Holiday Hosting Takeaways from the SDBWFF

At last year’s San Diego Bay Wine & Food Festival, I was introduced to the talented mixologist Steve McDonagh of the Hearty Boys. Besides being a charismatic riot, Steve can really mix a cocktail. However, this year, he was joined by his partner Dan Smith. Together they took over the stage during the Lexus Grand Tasting and again during Pizzapalooza. While Steve intoxicates you, Dan will feed you to ensure the party keeps on going. If you want to know more about their Chicago based catering business, I encourage you to check out their website. The duo were the first winners of The Food Network Star.

Let’s get back to the booze. Steve believes in balanced drinks and a balanced bar cart. Meaning at your holiday party this year, you don’t need to make sure you have every alcohol known to man available to your guests. Keep it classy and pick a couple solid cocktails that you’ve taken the time to practice making. My favorite cocktail takeaway from last year’s event: the Rustica:

steveRustica – The Hearty Boys

2 ounces of Woodford Reserve Bourbon or Old Forester Bourbon

3/4 ounce Amaro Averna

1/2 ounce Rosemary Syrup (recipe to follow)

1 Pear Half, canned, packed in syrup

Rosemary for garnish

In a sturdy glass or cocktail shaker, muddle pear with the rosemary syrup. Add bourbon, Averno, and ice–Shake well. Double strain into chilled coupe and serve garnished with fresh rosemary.

Rosemary Syrup

1 cup of white sugar

1 cup of water

6 sprigs of rosemary

Bring water and sugar to a boil and boil until sugar is dissolved. Add rosemary. Remove from heat, and let stand 30 minutes. Poor liquid through a wire-mesh strainer into a airtight container, discarding rosemary sprigs. Cover and chill for four hours.

Now that we are all cocktail-ready, I want to talk about cambozola. A hybrid cheese with the consistency of a triple cream brie bejeweled with blue-green gorgonzola. Perfect for beef, perfect for a cheese plate, perfect for a mushroom pizza that Dan whipped up for us during Pizzapalooza. Chef Tip: Freeze your cambozola or brie before using so that you can actually grate it! Why didn’t I think of that???


The trend lately for first courses is to stray away from the tossed salad and for Dan that means whip up a thin, crusty pizza topped sautéed mushrooms (a lot of sautéed mushrooms), gooey cambozola, and basil chiffonade or a nice healthy fresh pile of greens.

Another notable find at this year’s SDBWFF was lamb belly served up by The Barrel Room. Try not to think about the cute pudgy little fluff of an animal when you try this but I’d venture to say you will agree that lamb belly gives pork belly a run for its money. Use sparingly for a savory hors d’oeuvre.


If you are looking for something simple instead, find inspiration in Barleymash’s version of at-home comfort for a fall-themed hors d’oeuvre instead. Chef Kevin Templeton is another SDBWFF favorite of mine ever since he wow-ed me with his knockout burger aptly named “The Champ” at the Burger TKO several years back. But there’s nothing wrong with keeping it simple: a shot of fall squash soup with a wedge of grilled-six-cheese sandwich and your guests will be asking for a blanket to snuggle up with.


The San Diego Bay Wine & Food Festival returns next year so if you missed the opportunities to learn from foodie elite and support the scholarship of culinary and oenological talent, mark your calendars for next November! To see more, check out my gallery below: