Harvest Fair Professional Food awards include both newcomers, tried and true

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The Sonoma County Harvest Fair Professional Food Competition has announced this year’s winners, with Oliver’s Market making a near sweep of the prestigious appetizers category, taking home Best of Show, the Sweepstakes award (for most points) and six of the nine “Best Use of” awards for incorporating specific ingredients.

The local market, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, also upheld its stellar track record in the Cakes & Pastries category, taking home one of the two big awards — Best of Show Decorated Cake for a Geode Wedding Cake — along with the Sweepstakes award for most points earned by their other medal-winning cakes, tarts and pies.

“Oliver’s is a longtime participant,” said Anne Vercelli, coordinator of the competition. “The wedding cake was stunningly beautiful … it had a lemon elderflower mousse cake and white marble fondant with amethyst crystal sugar gold leaf.”

Other winners in the appetizer category include stalwart participant Thai Time Asian Bistro of Santa Rosa, which won Best Use of Cheese for a Cream Cheese Wonton and Best Use of Poultry for a Chicken Satay; and newcomer Timberline at the River of Guerneville, which won Best Use of Vegetable/Fruit for a tasty tower of Eggplant Napoleon with Ricotta and Pesto.

“The Professional Food competition is a great opportunity for those who are up and coming,” said Heather Borck, exhibits coordinator. “Then some of our entrants are tried and true, like Oliver’s and Costeaux (bakery).”

The Best of Show appetizer — Oliver’s Slow-Roasted Pork with Pear & Fig Reduction and Balletto Vineyards Pinot Gris — won three awards all on its own: Best of Show, Best Use of Pork and Best Use of Sonoma County Wine.”

Every year, Oliver’s Executive Chef Mark Kowalkowski gets all of his chefs together from all four stores in Cotati, Santa Rosa and Windsor to talk about what kinds of local foods will be tasting great in early fall and what people may be looking for in terms of comfort and approachability.

“We have a wide variety of customers, so we’re not just going for high end or low end,” he said. “It’s got to be for everybody.”

The slow-roasted pork dish — served with a reduction of fresh pears and dried figs rehydrated in the pinot gris — fits that democratic bill perfectly, plus it offers deeply satisfying autumnal flavors.

“That slow-roasted pork tenderloin is so tasty,” he said. “We’re going to feature that in our deli with a Brussels sprout and cauliflower gratin. It’s going to be that hearty, fall/winter dish you’ll be able to serve through the winter.”

Oliver’s also won Best use of Beef for a Braised Beef & Chard Meat Pie, similar to an empanada or hand pie; Best Use of Seafood for a Local Dungeness Crab & Rock Shrimp Cake with Jalapeño Aioli, which previews the local crab season opening in November; Best Use of Lamb for the Turkish Lamb Meatballs with Labneh Sauce, aimed at avid lamb lovers; and Best Use of Sonoma County Products for a Fall Squash Turkey Chile, made with Willie Bird Peppered Turkey Bacon and a combination of butternut squash and pumpkin.

“The turkey bacon lightens it up a little bit, but it still has that smoky flavor, and the pepper gives it some heat,” he said. “That dish really stands up to our company mantra of ‘Local.’ ”

Here are the other big winners in this year’s competition:


There are two big awards for bread, and BurtoNZ Bakery took home both as well as the Sweepstakes award for most points earned. Last year, the Windsor bakery also took home the trifecta of special bread awards.

The Best of Show French Bread (sour or sweet) went to the bakery’s sour Ciabatta, and Best of Show Specialty bread went to its Sundried Tomato, Garlic, Herb and Cheese Bread.

“The judges were saying to put a little goat cheese on it, have a salad and you have a tasty meal,” Vercelli said.

Cakes and pastries

Oliver’s took home Best of Show Decorated Cake for a wedding cake shaped like a geode (rock lined with crystals.)

Cake decorator Amber Shell of the Oliver’s at Montecito was the creative talent behind the cake’s labor-intensive execution, from baking the cake in molds to painting the rock candy with an airbrush machine.

“You have to mold the cake in order to get the shape, then you carve the cake for where the rocks go, then finish with the fondant,” said Marghi Sullas, the baking coordinator for Oliver’s. “The lemon elderflower was inspired by the Royal Wedding.”

