The third iteration of the Ocala Food & Wine Festival presented by Lugano Diamonds came to a close this weekend after three days of extraordinary culinary celebration. But the festival is about more than just enjoying the best food and fine wine—it’s about giving back and inspiring the next generation of culinarians.
Before the official start of the festival weekend, all four celebrity chefs—Lorena Garcia, Timothy Hollingsworth, Rashad Jones and Yohann Le Bescond—each visited local middle and high schools in Marion County to share their stories with aspiring culinary students. Select students had an opportunity to put their skills to the test and cook alongside a celebrity chef during the Taste of Ocala event on Saturday.
The festival kicked off on Friday night under the stars on the Grand Plaza for the Barbecue, Bourbon & Blues event. Despite a bit of rain, it was a memorable start to the fest as attendees enjoyed a wide array of bourbon, whisky and rye, complemented by live-fire recipes from the celebrity chefs and Certified Angus Beef® barbecue. Chef Lorena Garcia, Timothy Hollingsworth, Rashad Jones and Yohann Le Bescond all hosted stations featuring signature dishes, including a cast-iron-skillet cookie from Chef Yohann and a whole roast hog from Pitmaster Rashad Jones. The Honey Hounds provided a funky soundtrack for the night.
On Saturday morning, the Taste of Ocala took center stage as the weekend’s main event. This year in Exposition Center 1, vendors served up everything from creamy smokehouse mac ‘n’ cheese to Modelo cocktails. Breakout rooms offered educational sessions focused on Chopin Vodka and Burgundian wine, while the Moët Hennessy Bubbly Lounge kept the Champagne flowing.
The main stage showcased captivating demonstrations by all the celebrity chefs, including Chef Lorena Garcia, Timothy Hollingsworth, Rashad Jones, and Yohann Le Bescond before the highly anticipated Mystery Basket Competition featuring local high school students from culinary programs in Marion County. Team Lorena Garcia and Team Rashad Jones went head-to-head, but ultimately it was Chef Lorena who secured a close victory with her team of ProStart students, impressing the judges and host Jim Cantore.
As the afternoon came to a close, a special five-course celebrity chef dinner awaited the weekend’s Five-Star Experience Package ticket holders. Before dinner, Lugano Diamonds hosted a gorgeous pre-dinner cocktail reception in the Lugano Diamonds salon and rose garden. After a little mingling, attendees headed to Stirrups Restaurant where each celebrity chef prepared and presented their dinner course, starting with Chef Lorena Garcia’s Papa a la Huancaína and finishing with Yohann Le Bescond’s Granny Smith Apple entremet.
Master Sommelier Roland Micu perfectly paired the full five-course menu with wines from Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery for a tasting experience that was truly unmatched. The most surprising of the night was arguably the duo of white wines paired with the first course, Pitmaster Rashad Jones’ smoked prime-grade brisket and street corn.
On Sunday, the final day of the festival dawned with the Champagne Jazz Brunch featuring Veuve Clicquot. With the sun shining and an astounding spread of brunch favorites including a Chopin Vodka build-your-own Bloody Mary bar, it was truly the perfect way to cap off a weekend to remember.
The festival owes its success to presenting sponsor Lugano Diamonds, as well as the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, the Public Education Foundation of Marion County, and many other sponsors, partners, vendors, staff, volunteers, and supporters who played pivotal roles in making the event possible. Cheers, until next year!
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