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Five years ago, Ivan Ruiz counted 22 empty storefronts—a record in his experience—as he walked through downtown Summit. Then inspiration struck. He decided to create a wine and food festival "to bring more people into town."
On September 20, 21 and 22, Ruiz will preside over the Fifth annual Summit Wine and Food Festival, now one of the top celebrations of its kind in the area.
At first, Ruiz drew most of the presenters from Manhattan, but the balance has shifted a little each year, and now 70 percent of the 38 participating chefs represent Garden State establishments.
"When I started," says Ruiz, 47, owner of Summit's The Wine List (a large wine, cheese, wine storage and services store and wine school), "I thought big names from New York City would bring more people to the festival. And indeed they did. But I was criticized for not having enough New Jersey chefs. Now we are mostly New Jersey oriented.
"I came to realize that we are a boutique festival and we need to create our own identity. When I started in 2009, there was only one other festival in New Jersey, in Atlantic City. Now there are more than 20."
What Ruiz leaves unsaid is that the New Jersey dining scene has grown bigger, more ambitious and more accomplished each year. It's no longer second tier.
As for the state of the downtown? "Today," Ruiz says, "there is not one empty storefront in Summit."
As ever, the festival will be held at the Grand Summit Hotel, though this year a second beautiful venue will be added.
Friday night’s opening gala—a sit-down VIP dinner ($299)—will feature courses created by Anthony Bucco of The Ryland Inn, James Laird of Serenade, Peter Turso of Ursino and David Drake of Alice's, as well as Jehangir Mehta of Manhattan’s Graffiti and Jason Kieffer, a holistic chef and wellness coach flying in from Park City, Utah.
Also at the hotel on Friday evening, a walk-around tasting ($150) will show off small-plate specials from 18 chefs, including Ryan DePersio of Fascino, Maricel Presilla of Cucharamama, Christopher Albrecht of Eno Terra, Scott Snyder of Boulevard572, Bill Zucosky of Strip House and Juan Placencia of Costanera.
The meat-and-mingle format has proven so popular that a second one will be held Saturday night with offerings from 16 different chefs, including Bucco of The Ryland, Chris Siversen of Maritime Parc and Mark Farro of Uproot. The Saturday walk-around will take place at the Twin Maples Estate, a grand, 1908 neoclassical mansion, also in Summit.
Both walk-arounds will include wines supplied by five different wine purveyors from New York, New Jersey and—just a bit west of the Delaware River—Minnesota.
Oenophiles will find the limited-seating, Saturday and Sunday seminars ($45 each) informative and useful. On Sunday morning, Jonathan White, head of Bobolink Dairy in Milford, and sommelier Neil Rodriguez of The Wine List will hold forth on the art of pairing cheese specifically with dessert wine.
New this year will be seminars on champagne, cult wines ("highly sought-after, high-quality wines from boutique wineries produced in very limited quantities," as Ruiz describes them), artisan and craft beers, pairing wines with spicier foods, and the wines of Piedmont, Bordeaux and Tuscany.
In the past, the very popular Sommelier Lunch ($90) was held on Saturday, forcing people to choose between seminars and the 3-course lunch, which includes the exciting Sommelier Showdown.
This year, the150-seat lunch will crown Sunday's events. The Showdown will challenge top sommeliers to demonstrate their skills, knowledge and palates before a panel of master judges.
Attendees will taste wines along with the judges.
"These competitions have become popular recently, but I have to say our festival pioneered this area," says Ruiz. "Basically, I took the sommelier evaluation, formatted it like a reality game show and merged it with a sit-down luncheon."
In this year's Sommelier Showdown, Jonathan Ross of Eleven Madison Park, Manhattan, will defend his 2012 title against two challengers, Charlie Berg of Blue Hill and Mia Van de Water of North End Grill, both in Manhattan.
About 2000 people are expected to attend the three-day festival.
Ruiz has an interesting background. He truly started at the bottom and worked his way up.
"I started my restaurant career at the Grand Summit Hotel in 1983 as a busboy," he says.
Ruiz eventually became the restaurant's manager. In 1989, he joined chef Dennis Foy as wine director and assistant manager, leaving in 1991 for The Ryland Inn, where he served as general manager and wine director under chef Craig Shelton until 1995.
For the next two years, Ruiz teamed with chef David Drake at the Stage House Inn. After working at wineries in France in the fall of 1997, Ruiz joined chef Terrance Brennan at Picholine in Manhattan.
"By then," Ruiz says, "I was famous in the restaurant business for my ability to take a business to the next level very quickly."
Ruiz later helped chef Douglas Rodriguez create Patria, his breakthrough Nuevo Latino restaurant in Manhattan. From 2001 to 2005, Ruiz ran his own wine importing company.
Then in 2005, he bought his Summit wine store from Grand Summit Hotel owner Marshall Weinerman.
"We've known each other for over 30 years now," Ruiz says of Weinerman, who still owns the hotel. "He is my business father figure."
Summit Wine and Food Festival
SUZANNE ZIMMER LOWERY is a food writer, pastry chef and culinary instructor at a number of New Jersey cooking schools. Find out more about her at suzannelowery.com.