In the line at the ticket counter, the talk is of Brussels sprouts. Three people in front of me, a twenty-something with long black hair, large brown eyes and a French pedicure is talking to a fiftyish woman with leopard pumps and braces on her teeth.
“My brother-in-law said he didn’t like Brussels Sprouts,” she says, “then I fixed him some and he ate them like popcorn. The next time I made them I sliced the sprouts and sautéed them with some green apples and leeks and put them in a white sauce and served them with candied pecans sprinkled over the top.” On a lanyard around her neck, she has a tag that simply says “Talent.” I’m wondering, “Food or music?”
We are at Euphoria, Greenville’s annual moveable feast, where foodies and those who enjoy la dolce vita meet for a four day saturnalia featuring the best of the best from local restaurants, and Chefs from around the country. This year the theme is New Orleans and several of the chefs come from or have roots in what they fondly call NOLA. I have come for the Sunday Morning Jazz Brunch where Winthropgraduate and trumpeter Mark Rappand his combo Melting Pot will be sharing the stage with the trombone titan Wycliffe Gordon. Rapp played in NOLA for a few years before making a splash in the NYC jazz scene. The $45.00 ticket price not only allows you to enjoy the band, but you also get to sample as many and as much of the wide variety of foods at the event.
The threat of rain has moved everything into a huge tent across from the Westin Poinsett Hotel. Inside the tent, eateries are deployed like an army set to defend these two of acres of downtown hillside. Ten- inch skillets are as plentiful as rifles on a battlefield. Chaffers are arrayed like armored personnel carriers. Cooks swirl and spoon and chop with military precision.
It seems that every eating establishment worth its salt (so to speak) has turned out to show off their talent, even some of the places better known for their institution food. The Greenville HospitalSystem is a major sponsor, has a prominent space at the entrance. I stop by for some Pontchartrain Shrimp and Choctaw Hash. I look round to find my next target and spot the sign for The Lazy Goat, one of my favorite downtown bistros, and load up on Roasted Chicken and Andouille Jambalaya. On my way to the stage area where the band is warming up, I stop by Schwan’sfor some Pot Stickers and Beef Chimichuras. At the Sugar Studio, I load up on Cannolis and Death by Chocolate cake. I swipe a cup of Joe from the Coffee Undergroundbefore sitting down stage side. I take a bite of chimichura and immediately regret not grabbing a cold drink, as my mouth is set ablaze by the spicy meat. Luckily, a barrel of FIJI Waterstands by ready to assist.
Mark Rapp speaks in a slow, drawly Tom Waits-ish 2AM-at-the-dive voice as he opines that even though he is a trumpeter, if Wynton Marsaliswere playing at one place and Wycliffe Gordon at a spot down the street, he’d forgo the valves for the slide show in a heartbeat. They kick things off with the rather apropos Alligator Boogaloo from Sapp’s new album, the appropriately named Good Eats.
When Gordon takes the stage for his solo, I get goose bumps, and make a note to get out my old Cool Schoolvinyls when I get back to the pad. Rapp sets his trumpet aside and picks up his didgeridoofor Brother Soul, and I set aside my empty plate. Figuring that this is the only way I’ll be able to afford it, I head for the Ruth’s Chriskiosk and get a helping of Shrimp and Grits.
I hesitate to describe the food here, as I would surely run out of superlatives before I run out of dishes. I’ll just say it was all very well prepared and presented. It’s clear the participating chefs went all out to put their best spatula forward. My only regret is that I found the Grit’s and Grocerieskiosk after I was already full as a tick, as that is one place I have wanted to visit for a long time.
Euphoria is the brainchild of local rock and roll musician Edwin MCCainalong with Chef Carl Sobrocinski. Their vision was to make Greenville a culinary, wine and music destination as well as raising money for charity. Still in its infancy as far as festivals of this sort go, it has already attracted national attention, this year drawing Chefs, Vinophiles, and Restaurateurs from as far away as the Napa Valley, Toronto, Houston TX, Washington DC and of course NOLA, among other places.
Overstuffed, I move over to the cooking venue and watch two teams of Chefs duke it out in a head-to-head cook off. They are given a pantry of goods and a “mystery box.” Only when time starts will they see its contents revealed. They will have 60 minutes to prepare a meal to be judged by members of the audience.
The mystery box contains a buffalo Flat Iron steak, a box of gingersnaps and four bottles of Abita beer. Their final recipe must contain all of those ingredients, plus any others from the vast array of comestibles on the stage. The event is MC’d by David Gaus, who has just published an acclaimed cookbook and recently opened a NOLA style restaurant in Washington DC.
From the start, I see that the event is rigged. The men’s team consists of Drew Dzejak and Shun Li,who have been cooking together for years and now share the stove at the Grill Room in the famous Windsor Court hotel in New Orleans.
The girls have only just met. Hailey Bittermanis a corporate Executive Chef for the Ralph Brennan Group, which owns several of the more popular restaurants in NOLA. Heidi Trull left Elizabeth’sin NOLA for Belton, South Carolina a while back and now runs the popular Grits and Groceries Restaurant.
The competition is fierce with the cooks moving about the stage in what looks like a well-choreographed ballet, except with knives. The judges, picked more or less at random from the audience—Robert Weidmaier, who owns four restaurants around DC and was voted “Chef of the Year” last year for the Metropolitan DC area is thrown in as a wringer at the behest of the crowd. Word is, he and Gaus wowed ‘em last night at a dinner they presented at Nose Dive. The judges have a monumental task and spend so much time deliberating that Gaus has to practically order them to make a decision.
In the end, it came down to the deserts. The girls’ bananas foster edged out the boys’ bread pudding for the victory. Presumably, this is a blow to Li, who is the only world class Pastry Chef in the competition..
In addition to the jazz brunch, the four-day event included a variety of combinations of music, tastings and intimate dinners prepared by some of the premier chefs from around the country. Prices for the events ranged from $40 to $150. The penultimate event this year was a Sunday supper at High Cotton, another eatery whose menu is not for the faint of purse, complete with a whiskey tasting and music from a local bluegrass band. Good food, good whiskey and bluegrass: That’s the recipe for Euphoria, Southern style.