Food and wine fest showcases Santa Barbara as a growing foodie hot spot

Everyone knows that Julia Child made French cuisine approachable to many American home cooks through her television series and books.  But you may not know that the iconic chef with the high-pitched voice, spent a good chunk of her last years of her life in Southern California-- Santa Barbara in particular.

Child, who was born in Pasadena in 1913, died in 2004 at the age of 91. Aging and unable to cook, she spent much of her time visiting Santa Barbara restaurants and helping to promote local growers, reaping the fruits of the area’s ideal Mediterranean-like climate.

Todd Schulkin, executive director of the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts, says that she helped put the area on the culinary map.

“There was an active food and wine scene,” he said. “She spent a lot of time going out being a part of the community.  Almost everywhere you go you meet people who have a Julia story.”

It’s in this spirit that the Santa Barbara Food and Wine Weekend was conceived.  Its inaugural event kicked off one recent weekend in early June at the Bacara Resort & Spa, a tony property nestled in the craggy cliffs on the California coast.

The event, which included cooking demonstrations, tasting events and panels, aimed to further Julia Child’s lifelong passion for learning and eating well.  Part of the proceeds from the weekend went to the Julia Child Foundation.

About 700 people showed up over three days from June 6 to 8 to eat sea urchin, sample artisanal chocolate and barbeque, and sip wine from local vineyards.  Compared to other California food events, such as the Pebble Beach Food & Wine or SAVOR the Central Coast, it wasn’t a huge event, nor were there any big-name celebrity chefs.  But its intimacy meant that guests could freely mingle with the panelists and other attendants.

Over the past 15 years, the Santa Barbara's Wine Country, made famous in the Oscar-winning film “Sideways,” has seen explosive growth and now boasts of more than 175 vineyards. Also making it one of the nation’s top up-and-coming culinary destinations is downtown Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone, a former industrial precinct turned food hub featuring art shops, hip eateries,  tasting rooms and award-winning microbreweries, as well as local farms that grow vegetables, exotic fruits,  flowers and coffee from the U.S. mainland’s first plantation coffee plantation.

Organizers of Santa Barbara Food and Wine Weekend hope to tap the area’s growing foodie scene for next year and expand its offerings, perhaps by bringing in bigger names or by increasing ticket sales.  The event raised $7500 and Schulkin says it’s a good start.

“It was always to celebrate the bounty of region” he says.  “It was a pilot, let’s see how it goes.”