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Food & Wine Festival
First Bites Opening Reception
First Bites Opening Reception
by Debra Martin Koma
Senior Editor, AllEars®
6:50 - 7:05 Culinary Demonstration
Chef's Showplace with John Sarich
Seared Alaskan King Salmon with Chanterlle Mushrooms
7:10 - 7:25 Beer Seminar
The Vineyard with Udo Schiedermair, Radeberger
7:15 - 7:30 p.m. Bottle Signing
Bob Surrency, Chateau Ste. Michelle
7:30 - 7:55 p.m. Cake Decorating Technique
Spotlight Stage with Mike McCarey
7:50 - 8:05 Culinary Demonstration
Chef's Showplace with Keegan Gerhard and Norman Love
8:00 - 8:20 p.m. Strolling La Nouba performers from Cirque du Soleil
8:10 - 8:25 p.m. Wine Seminar
The Vineyard with John Sarich and Bob Surrency
Chateau Ste. Michelle
8:45 - 9:00 p.m. Taylor Dayne Performance
Seasons of the Vine film running continuously
Festival Center Merchandise and Wines available for purchase at the Stockpot Shop and The Cellar
Tim Rogerson, Festival Poster Artist, painting in Tasteful Chapters
Lettuce Wraps with Roast Pork and Kimchi Slaw
Short Rib with
Steamed Rice and Cucumber Kimchi
Charcuterie & Cheese
Applewood Smoked Beef,
Singapore & Puerto Rico
Shrimp Cake with Singapore Noodle Salad
Asopao de Pollo (Chicken Soup with Rice)
and Scallop Fisherman's Pie
Steamed Mussels with Roasted Garlic Cream
South Africa & Australia
Seared Beef Tenderloin with Sweet Potato Purèe
and Mango Barbecue Sauce
Grilled Lamb Chop with Roasted Potato Salad
and Red Wine Reduction
Truffles Made to Order
Brownies by BAKED
Plus (not shown):
Twinings Tea Station
Coffee Station with Cordials
Premium Bars and Intermissions Cafe Open
Caposaldo Pinot Grigio
Benziger Family Sauvignon Blanc
Maison Louis Jadot Chardonnay
Maison Louis Jadot Beaujolais Villages
Wild Rock Pinot Noir
St. Francis RED
Abadia Retuerta Seleccion Especial
Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon
Fonseca Bin 27
St. Francis Chardonnay
St. Francis Old Vines Zinfandel
The inaugural "First Bites" Opening Reception, a premium event offering a sneak preview of everything that Epcot's annual Food and Wine Festival has to offer, was held from 6:30 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, September 30, at the Festival Welcome Center. Since I love the festival so much, I was eagerly anticipating this new event, and got to the festival center shortly after 6 p.m. that evening.
Plenty of people were in line already, being held outside by a few cast members who were checking names off a list, as they were allowing the festival center to empty out of regular Epcot day guests. Servers eventually appeared with trays of refreshing mango-flavored cocktails for us to sip as we waited to be allowed into the center.
At the stroke of 6:30 we were finally permitted to enter, and found the festival center -- well, I won't say transformed exactly, because it was still brightly lit and looked pretty much as it does during the day. But it was dressed up a bit, clearly in an effort to be resemble a smaller scale Party for the Senses, just without the ambience of that larger event. A four-piece band played near the entrance, and the delicious aromas of cooking wafted up to greet us. A number of food stations were scattered all around the walkways of the pavilion, staffed by busy chefs arranging and preparing their tables. Beverage stations were a little less conspicuous, located off to the sides of curtained-off areas. As we entered, we were handed a program that detailed both the menu items available and the schedule of events for the evening. Immediately after walking down the ramp into the pavilion, there was a food station, with servers passing out small plates of ribs, so I took one. Thus already juggling a drink, a plate, a program and my trusty camera, I embarked on trying to sample all the evening had to offer.
