By Judith Salkin

The fifth year of the Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa Food and Wine Festival Palm Desert starts off with foursome of female chefs and proceeds to fill the Big White Tent with foods from some of the desert’s finest restaurants, vineyards from all of California’s wine regions and across the country and a marketplace where foodies can purchase everything from exotic spices to the products from the kitchens of some of the celebrity chefs they’ve spent the afternoon with.

For the past two years Tony Marchese, co-owner of Trio and the Purple Room, both in Palm Springs, has produced this food and wine extravaganza. Not that he doesn’t have enough to do running two restaurants, “but this a labor of love,” he said in mid-February at a preview of this year’s event.

“The celebrity chefs are wonderful and we love having them,” he said. “But what we want to do is support our local chefs and restaurants. We have great chefs here in the valley and this festival is a way for people to see them work (in the demonstration kitchens on Saturday and Sunday) and then discover their restaurants.”

The lineup of Coachella Valley restaurants ranges small, intimate places such as Rio Azul to the Venue Sushi Bar and Sake Lounge in Palm Desert to the resort restaurants such as Lantana at the Hyatt Regency Indian Wells Resort and Spa or Essense at the Two Bunch Palms Resort in Desert Hot Springs. All cooking styles are represented, too, from The Cowboy Way barbecue in Palm Springs to Clementine Gourmet Marketplace & Cafe mix of French Provencal and Mediterranean fare in Palm Desert and from desserts from Chicks with Bark Handcrafter Chocolates to Olea Farm’s Olive Oil Tasting Room.


Marchese came on-board partly from a love of putting together big events, but also from a love of sharing the knowledge behind the foods we all love. “These chefs work so hard and for the most part, people don’t get to see how much work goes into each plate,” he said. Even with the abundance of celebrity chefs on television, “most people don’t really get a chance to see them work in person. It’s what I love about this event.”

Bringing together the celebrity chefs, “gets harder each year,” Marchese added, with the increasing number of food festivals around the country. Luckily, the Coachella Valley is home to great chefs that have come from around the country and the world to work here. “Because of the time of year a lot of our local chefs are really busy, but we’ve been lucky because we have so many that want to participate.”

Top Chef Season 10 runner-up Brooke Williamson and her husband, Nick Roberts own and operate three restaurants in L.A.’s South Bay beach cities. In Playa del Rey, it’s the popular gastropub The Tripel; in Redondo Beach, it’s The Hudson House; and their most recent addition is Playa Provisions, that incorporates a four-in-one concept of seafood house, café, creamery and whiskey bar.
Williamson has known “at least since the age of 12 or 13 what I wanted to do with my career,” she said recently from her home in L.A. “I knew the path I wanted to be on. I think I was kind of novelty when I was a teenager because I knew at such an early age what I wanted to do with my life.”

That single-minded approach saw Williamson enter the Epicurean Institute of Los Angeles where she also worked as a teaching assistant, and later worked under some of L.A.’s best chefs, as a pastry assistant at Fenix at The Argyle under Chef Ken Frank and Chef San Yoon at Michael McCarty’s self-named Michael.

After moving to New York, Williamson earned the distinction of being the youngest woman to be invited to cook at James Beard House.

She acknowledges the fact that there are more men in restaurant kitchens than women. “It just hasn’t been as common to see women running restaurant kitchens until recently,” she said. “For many years being a chef was a man’s job, it’s not the way anymore. For me, personally, I’ve always been someone who wants to prove myself and that’s what’s been important. Maybe because of that I haven’t really seen gender issues. Maybe it’s because I always believed that there was nothing that was going to hold me back; for me, it was motivating to show what I was capable of.”

For the James Beard Luncheon, Williamson is preparing an appetizer course of cucumber- tomato water, Dungeness crab and green apple salad, with watermelon and sorrel gelee soup. “I think since I grew up in California, I’ve always loved cooking with all the fresh produce we have here and seafood,” she said. “I made a dish that similar to this last year, but thinking of the weather and were we are, I decided to make this something that was cold and maybe a bit more refreshing.”

When Williamson is finished with the weekend, you might just find her at a restaurant that serves Thai food. “I love the blend of flavors and textures and it’s the one type of food that I don’t cook or serve in any of my restaurants,” she said. “I eat and taste so much of the foods that I make, I think I don’t cook any Asian food so that I don’t lose my taste for it.”

The opportunity to get out of the kitchen and meet his guests on a different stage is part of what motivates Chris Mitchum, Executive Chef at the Hyatt Regency Indian Wells Resort and Spa to have participated in the Food and Wine Festival for the past five years. “I love being in front of an audience,” he said recently. “And showing them what I do.”

