A Food and Wine Weekend

by Tony Phoenix, staff writer

As the Food & Wine Festival enters its fourth year at Disney's California Adventure park, the breadth of activities being offered has significantly increased. Two events I attended this past weekend were the ever-popular Napa Rose Cooking School, making its return, and Epcot’s Sweet Sundays event, which made its California debut.

Napa Rose Cooking School

We enjoy the Napa Rose restaurant at the Grand Californian Hotel a lot, and our favorite place to sit there is at one of its two chef’s tables.So I loved the idea of being able to cook with the Napa Rose staff

Limited to only 14 people, the cooking school started at 10 in the morning. When I arrived at Napa Rose, I was presented a with a large gift box containing an embroidered chef’s coat, and invited to relax in the lounge. I donned my coat and grabbed a bottle of water, and introduced myself to Dawn and Bob, who turned out to be MousePlanet readers. We waited for Executive Chef Andrew Sutton’s arrival while enjoying a small croissant.

Chef Sutton began his orientation with a thorough and entertaining discussion about kitchen safety. Unlike most home stove and ovens, the professional stoves in the Napa Rose kitchen start at high and move quickly to inferno—30,000 BTUs is more than four times hotter than my home stove. With so many people working closely on the same stovetop, it can be a potentially dangerous environment. Since most of us had no experience working in a professional environment, knowing basic safety in that environment can be critical.

Safety is important. Chef Sutton demonstrates how to flambee water. Photo copyright Disney.

With a number of years of experience with this cooking program, Chef Sutton explained that he has been looking to past participants for topics they wanted to see covered, and the response was very strong—it’s all about the sauces. With that feedback, Chef Sutton planned a menu that used some different sauce techniques. We were presented a nice spiral-bound book containing recipes for this year’s class, as well as recipes from past classes. The menu for our class consisted of:

  • Glorious Tomatoes – a simple salad of heirloom tomatoes, bacon, blue cheese and cider vinaigrette.
  • Snapper Vera Cruz – with a California mission-style relish of tomatoes, cilantro, jalapeño, pine nuts, and slivered green olives
  • Skillet-Roasted New York of Beef – smothered with coastal mushrooms
  • Sharffen Berger Chocolate Pâté – with candied hazelnut cream

When we entered the kitchen, Chef Sutton began to discuss the brown sauce we would be preparing. We were shocked when he pulled out a frozen stock pouch, but he quickly explained its purpose—since most home chefs lack the time to prepare their own stocks, frozen is a good alternative. He reassured us that they never use frozen stock in the restaurant, and casually tossed the pouch back in the freezer.

The mise en place for our class. Photo copyright Disney.

Chef Sutton had us each choose a pot and station at the central stove area. Oil was passed around and garlic began to be sautéed. We quickly added a prepared mirepoix (onion, celery and carrot mix) to begin browning. Unlike previous classes, everything was prepped for us in advance so we could maximize our time. As the Chef explained, we had way too much to do, so they had done a most of the prep work. Several of the Napa Rose chefs were present, and they worked with 2-3 of us to help us along. Coaching me was Sous Chef Alex, who was simultaneously patient, entertaining, and generally funny. He really put us at ease, and made the whole experience a lot of fun.

Chef Alex coaches me on a technique for my brown sauce. Photo copyright Disney.

We added stock—and later red wine—to the pot. One major tip he provided was to use plenty of wine. Instead of the two to three ounces most home cooks would add, he had us add a third of a bottle, and then cook it au sec (nearly dry). Roasted veal bones and additional stock were added, and our sauces were nearly done.

How much wine is too much? Photo copyright Disney.

While the sauce was simmering down, we gathered around one of the chef’s tables to watch Chef Sutton's presentation on heirloom tomatoes, which we were using for a tomato salad that would serve as one of our courses. He also prepared blue cheese croutons. I must admit, I despise blue cheese. I’ve never liked it, and shudder at the thought of eating it. But, being a cooking class, I had to try the fresh croutons straight from the oven. I was blown away. Everything I hate about blue cheese was gone, and the flavor of the croutons was just amazing.

Bon, one member of Chef Sutton’s team, then demonstrated how to buy fresh fish and how to filet the snapper. The demo wasn’t to teach us how to do it ourselves, but what to watch for when you ask your fishmonger to prepare a fish for you. Once the demonstration was over, it was time to begin cooking our fish. The techniques we were shown for pan searing the fish we fantastic. I am always afraid of overcooking the fish, but I now have a lot more confidence in how to do it right. The accompanying sauce was a lot of fun to prepare, with a lot of flavors being slowly added to build a great taste. Chef Sutton came through repeatedly, tasting each of our sauces and giving recommendations on what adjustments needed to be made to the sauce to bring it to perfection.

Snapper Vera Cruz as prepared by me. Photo copyright Disney.