Fortunately, there were plenty of tables, both large and small, as well as tall cocktail tables. I had heard they were capping the event at 400 participants, but there seemed to be far fewer from what I observed. Not knowing what to expect from the night's programs, I quickly found a seat with some friends in The Vineyard area so that I could have a "home base" for my belongings while I foraged.
Since this evening was supposed to spotlight the various aspects of the Food and Wine Festival, the foods that were served were all items that can be found at the International Marketplaces surrounding World Showcase. The portions were slightly larger than what you might get at those food booths, but they definitely gave you a good idea of the selections available once you ventured out in the World. Knowing from past experience what the lines can be like at the food booths, I found this to be a good opportunity to try many tasty morsels without the long waits. In addition to the food stations, servers also occasionally appeared with trays of hors d'oeuvres.
After about 15 minutes of browsing around the food stations, and brief welcome remarks by Pam Smith, who emcees many of the festival's special events, and guest host pastry chef Keegan Gerhard, the evening's programs got under way. First on the agenda was a demonstration by John Sarich, culinary director of Chateau Ste. Michelle winery. Because this first demo was taking place over in the Chef's Showplace area, and I was noshing in the Vineyard, I could only hear what was going on, not see it. This was a shame, since there were television screens set up around the pavilion that I had assumed were to broadcast the various events as they occurred.
After the culinary demo wrapped up, Marianne Hunnel, one of the festival's planners, came over to the Vineyard where we were still seated and introduced Udo Schiedermair, of Radeberger Brewery. As servers came around with beer samples for us to taste, Schiedermair gave a short presentation on his company and their product. Before the beer tasting finished, Bob Surrency of Chateau Ste. Michelle conducted a bottle signing, which unfortunately I didn't get to, as I was still tasting beer.
At 7:30 on the Spotlight Stage in the front of the pavilion, well-known cake maker Mike McCarey, of Mike's Amazing Cakes, gave a brief presentation on cake decorating basics, which he illustrated with several whimsical Micky Mouse-themed cakes. Before McCarey wrapped things up, another culinary demonstration began at 7:50 over in the Chef's Showplace with Keegan Gerhard and confectioner Norman Love. While they were in the midst of making their pumpkin confections, performers from Cirque du Soleil's La Nouba began circulating around the pavilion, stopping to pose for photos, or pantomime interactions with delighted guests.
In between these activities, I managed to make the circuit around the pavilion several times, pausing to browse the festival merchandise and the wines for sale, as well as chatting with some of the chefs and presenters. Aside from the food booth items there were also a few unexpected extras. For example, I had to stop to admire the amazing array of gourmet chocolates and truffles from Norman Love Confections, each practically a miniature work of art. They were a treat for the eyes as much as the tastebuds -- and, oh, did they tickle the tastebuds, with flavor combos like pistachio-cherry, and peanut butter and jelly! Then there was one of my favorite discoveries of the evening -- the table featuring the amazing caramel-drizzled sweet and salty brownies by BAKED. On hand were BAKED's owners, Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito, as well as another familiar face that at first I couldn't place. Suddenly, it came to me. It was Eric Wolitzky, who is currently a contestant on the BRAVO network's "Top Chef - Just Desserts," a reality-show/competition for pastry chefs. Sitting inconspicuously nearby was Erika Davis, another contestant on the show. Of course, they couldn't tell me the outcome of the program, but, as I'm a fan of the show, it was fun to chat with them for a minute.
At 8:10, John Sarich took the stage again, this time in the Vineyard with Chateau Ste. Michelle's Bob Surrency, for a mini wine seminar. As they did for the beer tasting, servers circulated with trays of wine samples, while Surrency and Sarich bantered and gave background on their winery and wines in general.
