2014 Taste of St. Croix raises funds, tempts palettes

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ST. CROIX - There was an explosion of culture Thursday night at Divi Carina Bay Resort & Casino as attendees at the 14th annual Taste of St. Croix were treated to an array of local dishes and live bands playing soca and reggae music.

The Taste of St. Croix was organized by Katherine Pugliese and Kelly Odum in 2000 as a small celebration of local restaurants and food, but has now grown to into a weeklong gala and fundraiser for the St. Croix Foundation that features a number of local restaurants, chefs and fresh ingredients.

Fifty restaurants and caterers lined up along the length of Divi Carina Bay Resort, wrapping around the pool and deck and offering everything from appetizers to deserts.

They tempted the attendees with dishes that were prepared with a focus on bringing out the best of what St. Croix has to offer.

When the gates opened at 6 p.m., an anxious crowd was waiting to be ushered inside. Each person was handed a glass and plate combo and an event map so they would easily be able to find where their favorite chef was located and partake of the shared sample portions of tasty dishes.

The foundation was started in the wake of Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and has taken on a number of community improvement projects and has made one of its main focus to promote culinary education for high school students and young adults.

This year the Taste of St. Croix celebrated Josef DeSimone, who visited St. Croix last year as a guest celebrity chef from Facebook and worked closely with the students at the Career and Technical Education Center.

DeSimone died last year in a biking accident and a memorial scholarship fund has been set up in his name.

Celebrity chefs such as Sam Choy, Tony Castellucci, Leah Cohen, Billy DeSimone, Gary Klinfelter and others were among the VIP judges for the event and also participated in a week of dinners, food and wine pairings, competitions and crawls and event demonstrations with students that will continue into the weekend.

Some of the night's favorites were creamy risotto; jerk shrimp on a sugarcane skewer; coconut curry chicken soup; mahi ceviche; red grout crumble; seafood and pumpkin chowder; ital; conch soup; white bean and pig tail soup; seafood sushi; and lamb burgers.

For fans of sweets, offerings included raspberry mousse; passion fruit cheesecake; spice cake; peanut butter cake; rum cake; bread pudding; flan; chocolate cake; cookies; smoothies; iced coffee; and spice cake.

Caryn Bonsche closed her eyes as she bit into a small bread pudding square.

"It is so good," she said. "I knew it would be good, but it is really, really good."

Bonsche said this was the first time she attended the event and it was much more than she expected.

"People said it would be a lot of food, but this is just amazing," she said before excusing herself and moving on to another table to try some gumbo.

Norma George of the Dominoe Club, was excited Thursday afternoon and she welcomed attendees to try baked ziti and her steamed breadfruit and cassava dumplings in coconut milk.

"This is our second year doing this and it is really a pleasure," she said.

George said in addition to having a good time seeing lots of her friends and sharing food, she gets to promote her business and help the foundation at the same time.

Chef Digby Stridiron had attendees' mouths watering as he explained the intricate details of his twists on traditional simple appetizers and desserts. Thursday he wowed the crowd with his red groat crumble and a mahi dish that was topped with crystallized basil and a coconut embryo.

"This is fun for me, just taking the local foods and kicking it up a notch, taking a twist on it and making it that much more enjoyable," he said.

The event is the centerpiece of the St. Croix Food and Wine Experience and is organized by the St. Croix Foundation. It has grown to be the biggest fundraiser for the organization and has continuously brought in large sums for other non-profit organizations and projects.

While the Taste of St. Croix is the event that started it all, the culinary carnival continues with the Fork and Cork and Sunset BBQ today; Kids Cooking and Wine and the Warehouse on Saturday.

The majority of the week's proceeds go to the St. Croix Foundation and support Sunset Jazz, Christiansted Jump Ups, the V.I. Culinary Team, the Career and Technical School culinary program and culinary industry training and many of the community enhancement projects on St. Croix and throughout the territory.

- Contact reporter Fiona Stokes at 714-9149 or email fstokes@dailynews.vi

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