While the celebrity chefs might draw people to the Food and Wine Festival, “The best thing is that it gives people a chance to meet and get to know the local chefs,” he said. “My name is pretty well recognized because I’ve been in the valley for 15 years and I’ve done the Pendelton (Chef’s Auction) for about 10 years and this event for five years, but there are some great chefs like (Drew Davis) at Catalan that people might not know and it gives people a chance to see them work.”

It is the connections with guests and potential guests that Mitchum sees as the highpoint for chefs who come out to demonstrate at the festival. He’s worked at a number of food festival around the valley over the years, even though it adds a bit of pressure to his already full schedule at the resort.

“It’s really hard work for the local chefs,” he said. “Most of these guys are going to be here early to prep and demonstrate and then serve and talk to guests in the main tent – and they have to get back to their own restaurants and serve their guests. That is a lot of work and a really long day so you really have to love what you do.”

This year Mitchum is demoing a seared salmon with quinoa and tabouli with sun-dried tomato and olive tapenade. “It’s a dish that was on the menu a couple of years ago and when I was thinking about this year’s dish, I remembered how much I loved this dish,” he said. “I’m pretty sure it’s coming back very soon.”

And while he was in the last days of getting ready for this year’s event, Mitchum noted that next year’s festival isn’t that far off. “As soon as we pack up, I’ll start thinking about next year and what I’m going to make,” he said. “I’ll only have a year to get ready.”


Three Days of Foodie Delights

Whether you’re a foodie or a gourmand, the Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa Food and Wine Festival Palm Desert is where you want to be on Friday, Saturday and Sunday (March 27 through 29, 2015). The festival takes over the Big White Tent on Larkspur Lane and overlaps with the closing days of the Saxony Group Fashion Week El Paseo with foods, wines and craft beers that are every bit as delectable as the fashions of the previous days. This year’s lineup of chefs includes American Iron Chef Cat Cora, Top Chef Season 10 runner-up Brooke Williamson, James Beard-winning pastry Gale Gand and “Entertainologist” best-selling author, event designer and entertainer, Lulu Powers.

For the first time in the event’s five year history, the opening James Beard Gourmet luncheon is in the hands of these four women. Each chef submitted their list of dishes, and the menu was chosen by the executives of the event. For Williamson, who grew up in SoCal, the idea was to showcase the fresh produce of the state and the bounty of seafood found off of her shoreline. “It’s the flavors that I love,” Williamson said.

The highlight of this festival are two days of chef demonstration that feature a ton of local chefs. And this year rather than attempting to have the chefs compete with the noise of the grand tastings on Saturday and Sunday, there demos will take place in a separate tent.

“It was difficult for the chefs trying to compete with the noise of everything going on in the main tent,” said Tony Marchese, owner of Trio restaurant and for the past two years, producer of the Food and Wine Festival. “This year the chefs aren’t distracted and the guests can have the chance to really see what’s going on in the demonstrations.”

Food is only half of the menu for the Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa Food and Wine Festival Palm Desert. As the title say, wine plays a big part in the Grand Tastings on Saturday and Sunday. And not only wines, “This year we’ve added more craft beers,” Marchese said. “We have better wine and beer pairings and the marketplace this year is incredible.”

The Grand Tastings on Saturday and Sunday, March 28 and 29, include the overall grand tasting with 20 celebrity chefs, 70 premium spirits, wines, sparkling wines, cognacs, and beers, and more than 50 fine restaurants and culinary brands, plus the celebrity chef book signings, and unique exhibits booths featuring culinary gift items. From 11 a.m. to noon both days, VIP Grand Tasting Pass guests will receive early entrance into the event before the other ticket holders arrive; special caviar and champagne tasting; and exclusive celebrity chef cooking demonstration.

Ticket for the James Beard lunch on Friday, March 27, are $125, and as of this writing there were a few tickets available. VIP Grand tasting tickets are $125 per day for Saturday and Sunday, March 28-29. Regular Grand Tasting tickets are $90 per day.

Because wine and craft beers are served, no one under 21 is allowed in the Grand Tasting Tent.

For tickets, go to or call 888-596-1027.

FRIDAY, MARCH 27, 2015

11:30 a.m. – 2 p.m.

Details: The festivities begin with a four-course gourmet luncheon, paired with premium and sparkling wines. Each course created by James Beard Award–winning and nominated chefs. 2015’s featured chefs are Food Network Iron Chef Cat Cora, James Beard Award–winning pastry chef Gale Gand, chef and owner of Hudson House, The Tripel, and Playa Provisions Brooke Williamson, and The “Entertainologist,” best-selling author, entertainer and event designer Lulu Powers. The luncheon takes place in the Big White Tent. Guests must be 21 years of age to attend. The James Beard Luncheon food is graciously supplied by Whole Foods Palm Desert. Catering courtesy of Scott Robertson, Owner, New Leaf Catering.


