Whidbey’s reputation as a culinary destination gets the ultimate scrutiny next week as dozens of travel, food and wine writers descend for a three-day conference.
Journalists arriving for the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association conference are coming from as far away as India, Australia and New Zealand, said Sherrye Wyatt, executive director of Whidbey and Camano Islands Tourism.
Whidbey’s been wooing the association for years to wine, dine, explore and tour the island. Cities or cruise ships are the usual choice for the organization; it’s never ventured so far off the beaten path.
“This is a real different experience for them to be in a place that’s so authentic and rustic,” said Wyatt. “Whidbey Island doesn’t have to do much to be amazing. That’s how we won — we have a completely different approach.”
The Port of Seattle and Visit Seattle tourist organization assisted Whidbey’s efforts and pitched in a $10,000 grant to help underwrite the event, Wyatt said.
Allen Cox, editor of Northwest Travel and Life who’s overseeing the conference, knows Whidbey well.
“I see as a destination on the way to global discovery,” he said. “ I think we can help push it in that direction.”
Whidbey’s chefs, restaurants, caterers, farmers, wineries, distillers, dessert specialists, cheese makers, coffee roasters, breweries, shellfish harvesters, even a mobile barbecue company, are all on the menu of activities lined-up for the guests Sunday through Tuesday.
The bountiful vegetables, herbs, meat, cheese and other produce grown on Whidbey will be emphasized. The island’s arts community, outdoor activities, scenic beaches, farms and trails and historic towns will also be touted.
“We’re excited to showcase Whidbey,” said Jess Dowdell, who cooks and owns Roaming Radish with her husband, J.P. Dowdell.`
They’ll be serving the writers group Tuesday evening. Some items on its planned menu: pickled beet and sesame carrot bruschetta with local Glendale Shepherd’s cheese, slow roasted maple crusted Snake River Farm Kurobuta pork belly, creamy garlic polenta, fried brussels with balsamic tar and sea salt.
And for dessert: strawberry rhubarb pastry pie cups with Whidbey Island distillery loganberry liquor whip.
A lot is riding on this group of writers, Wyatt admits.
“The influence they have and the potential for exposure is enormous,” she said.
But it doesn’t seem to scare Whidbey’s kitchen wizards.
“We’re only serving 35 that night,” said J.P. Dowdell. “We can do up to 250 at weddings. We have a phenomenal team. We have nothing to worry about.”
Besides, they just catered lunch on Monday for 130 Amazon employees who came over from Seattle.
Scott and Stephanie Pendell, owners of Island Nosh in Clinton and Midnight Kitchen Catering, are providing Tuesday’s lunch.
“Stephanie and I have been in business for 20 years,” Scott Pendell said. “Serving 30 people at a time is no big deal.”
Officials in Coupeville and Langley, where the group will be dropped off to freely roam, also expressed no trepidation.
Currently on weekends, about 400 passengers from whale-watching excursions visit Langley.
“They are free to roam and gather fodder for their stories,” said Inge Morascini, executive director with the Langley Chamber of Commerce. “In a town full of characters, the stories just write themselves.”
Journalists pay for their own lodging and conference fees but will be treated to a variety of catered lunches and elaborate multi-course dinners at several restaurants. Meals are paired with different local wineries so all of Whidbey’s vineyards and tasting rooms are represented.
Most are staying at Oak Harbor’s Coachman Inn. Camp Casey Conference Center is hosting the organization’s conference that is a series of panel discussions and workshops.
Whidbey residents also comprise many of the panels. Vincent Nattress of Orchard Kitchen, Tyler Hansen of The Oystercatcher, Georgie Smith of Willowwood Farm and Jessica Hart of 3 Sisters Farm will talk about Whidbey’s “hyperlocal farm-to-table dining at the highest level” on the culinary panel.
Bev Heising of Whidbey Island Distillery is part of the craft beverage panel and Lisa Bernhardt with Pacific Northwest Art School, Krista Loercher of Whidbey Island Kayaking Co. and Wil Shellenberger with the PBY Naval Air Museum comprise the tourism panel.
To pull off all the food, drink, transportation, tourism and entertainment logistics, Wyatt pulled in some 60 partners.
All aspects of Whidbey Island are being presented to the writers, who are a mix of national and international magazine and newspaper contributors, photographers and bloggers.
Top officers from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island and several city and county officials are among guests invited to Sunday evening’s opening reception at the Oak Harbor Yacht Club.
Even though the preparations may seem elaborate, it’s pretty standard stuff.
“We’re not doing anything out of the ordinary,” Wyatt insisted. “All Whidbey has to be is herself and people fall in love.”