Events like PBFW14 point out a paradox of modern food in America: At a time when chefs and restaurants have never been more accessible, thanks to food TV and free online media, the fame machine for chefs has become enormous. To be democratic these days, you kind of have to be a rock star, live behind the velvet rope and surrender to the crowd-surfing of your high-ticket buyers in the high-class fog of Pebble Beach.

“It’s over the top, isn’t it?” says Gary Obligación (pictured below), service operations director at Alinea, Next, and The Aviary in Chicago. We’re looking out at a dining room that might as well be filled with Ann Romneys and Michael Bloombergs. “Just over the top.” Obligación is natty and professional, presiding over a massive and complicated lunch where six sommeliers are pouring a tasting lunch devoted to American wine regions at Stillwater Bar & Grill, overlooking the Pebble Beach course. When Alinea’s director of service says a luncheon is over the top, it’s fucking over the top.

Outside, before Chris and I stuff into the Lexus that’ll take us back to our hotel, I ask the doorman what part of the golf course the dining room looks out onto. “The 18th hole sir, believed to be the finest finishing hole in the world.”

Our driver, Ed Feingold, has overheard that. “If one has to be finished,” he says, pulling away from Stillwater’s faux-English-Italianate façade, “one might as well be finished at Pebble Beach.”

I’ll jerk a wineglass to that.

Photos by Chris Rochelle