First Course
Brooke Williamson
Cucumber-Tomato Water, Dungeness Crab and Green Apple Salad, Watermelon and Sorrel Gelee Cold Soup

Second Course
Lulu Powers
Kale and Sweet Potato Hummus with Buratta wrapped in Persian Cucumbers adorned with Tomatoes, Dates, Kumquats and fresh Basil

Third Course (ENTRÉE)
Cat Cora
Halibut with Pepitas, Capers, Cherry Tomatoes and Basil

Fourth Course (DESSERT)
Gale Gand
Passion Fruit Soup served with Pistachio Meringue Sticks


VIP Grand Tasting Pass
11 a.m. – 4 p.m.

Grand Tasting
Noon – 4 p.m.

Foodies and wine enthusiasts will experience more than 20 celebrity chefs and enjoy 80 premium spirits, wines, sparkling wines, cognacs, and beers, as well as tastings from more than 50 fine restaurants and culinary brands. Enjoy celebrity chef book signings, unique exhibits booths featuring culinary gift items, a silent auction, and more!


Noon: Chris Mitchum, Lantana Restaurant at the Hyatt Regency Indian Wells Resort & Spa
1 p.m.: Brian Malarkey, Top Chef Miami, Owner of Searsucker, Herringbone and Green Acre
2 p.m.: Cat Cora, Chef, TV personality, cook book author, Food Network Iron Chef
3 p.m.: Lulu Powers, The “Entertainologist,” best-selling author, entertainer, and event designer

12:15 p.m.: Zack Bruell, James Beard recognized, Parallax, Table 45, Ristorante Chinato, Cowell & Hubbard, L’Albatros, Kafeteria and DYNOMITE
1:15 p.m.: Richard Pelz, Wally’s Desert Turtle
2:15 p.m.: Ernesto Gastelum, Rio Azul Mexican Bar & Grill
3:15 p.m.: Kitt Fraser, Europa Restaurant Palm Springs

12:30 p.m.: Adam Palffy, Roy’s Restaurtant
1:30 p.m.: Jennifer Town, Purple Room Palm Springs
2:30 p.m.: Daniel Villanvera Jr, Balisage Bistro

12:30 p.m.: Ruben Galvez, Executive Chef, Hacienda Cantina and Beach Club
1:30 p.m.: Andre Carthen, Executive Chef, kathy ireland Worldwide Design Ambassador
2:30 p.m.: Bruno Lopez, Executive Chef, The Ritz-Carlton, Rancho Mirage

11:30 a.m.: Gale Gand, SpritzBurger Restaurant & Tru Chicago, and James Beard Award-winning Pastry Chef, followed by book signing.


VIP Grand Tasting Pass
11 a.m. – 4 p.m.

Grand Tasting
Noon – p.m.


Noon: Patrice Martineau – Citron at the Viceroy Palm Springs
1 p.m.: Ari Taymor, Alma, named “Best New Restaurant in America 2013 “ by Bon Appetit and “Best New Chef 2014” by Food & Wine
2 p.m.: Engin Onural, The Venue Sushi Bar & Sake Lounge
3 p.m.: Mike Milligan, Aqua Caliente Casino Resort & Spa

12:15 p.m.: Gale Gand, SpritzBurger restaurant, Tru Chicago, and James Beard Award-winning Pastry Chef, followed by book signing
1:15 p.m.: Andrew Copley, Copley’s on Palm Canyon
2:15 p.m.: Andie Hubka, Cork & Fork Wine Bar & Kitchen
3:15 p.m.: Bonnie Barkley, CELLO’S Pantry, CELLO’S Bistro 

12:30 p.m.: Drew Davis, Catalan Mediterranean Cuisine
1:30 p.m.: Thomas Horner, JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa
2:30 p.m.: Gavin Grabe, Clementine Gourmet Market & Café

1:30 p.m.: Chef Cossi Houegban – Two Bunch Palms Resort & Spa 

11:30 a.m.: Zack Bruell – James Beard recognized, Parallax, Table 45, Ristorante Chinato, Cowell & Hubbard, L’Albatros, Kafeteria and DYNOMITE 

Book signings takes place immediately after CHEF DEMO at Just Fabulous, located in the Reception Tent

  • Brooke Williamson

  • Cat Cora

  • Andie Hubka

  • Cossi Houegban

  • Engin Onural

  • Ernesto Gastelum

  • Gavin Grabe

  • Roy Choi

  • Ruben Galvez