Thursday, August 17, 2017     Volume: 18, Issue: 24

Santa Maria Sun / Eats

Battle of the Chefs at Dierberg Vineyard celebrates burgeoning food scene on Hwy. 246


When I was handed my judging card for the Battle of the Chefs at Dierberg Vineyard on Aug. 9, I gasped in slight horror.

My panic was because at the end of the evening I would have to choose a winner in a showdown between two of my favorite chefs. On the card that evening were Chef Brooke Stockwell, formerly of 1880 Saloon who's now a chef with K'Syrah, and Chef Augusto Caudillo of Scratch Kitchen.

Chef Brooke Stockwell of K’Syrah Catering offered a plating of duck with blueberry and goat cheese for her air-themed course at the Aug. 9 Battle of the Chefs in Lompoc.

Really, the competition was all in good fun and part of an overall effort to celebrate and promote the region's ever-growing food culture. Stockwell and Caudillo both donned silk prizefighter robes and triumphantly bounded through the crowd as they were introduced.

Surrounded by the Purisima Hills, layered with vineyard patches and twisting canyon roads, Dierberg is a pristinely isolated and sublimely picturesque winery. The tasting room opens out into the valley, drenched in a breezy sunless air. There's a quietness there that's only cut by the music and buzzy laughter from the main tasting room.

The organizers stressed that the judging should focus not just on how good the food was (and it was), but particularly on how well it paired with Dierberg's wines. For the first course, chefs had to prepare a sea-themed dish paired with Dierberg's 2013 chardonnay, made from grapes grown at the vineyard. This was a really nice chardonnay (I had just finished a glass of their sauvignon blanc as well) and it was made to pair with a fresh, acidic bite of seafood.

Caudillo served a scallop en croute (which means a food wrapped in pastry). The pastry was a little heavy for me, but the filling inside was really unique, with a nice heat on the finish.

Chef Brooke Stockwell (center) went toe-to-toe with Chef Augusto Caudillo, as the pair served up three courses at the Aug. 9 Battle of the Chefs in Lompoc. Chefs were tasked with making the best pairings with Dierberg Vineyard’s wines.

Stockwell countered with a dish of scallop, corn, zucchini, and basil. Stockwell once told me she loves to make things like squash or zucchini noodles, and she pulled it off perfectly in this dish.

The second course was air-themed and both chefs went for duck. But these duck dishes (paired with a 2014 pinot noir from Drum Canyon) were entirely different and represent a good example of each chef's approach to food.

Caudillo's dish included a fatty portion of roasted duck on top of pâté and toast, finished with a cherry gastrique (adding a sweet component to duck helps take some of the gamey taste out of the protein).

The duck on Stockwell's side was stunning to look at; a painterly take featuring a vibrant blueberry pop. Plus, she added a big bite of a goat cheese ball which I now believe should be served with every single meal.

As I mingled through the crowds, it was clear I wasn't the only one having a tough time picking a winner. Some thought Caudillo had the edge in pairing the wine with food while others thought Stockwell's dishes were the winner.

Chef Augusto Caudillo of Scratch Kitchen won the competition for his three courses of scallops, duck, and beef tenderloin.

To me it came down to the final bite, a land-themed dish. Caudillo offered a cold-smoked and pepper-crusted tenderloin which paired extremely well with the 2013 cabernet franc from Happy Canyon.

From the first bite of Stockwell's lamb, I was in love. She put a delicate Mexican twist on the dish by serving it on a sope and topping it off with Cotija cheese. I use Cotija cheese all the time in many things I cook or snack on; I think it's a better finishing cheese than a lot of people might think.

I make no secret of my sincere love and appreciation for the food Stockwell is making. She's inventive, bold, and deeply respectful of the product. Every bite I had on her side reflected that. But Caudillo is also fiercely inventive, making it a difficult choice. I chose Stockwell, but only because the lamb put her over the top for me. In the end, it was Caudillo who edged out Stockwell for the prize.

But it's not really about who wins or loses, because when you're eating the food of great chefs and drinking wine, everyone is pretty much a winner.

Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose's prizefighter name would be Rabble Rousing Rosy. Contact her at

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at Cafe Dolce in Solvang.

• This week's Rebeccamendations is dedicated to a very special visitor to Solvang. On Aug. 9, none other than former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Terminator/Governator himself, stopped in town for a coffee and ice cream at Cafe Dolce. I asked owner Wissam Hamad about the experience and he told me Schwarzenegger had looked up the best place to get a coffee in Solvang and found his cafe. So I guess this week, I'm bringing you a "Schwarzeneggermendation." Grab a coffee and a cone at Cafe Dolce at 475 1st St., Solvang. Because who knows? Maybe he'll ... be back.

Weekly Poll
What's the best thing about the Santa Maria Valley?

The Pacific Conservatory Theatre (PCPA).
The wineries.

Vote! | Poll Results