Once the fish was done, we quickly plated our own creations and moved to the table to enjoy. And enjoy we did. The fish was flaky and the sauce was a great compliment. Our server brought around two different wines for tasting, and quickly brought a bottle of sparkling water for me when I asked. While we enjoyed the fish, we talked more about the work so far, with Chef Sutton being great about answering questions and sharing his philosophy for Napa Rose. The fish was quickly followed with a serving of the tomato salad. I love heirloom tomatoes and this salad was a great representation of why they are so popular. The flavors were so sharp. And the croutons? I could eat them like popcorn.

Having finished the first two courses, it was back to the kitchen in time for another discussion, this time about beef and its preparation. Meanwhile, our brown sauce was still simmering, having been skimmed by the chefs while we were eating. We added assorted herbs to the sauce, and then it was time to begin cooking our steaks. The amount of smoke coming off the pan was significant—I really came to appreciate commercial vent hoods. Once the steak was seared, we strained our brown sauce into the skillet and added the fresh mushrooms. It was amazing how much the sauce tasted of the vegetables, and not of the red wine. When it came time to plate our steak, although we were told to just add a few spoonfuls as a garnish, most of us poured the sauce all over the steak—we didn’t want to miss a drop of it.

Chef Sutton coached us on techniques and taste. Photo copyright Disney.

After enjoying our steak, it was time for dessert preparation. The chocolate pâté has been Napa Rose’s signature dessert since it opened. You would not believe how simple it is to make. The pastry team showed us how they do it, including using a power paint sprayer to apply a chocolate coating to the top of the pâté. We each got to create a sugar-coated hazelnut as the top garnish.

At a steep $450, this event is by far the most expensive event at this year’s festival. Is it worth the cost? Yes. The opportunity to cook in what is arguably the top kitchen in Orange County was incredible. The staff was so friendly and so helpful. Their love for their profession is apparent. The food itself was fantastic, more so because we prepared it ourselves.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for improvement. The souvenir chef’s coat is a disappointment. The embroidery was a 5-minute job that could have been done anywhere, and just read "Napa Rose Cooking School." While I understand not providing a real chef’s coat with the full Napa Rose logo on the sleeve, they couldn’t come up with something nicer? Maybe a grape vine border?

Chef Sutton provided a lot of recommendations for sourcing product. I would have loved to have gotten a cheat sheet with that information, as it can be hard to make notes while working over the stove.  Also, when we made the steak, there were no sides to go with it. I generally like to have something on the side. There was no time to cook it ourselves, but it wouldn’t have been difficult for the chefs to have enough mashed potatoes or veggies prepared that could have been served family style at the table.

Despite these issues, the class is an amazing experience, and I would repeat it again in a heart beat.

Sweet Sunday

Sweet Sundays, which have been hugely popular at Epcot’s Food and Wine Festival for years, finally debuted in California. Last Sunday, we attended the session with Bret Thompson and David Baker of the Milk café and bakeshop in Los Angeles, appropriately themed to strawberries.

We arrived at the Golden Vine Winery to check in. Unlike previous weeks, tables were pre-assigned, and they could not seat our group together. Fortunately, we were able to swap with some other groups to get most of us together. But this is definitely an issue they need to figure out.

Breakfast was served in a buffet, with Mediterranean vegetable quiche, sausage, red potatoes, and pastries. Bottles of cranberry and orange juice were available as well. Servers came around and served glasses of "Fairy Tale Cuvée" sparkling wine (bottled by Iron Horse Vineyards in Sonoma, California) and "Magicale," a sweet rosé Piemonte wine. Those glasses were topped off throughout breakfast and the presentation.

I do want to share a criticism here. Being nondrinkers, we asked if something else was available, such as a sparkling water, sparkling apple cider, or a soda. We were informed—rather curtly—that we could not be accommodated; we could have table water if we wanted. Later, after host Jamie Gwen offered a toast, the same server came up with a champagne flute filled with ice water, and instructed that these would be more appropriate to use for future toasts. We politely declined, and looked at each other in shock. I’ve been snubbed before in restaurants for being a nondrinker, but I have never been made to feel this uncomfortable about it. There really needs to be some additional options offered for those of us who who abstain from drinking alcohol.

We had 20-30 minutes to enjoy breakfast and visit before Bret and Dave were introduced. We’ve been fans of Milk for a couple of years now, and having a chance to see Bret and Dave work was a dream come true. They held a steady banter as they prepared three dishes for us.

The first dish was a strawberry shortcake, one of my favorite desserts at their restaurant. They didn’t disappoint here. The crust was so simple, flaky, and delicious. The strawberries are in peak season right now, and the flavors were wonderful.

The second dish was a strawberry ice cream bar, coated in a white almond crumbles. The tasting presentation here was fun, using a bon-bon style, instead of the bars the chefs were making. I had never seen the silicone ice cream bar mold they were using before, and will probably be picking a set up.

The final item prepared was a ladybug-themed ice cream sandwich. Strawberry chocolate chip sorbet was sandwiched between two French macaroons. That was then dipped half in dark chocolate and half in white chocolate that had been dyed red.

Bret and Dave were great fun, answering questions and making suggestions. A great presentation with some great food. If the chef or theme interest you, the Sweet Sundays are a lot of fun.