LOS OLIVOS, Calif. — Only in California would a bouillabaisse cook-off bring out jalapeno chiles, cilantro, salsa and Cajun spices.
This happened at the Brander Vineyard's first Santa Barbara Bouillabaisse Festival, held on the winery grounds at Los Olivos. Twenty area restaurants joined the competition, and most produced fish soups that would be unrecognizable on the Mediterranean coast of France, where bouillabaisse originated. But the 350 festival-goers liked them so well that the supply ran out long before the party ended.
The winner of the contest didn't even bother to use the name, bouillabaisse. It was Caldo de Mariscos from the Cafe Vallarta, a Mexican restaurant in Santa Barbara. This zesty mixture contained an extraordinary range of seasonings, among them cilantro, dill, anise seeds, basil, oregano and incendiary touches of cayenne, Cajun spices and black pepper.
Owner Justo Gracia brought the soup stock from the restaurant but improvised the seasonings on the spot. Working at a table decorated with hibiscus, Gracia ladled his creation into a bowl and sent it to the judges with three accompaniments. One was a tangy blend of lime juice, olive oil, cilantro and garlic that Gracia spiked with cayenne. Another was a chopped "salsa" of onion, dill and olive oil. And, finally, there were pink pickled onions, a relish that is typical of Yucatan, not France.
Gracia, who is from Monterrey, Mexico, loyally put Mexican shrimp into the caldo along with octopus, mussels, halibut and thresher shark.
Another tongue tingler, the Palace Cafe's Creole Bouillabaisse, took second place. This Santa Barbara restaurant specializes in Cajun, Creole and Caribbean food, and the mounted crocodile head that decorated its booth drew as much attention as chef Scot Gibson's soup.
C. Frederic Brander, the winery's proprietor and wine maker, had asked the competitors to highlight regional seafood. Gibson obliged by using Santa Barbara mussels and spot prawns, local sea bass and thresher shark, Pacific red snapper and ling cod. Spicy heat came from cayenne, black and white peppers and hot pepper sauce.
The Wine Cask of Santa Barbara startled judges by garnishing its entry with sopaipilla triangles. Furthermore, this bouillabaisse was prepared by a Swedish chef, Tom Hanson. Into the cross-cultural pot went poblano and jalapeno chiles, red and yellow sweet peppers, corn, tarragon, cilantro, basil, smoked garlic and a large assortment of seafood. The disparate ingredients went together so well that the Wine Cask won third place.
If any mood dominated the contest, it was Mexican. Bruno Cantieni of the Pacific Coast Cafe, a new restaurant in Solvang, called his entry Baja-baisse and flavored it with ancho and guajillo chiles. Whereas French bread is the customary companion to bouillabaisse, the ancho chile butter that Cantieni spread on the bread is not. Cantieni is neither French nor Mexican, but Swiss.
Larry Martin, chef-owner of the Bay Cafe in Santa Barbara, set out bowls of guacamole, tomato salsa and a mix of Mexican saffron and cilantro to go with his soup. Martin also provided tortillas. "It's good for summer," was the theory behind his Mexican approach.
John G. Phillips, a Santa Barbara caterer, produced a channel seafood stew that looked like the Mexican soup, cocido. Chunks of corncob bobbed about in the bowl as is mandatory for cocido but radical for bouillabaisse, and Phillips suggested salsa and tortillas as accompaniments. Representing Charlotte, a Santa Barbara cafe, bakery and wine shop, Phillips assessed the contest as "kind of a fun thing, not too serious."
What could have been the makings of a tasty salsa--green chiles, cilantro, tomatoes and red onions--went into the bouillabaisse prepared by Bob Pugh, executive chef of Andrias Harborside in Santa Barbara. "I just wanted to do something different," said Pugh, who arrived late and had only 10 minutes to put his entry together.
Mario Batali, dining room chef of La Marina in the Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel, Santa Barbara, displayed dried ancho chiles at his work space. Batali, however, was making a Moroccan version of bouillabaisse, which he seasoned with cardamom, cinnamon, turmeric and cumin. Batali cooked the chiles with onions, then combined this with fish stock, seafood and the spices. For topping, he made Tunisian-Moroccan "pesto," a blend of cilantro, parsley, lemon juice, almonds and pine nuts. He also scattered on mustard seeds and decorated the soup with purple chive flowers, orange zest and more cilantro.
Italy inspired other entries. The Philadelphia House produced what owner Paul Fichera termed a southern Italian style cioppino. Pietro Bernardi, chef-owner of Pane e Vino, served eel soup accompanied by white polenta. And Jennifer Maloney of Zelo finished off her bouillabaisse with pesto. Pane e Vino is in Montecito; the others are in Santa Barbara.