Sullas’ favorite entry, however, was a “Sonoma Strong” Fruit Basket cake, which was inspired by last October’s wildfires. It featured five tiers, with the Round Barn on the bottom and included photos of the fires and the firefighters taken by The Press Democrat photographers.

“Last year during the fires, I was working overnight at the Cotati store,” Sullas said. “One of the girls who helped us make the cake, her house burned down in Coffey Park, so it was very emotional for her.”

The other major cake award went to Costeaux of Healdburg for a classic Princess Cake, a white chiffon cake filled with Bavarian custard, whipped cream and raspberry preserves, all covered with marzipan.

“It’s very, very light, it looked beautiful, and the flavors were great,” Vercelli said. “The raspberry added brightness to it.”

Confections (Candy, cookie and individual desserts)

Nearly sweeping this year’s Confections category, Simply Strudels of Petaluma won Best of Show for Individual Dessert for a Vanilla Bean Cheese Strudel.

“It looked as good as it tasted and tasted as good as it looked,” Vercelli said.

Simply Strudels also won Best Use of Local Products for an Apple Cranberry Cheese Strudel, which was made with Sonoma County eggs and butter plus Gravenstein apples.

Best of Show Cookie went to Retrograde Coffee Roasters of Sebastopol for a Salted Chocolate Chip Cookie; and Best of Show Candy went to Bert’s Desserts of Petaluma for a Caramel Crunch Candy Bar.

The Sweepstakes award went to Dave’s Gourmet Ice Cream, which is made with liquid nitrogen and produced by Dave’s Neighborhood Market in Santa Rosa.


Along with winning best cookie, Retrograde Roasters also took home Best of Show Coffee for its Ethiopia-Sidamo Hambela Wamena, a single origin/single roast coffee.

“This is the first time Retrograde entered any of our competitions,” Vercelli said. “Now you can have the best coffee with the best cookie.”

Dairy Products

This category includes milk, yogurt, cream and butter as well as everyone’s favorite dessert — ice cream.

“We had more ice creams than we have ever had in dairy,” Vercelli said. “There was caramel latte, white chocolate raspberry, mandarin chip, banana chip and coconut.”

Despite the stiff competition, longtime organic pioneer Straus Family Creamery of Petaluma won Best of Show Dairy product for its Organic European-Style Lightly Salted Butter.

Charcuterie & Vinegar

This category is one of the largest, straddling everything from sausages and salami to granola, popcorn, sauces, salsas, pickles, preserves and spice blends.

“We had 20 spice blends entered — the most we have ever had,” Vercelli said. “And we had more pickled produces than ever — red beet slaw, golden beet slaw and kimchee. I think that’s really a reflection of what’s popular today in the culinary world.”

Best of Show Charcuterie went to Flugger’s Bacon of Santa Rosa for its Black Pepper Bacon. Best of Show pantry went to Emily’s Kitchen of Santa Rosa for its Worcestershire sauce. The sweepstakes award went to Golden State Pickle Works, which sell their preserved products at various farmers markets as well as specialty markets like Oliver’s.

Olive Oil

Olive oils are entered in different classes, from delicate to medium and robust flavors plus citrus and herb; and two divisions: Sonoma County grown and California grown.

Best of show went to the Dry Creek Olive Co. for its Miller’s Blend of Serillano, Manzanilla, Mission/Manzanilla Blend. It is a delicate blend grown in California.


The Professional Food judging took place in late August and early September with panels of judges drawn from the region’s highly regarded cheese, restaurant, wine and artisanal food world.

The top winners — Best of Show, “Best of” awards and Sweepstakes winners — will serve their products at the Harvest Awards Night reception at 4 p.m. Sept. 30 at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, where they also will be recognized. Tickets are $150.

During Harvest Fair Weekend Oct. 5-7, all the participants in the food competition will serve bites of their award-winning foods at the Harvest Fair Grand Tasting, where 100 wines will be poured alongside beer and cider. Tickets are $60 per day, $140 for three days of tasting. Harvest fair gate admission is $5, kids 12 and under free. For a complete list of winners, go to harvestfair.org/winners/food.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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