BY LUCIA CHUNG
If you read my preview of the 16th Annual Ghirardelli Square Chocolate Festival, you probably noticed that I was pretty excited by the prospect of sampling chocolate goodies for five hours straight. I was there on Saturday, and I got to attend the VIP Sweet Sixteen Affair (thanks to complimentary passes) and watch one of the cooking demonstrations. While my expectations were probably somewhat high, I still don’t believe that the festival lived up to everything that the Ghirardelli name implies. That my tickets were complimentary (which I do appreciate) actually only makes me feel worse that I feel compelled to write this lackluster, though honest, review about an event with such a good cause.
The Ghirardelli Square Crowd. Photo by Lucia Chung.
When I walked into the VIP area, which was located next to the mermaid fountain, there weren’t that many guests there. On the first floor, there was a photo booth, three VIP-only vendors (Annie the Baker, Marshmallow Mischief and Truffle Gateau) and some corporate promoters. In a side room, there was a bar with some nice views of the bay. Overall, there was quite a bit of empty space in the main room, with vendors behind tables full of samples. There were thankfully no lines for any of the samples, but at the same time, I felt a little bad since not many people got to try them. On the second floor, Ian Ross did his live painting demonstration on one side of the room, while Gabriel Navia performed brilliantly on his acoustic guitar on the opposite side of the room. One vendor, M.A.D. Tarts, was placed oddly in a somewhat separate room on the second floor, though you could get a glimpse of the M.A.D Tart sign from an open doorway.
Brilliant music by Gabriel Navia. Empty room. Photo by Lucia Chung.
Unfortunately, our experience with the wine tasting in the bar area and one of the VIP vendors was a bit disconcerting, and actually set the tone for the rest of the day. Though my friend and I could see people walking around with full glasses of wine/beer, when we asked for a wine sample, we received a scanty sip, which came off as odd compared to what everyone else received, and rather stingy for a benefit event where the value of a VIP ticket is 50 dollars. The girl behind the counter kept pushing the fact that we could buy the bottles of wine elsewhere (with a discount, whoopee). One of the VIP vendors panicked when my friend picked up a box of packaged goods (she wanted to see what it was since the vendor was occupied with other guests) and actually moved to snatch the box out of her hands, emphasizing that each box would cost 15 dollars. It was actually quite apparent that those boxes were for sale and not free, since the samples were set on silver trays next to the merchandise. Frankly, I’m sad to say that these two instances made me feel like this event was highly self-promoting and corporate, as opposed to festive and gregarious (this event is for the sake of Project Open Hand, after all). On a brighter note, the other vendors were quite friendly, and I did enjoy M.A.D. Tarts’ homemade peanut butter pastry. M.A.D. (Make a Difference) Tarts actually buys the peanut butter used in its treats through Project Open Hand, thereby benefiting the cause. Because of that and its friendly founder, I felt M.A.D. Tarts was the vendor that was the most in line with the spirit of the festival.
At any rate, I tried to shake off the odd vibes of the VIP area, and headed out for the main event. However, what I experienced outside didn’t lift my hopes much. For an event that’s been around for 16 years, the set-up was a bit haphazard. There were 27 vendors on the program, but the square was so crowded that it was difficult to find the vendors I wanted to try. There was also some confusion as to which booths were actually present. I thought Be A Gourmet was a no-show, since they weren’t listed on the brochure, although I later found them on Beach Street. Kara’s cupcakes, on the other hand, was listed in the brochure, but was nowhere to be found. We went to the cupcake shop and asked where the booth was, only to find out that they were only participating in the festival on Sunday.
We bumped our way through the crowds, trying to get an idea of the layout. Since it was nearing 1:45pm, we decided to watch Stephen Sullivan of The Fairmont San Francisco make a Cherry Luxardo Ghirardelli Chocolate Truffle on the Cadillac Culinary Stage. The truffle lollipop was probably the best thing I ate that day – the bittersweet chocolate shell had a crisp, satisfying snap to it, and encased a sweet, white chocolate cherry filling.
My half-eaten chocolate lollipop with gooey truffle filling slipping out. That’s a hint of Italian Maraschino cherry peeking out. Photo by Lucia Chung.
My other favorites of the day were the balsamic vinegar from Be A Gourmet (free samples), the creamy cheesecake from Reuschelle’s Cheesecakes, and the raw milk from the Organic Pastures Dairy Company (free samples). The raw milk was the biggest surprise, since I generally dislike milk and say I’m lactose-intolerant to avoid drinking it (I have no problem with milkshakes and ice cream, however). This milk was refreshing though, which is not how I would usually describe anything dairy. We ended up leaving the event around 4:15 because we didn’t feel like crowding into a line for a sample of indeterminate size/quality. By that time, we had tried around 10 samples each – 14 if you include the ones from the VIP area.
With the exception of the cherry truffle, the chocolate samples, even the ones in the off-limits VIP area, didn’t hit me with the chocolate POW that I was hoping for. I was expecting innovative, decadent desserts that celebrate chocolate, and what I got instead was a disorganized event that depended on the charm of Ghirardelli Square to create the ambiance, instead of the food that was being served. The stingy, corporate vibe I got from the VIP area didn’t subside much – Cadillac, one of the main sponsors, was the most prominent presence after the square itself, and many of the samples were very small. Seeing the vendors cross off a sample on my ticket was actually quite demoralizing. I would think, “That’s it? Costco gives bigger samples.” That the proceeds were going to Project Open Hand probably quashed most complaints – how can you say something bad about an event where the proceeds go towards providing food for those who are homebound due to a critical illness? At the end of the day, what bothered me the most about this event (besides the VIP experience) might actually be the fact that it was named the “Ghirardelli Square Chocolate Festival.” “Ghirardelli” implies quality, and for me at least, evokes the image of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Judging from what I experienced, a more appropriate name would have been the “Project Open Hand Food Benefit at Ghirardelli Square (sponsored by Cadillac).” With a name like the one I’ve proposed, what they advertise would actually be exactly what you would get.
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