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Saturday, Jan 12 2013 10:00 PM

ROBERT PRICE: Our great restaurants would be nuts to miss this

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    Robert Price

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A telling convergence of seemingly inconsequential Bakersfield food news has taken place over the past few days. Yes, food news.

On Jan. 8, in his weekly live Web chat with readers, "It's Lunchtime With Jonathan Gold!," the Los Angeles Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic fielded this question:

"Are there any (dining) places around one to three hours outside of L.A.," asked reader Hal, "that you think are worth the drive (for that one purpose) alone? Kind of food pilgrimages?"

"Bakersfield of course," Gold responded. "Noriega (Hotel) for dinner, Luigi's for lunch and Dewar's for sundaes and peanut chews."

Well, thanks, Mr. Gold, we couldn't agree more. Ah, but as the L.A. Times giveth, so too does the L.A. Times taketh away.

Times columnist Meghan Daum, in a Jan. 4 condemnation of the practice of bragging on Facebook about where one is vacationing or otherwise luxuriating in exotic fare, declared, in closing: "I hereby resolve to stop (this Facebook bragging). So can anyone recommend a decent Olive Garden in Bakersfield? See, you feel better already."

Yes, I know, my colleague Herb Benham has already beaten me to it here, taking Daum to task over her phone-it-in punch line. I'm not piling on here; I simply want to point out that fully 99 percent of Daum's readers probably got the joke. And why did they get it? Because Bakersfield has a reputation, substantially deserved, as a cultural backwater. Any town without a real symphony hall or a Whole Foods simply does not revolve around the same sun.

Jonathan Gold knows better, of course -- he has probably enjoyed more Bakersfield Basque cuisine than I have. Now, if only his twain could somehow meet Daum's twain and the twains of so many others who share her dismissive views of this fair city.

Which brings us to the third rail of today's little food story: The glorious opportunity that Bakersfield-area restaurants will soon have to promote the genius of their respective kitchens to the doubting wider world.

And so far they're missing that opportunity.

Thursday's Californian included an article about the upcoming Kern County Nut Festival and, specifically, the approaching deadline for restaurants, caterers and food sellers to get on board. Here's the real story: Very few restaurants have signed up, and the deadline is Feb. 28. Maybe this is just another example of Bakersfield's wait-till-the-last-minute approach to things. Or maybe what we have here is a failure to communicate.

So let's try again: The Kern County Nut Festival, set for June 15-16, is not a farmers market. It's not the Festival of Beers. It is not a Junior League fundraiser. (Nothing personal, Junior League, et al.)

It's a highly ambitious "foodie" event that organizers hope will achieve a level of notoriety comparable to that of the Gilroy Garlic Festival, an event that has transformed the economy of that small Northern California city and over the years raised $9.7 million for local nonprofits. Events like the Nut Festival are the reason the Food Network exists. And the Nut Festival is already a success in many ways. Sponsorships for the inaugural event are flooding in. Influential people and organizations have given it their blessing -- and their money. It will, without question, come off this June.

But the most important ingredient is still missing thus far: Food. Top-notch, five-star food, that is. Few quality Bakersfield restaurants -- and, yes, as Gold has made clear, we have an abundance -- have signed on to participate. No Luigi's, no Wool Growers, no Noriega Hotel. No Uricchio's, Cafe Med, Chef's Choice, Padre Hotel, Valentien, Frugatti's or The Mark. And, somehow, no Dewar's.

I asked Beth Pandol, who along with Sheryl Barbich is doing much of the heavy lifting, why this vital aspect of the Nut Festival is trailing so far behind every other component, and what noncommittal restaurateurs might still need to know.

Some of her thoughts:

* Restaurants and caterers have been slow to sign up because they are unsure of the numbers. Relax: Organizers have raised more than $150,000 in sponsorships -- and all those sponsors have tickets. So the festival has a base of 1,000 hungry people coming already. General public ticket sales will be starting soon.

* The Kern County Museum, nominal sponsor and host of the Nut Festival, is ready to help food sellers comply with health regulations -- and they're not asking restaurateurs to give away the goods like they're often required to do at other festivals. They want restaurateurs to sell their food and actually make money, and to that end have attempted to brand the festival as a higher-level event. This won't be the sort of crowd that shows up expecting free stuff.

* One of the event's main purposes is to help local nonprofits make money. Charitable and public-service groups can fortify their bank accounts by selling food in partnership with restaurants. Or they can set up "nutty" activities to raise funds. Use your imagination, folks, but keep it clean. And don't dare invoke the name of that other agricultural commodity, the peanut. That's a legume and we don't grow them here. No infidel nuts allowed: Just almonds, pistachios, walnuts and maybe pecans. Tree nuts.

* Organizers are expecting 6,000 or more people to attend the festival this first year. Getting in on the ground floor will matter in the years ahead.

Jonathan Gold will surely be invited -- and here's hoping he has more to choose from than just kettle corn and Lengthwise Brewery's special commemorative almond lager. Meghan Daum ought to come, too. I understand Olive Garden is on the short list of targeted exhibitors.

Email Editorial Page Editor Robert Price at rprice@bakersfield.com.

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