A Sexy Party: Elizabeth Meets Thomas Keller at NJ Food & Wine Festival at Crystal Springs

by Elizabeth Palmer Starnes

Decadence and indulgence ruled at this year’s fourth annual New Jersey Food & Wine Festival at the Crystal Springs Resort.

Held this past weekend at the Grand Cascades Lodge at Crystal Springs, the festival kicked off with a Dom Perignon reception with Chef Thomas Keller, who headlined the weekend’s events. You may recognize Keller as the owner of NYC restaurant Per Se, or as the star of the new American Express commercials, but he is also a founder of the Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation, a holder of multiple three Michelin Star restaurant ratings, and the author of numerous cookbooks, including The French Laundry, and Ad Hoc.

Chef Keller stood in good company, working alongside renowned and venerated chefs from all over the Tri-State area at the weekend’s events. I was lucky enough to attend the Grand Tasting on Saturday night, which as the signature event of the weekend included more food and wine than even the most ambitious foodie could consume. With more than twenty-five top chefs from NJ and NYC cooking alongside forerunning wineries and distilleries from around the world, it was hard to know which way to turn in the two full levels of tables. Francesco Palmieri, Zod Arifai, Elizabeth Starnes, and Nick Gashi Montclair was well represented at the Grand Tasting, with Ariane Duarte of CulinAriane, Zod Arifai of Blu, and Francesco Palmieri of The Orange Squirrel heading up their own tables. Duarte served up crispy skate wing fried up to order, while Arifai presented plates of house-made Bacala with yogurt, olives, and apricot. Palmieri stole the show and drew a crowd with his made to order veal cheese steaks on profiteroles, with an order card for people to select their own toppings and condiments.  

Wine, champagne, and music flowed freely in the grand ballroom, where the thirty-two piece David Aaron Orchestra serenaded diners and dancers alike. The silent auction, which drew bidders to the grand ballroom, benefited the James Beard Foundation and the Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation, both working towards inspiring culinary excellence and deepening our understanding of culinary culture. For those VIP ticket holders, the Grand Rotunda housed an impressive collection of tables, including Per Se, Maiailino, Restaurant Latour, and Lincoln, as well as spirits from Moet Hennessey USA. This was where I was lucky enough to catch Chef Keller on his way out, in his unassuming blank chef’s jacket, seemingly trying to blend into the crowd. Humble and gracious, he posed for a picture and signed the back of my Hot From The Kettle business card, minutes later taking off his chef’s jacket and heading back to the city.

Though certain I couldn’t’ consume another bit or sip of anything, I headed to the Biosphere for the Meet the Chefs & Winemakers After Party. The indoor glassed in pool had transformed into a fantastic and over the top masquerade party, with touches of Cirque de Soleil theatrics and Marie Antoinette’s Versailles excess.  A mermaid by the pool, exotic dancers on the ledges, and Marie Antoinette doppelgangers wandering around the party transformed the space, and masquerade masks provided at the door let the guests in on the theme. A whole tent stacked with decadent foods, with tables of rich cheeses, cakes, profiteroles, a whole leg of beef, salad topped with gold leaf, and a massive bucket of blue point oysters completed the indulgent event.

The whole evening was over the top amazing, and though I can’t imagine participating in an entire weekend of food and wine events, one hedonistic culinary night was perfect, and a great way to discover new local restaurants and new favorite wines to add to my list.