Shortly before 8:45, Gerhard and Smith directed everyone to the Vineyard area and made some closing remarks, concluding with introducing singer Taylor Dayne, who would be kicking off the Food and Wine Festival's Eat to the Beat Concert Series the following evening. Dayne, who had a string of hits in the 1980s, was in fine voice and performed three tunes, the most popular of which, "Tell It to My Heart," had many of us on our feet, clapping and singing along. We were then encouraged to exit the pavilion, and were given complimentary gift bags as we left, which had a nice assortment of goodies: an etched Schott wine glass the festival's 15th anniversary logo, a chocolate dessert, a collection of Twining's specialty teas, some European chocolate, a bottle opener, and a Marketplace Passport.
At the end of big-ticket events like this, I always try to put myself in the shoes of an ordinary Disney vacationer and ask myself two questions: 1) "Did this experience deliver on what it promised?" and 2) "Did this experience represent good value for the money?" In this case, I can answer a heartfelt YES to the first question, but am a bit more ambivalent about the latter.
This First Bites Opening Reception was billed as "a sneak peek of the Festival before it is officially open to the public." The initial description promised, "An opening reception in the Festival Welcome Center featuring epicurean samplings from the International Marketplaces, Wine Seminars, Culinary Demonstrations, merchandise locations, celebrities and entertainment." Well, we definitely got all of that -- high quality, nicely presented food samples representative of the cuisine that's found around the World Showcase International Marketplaces; briefer versions of the modestly priced wine seminars and culinary demos that are offered throughout the festival; a chance to peruse the festival merchandise; fairly well-known celebrities from the world of cooking and baking; and high-caliber live entertainment in the form of La Nouba and Taylor Dayne. I had no complaints about the amount or the quality of the food and drink available. Both were unlimited -- in fact the chefs were still at their stations preparing plates at 9 p.m. as Taylor Dayne was performing. Another nice touch -- the personalities on hand were totally approachable. After the event had technically ended, I noted that both Keegan Gerhard and Taylor Dayne graciously posed for photos and chatted with guests for quite a while without a sign of rushing.
But was the event worth $195 plus tax? This is where I'm hesitant to give a definitive opinion. For some, the First Bites reception might well have been a worthwhile experience, especially if they had never attended the Food and Wine Festival before. We had access to unlimited food and wine, or other beverages of our choice. We had the chance to get a taste of what was going to be available at the International Marketplaces without waiting in lines. We also had the opportunity to talk at leisure with some of the chefs, and could get a little insight into what the demos are like. Everything was fairly well-organized, nicely presented, and I have to applaud the organizers for their attempt at trying something different.
Yet as much as I would like to give the First Bites reception my unequivocal endorsement, I'm afraid to say that, for me, it really wasn't worth $200, especially since two days later I wanted to attend another expensive event, the Party for the Senses (now up to $135 plus tax). I don't like to be negative, but if I'm objective I have to say that for that amount of money, I was hoping for something more special. For $200, I could have had a really nice meal at one of Disney's high-end restaurants, perhaps even Victoria and Albert's, where I would have been waited on hand and foot. When I'm juggling a glass and a plate (or maybe even two), I don't want to have to find a new seat every few minutes -- I want a space that is my own. I paid a premium for it. Because of the way presentations were staged and timed, there were some that I had to miss unless I wanted to repeatedly pick up my belongings and move to another area. Is it just me? I don't think so. In addition, the reception's brightly lit, echoing venue had zero atmosphere -- even dimming the lighting a bit would have helped. And, for such an exclusive event, the gift bag goodies were nice, but nothing really out of the ordinary. The wine glass is the same one that guests at the Party for the Senses will receive, the bottle opener was branded with Stella Artois not the Food and Wine Festival, the Passport was free to day guests, even the gift bag was not pre-printed, but just a plain white bag with a "First Bites" sticker. Those may sound like petty complaints to some, but this was meant to be an exclusive Disney event, so my expectations were higher than normal. I've since spoken to a number of other attendees who shared my sentiments.
Bottom line? The First Bites Opening Reception was well done but overpriced, yet possibly worth it if you're new to the Food and Wine Festival, or if you are not able to attend many of the festival events individually throughout its 45-day run.