Buffalo Gap, Texas is the birth place to the annual Buffalo Gap Food and Wine Summit. This grandeur country event is held annually on Tom & Lisa Perini’s Ranch on the outskirts of Abilene. Tom, a chef in his own right appears on the cover of this month’s Texas Monthly. Buffalo Gap Food and Wine Summit has begun to gain both local and national notoriety, now on its 7th year. The assembly for this year kicked off with a five course VIP dinner by friend and acclaimed chef, Stephan Pyles. If that was not enough to converse about the next morning there were wine tastings and several cooking demonstrations by the world renowned Jacques & Claudine Pepin. The climax of the weekend showcased nibbles from Texas Chefs, wine pairings, and dancing under the bright stars.
While bearing around eighteen wheelers heading West on I-30 for Perini Ranch to meet Team Pyles for some good ol’ fashion cooking (from a transformed horse trailer) I hear an disturbing bulletin. “Please be cautious of active wild fires and strong winds”. Proceed by a list of small West Texas towns that were currently being evacuated outside of Abilene.” I wasn’t sure what to make of this sound bite that politely interrupted The Beatles music I was singing along to. I paid little thought and proceed to the Perini Ranch in Buffalo Gap. The announcement played back through my head when I drove up instantaneously noticed smoke coming from a hundred feet to my southwest. The tent set up for the event was bare, not a soul in sight.
The turbulent winds gusts blew an abundance of blood orange clay dust through the air and concealed everything in sight. The thought did cross my mind to evacuate; all I could smell was smoke. I heard two voices speaking in clear-cut Texas twang from behind a matured brown picket fence. The aromas of smoked meat passed by my nose and promptly stimulated my mind. I began to take gradual steps closer; noticing a mammoth commercial truck with cords of mesquite wood stacked high. My nerves calmed as I took mental note I wasn’t about to become Bob Denver trapped on a ranch in the middle of nowhere. I realize this was voice was the pit master from the Perini Ranch Steak House. He was preparing his outfit for the weekend festivities. A place I would have to revisit before departing.
The horse trailer was dense fit for all of Team Pyles. Collectively we pulled together a first class, five course meal for two hundred people. Chef Pyles led the weekend by showcasing dishes that were modern approaches to French classics honoring the distinguished guest, Jacques Pepin. The dessert was a meringue classic that especially caught my eye. Chef Pyles personally learned from Julia Child’s wing woman Simone “Simka” Beck. The preparation for the dessert had to be done in a reverse order because once completed the molds are inverted and then sliced.
The steps begin with making a fluffy meringue for the exterior of the mold, and then solidified in the freezer. Next toasted macadamia nut brittle is mixed with Italian meringue and crème anglaise. Once frozen the final layer (bottom) of meringue is applied and chilled until the mold can be inverted, creating the classic bomb shape. Team Pyles took this three part master piece and delivered it with avante-garde additions of macerated blackberries and macadamia nut candied glass. These additional elements both provided a visual appeal, additional layers of flavor, and most importantly textural mouth feel. The sweet simplicity of this dessert was just as mind blowing as the story behind it.
The food buzz was flying around the Perini Ranch after Friday night’s astonishing dinner. As if that were not enough to talk about the French culinary master, writer, and television personality took center stage for a cooking demonstration. The Pepin clan prepared straightforward French country style dishes out of his new cookbook Fast Food My Way. Jacques and Claudine kicked off their late morning cooking class by sabering a magnum of chilled Champagne; after a few glasses fizzled to stability they were ready to begin! Their presentation was entertaining as they played off each other much like Jacques and Julia. The dishes all carried the same theme of simplistic preparation, with audience engaging stories and jokes about each recipe.
The crowd of three hundred was sprinkled with chefs of all generations and genres of dining. No matter where each chef was from it was the same widespread gaze throughout the room. I heard someone I was with lean to another chef and simply say, “We are all so lucky to be here”. It wasn’t the most electrifying food demo for skilled culinarians, but it held much deeper emotional thoughts. We are all sitting together under a large tent with dirt below our clogs in the presence of a man who has acted as a mentor, innovator, teacher, and inspiration to all. Pepin’s story reaches back to the age of eight when standing on his brother’s shoulders just to pick fresh cherries to bottling wines with his father in the cellar of Hotel L’Amour.
The Summit broke for several hours as the scents of burning mesquite became stronger. The pits were back in full swing preparing for the evenings outdoor gala. I walked along the turmeric colored clay sands to find Tom Perini’s kitchen crew outside moving embers of glowing mesquite. There were three titanic sized steel barrels laid at forty five degree angle just enough to allow the oxygen to give life to the fire. The pit master meticulously removed the scorching hot embers and placed them into the smoker and outdoor grill. This was the true art of Texas smoking, no gas, no burn ready logs, simply a trip back in time. In the interim we were treated to a lunch showcasing Tom’s famous fried chicken and tasty homemade biscuits.
The night for the public was launched by off chef serving their dishes from perimeter lined tables. Each patron stood in line to accept small samplings of the various chefs’ dishes. Each chef was paired with a winery to compliment their food. The dishes that stuck out the most to me were Tim Byer’s (Smoke Restaurant) beef short ribs with country style grits. Stephan Pyles (Samar Restaurant and Stephan Pyles) wood grilled scallops with sous vide egg and brown butter foam, and Michael Thomson (Michael’s Restaurant) salt crusted halibut. Each dish was well thought out as layers of flavor were distinct and texturally pleasing.
The night continued under the bright Texas stars with mixed cocktails from Ambhar Tequila’s mixology team. Each cocktail had the perfect balance of tequila with modern day twists that one would expect. By night’s end there was a congregation of white jackets around their booth waiting for the next batch of cowboy margaritas with pickled okra! The rumors of the after party gradually faded, much like smell of mesquite.
After an ice cold shower and some morning stretches complete I headed to the Perini Ranch for their good-bye brunch. The spread was truly Texas with sautéed West Texas vegetables, beans, salad, smoked ham, fried chicken, gizzards, and the biscuits made yet another cameo. It did not take long for each person to finish their food; some brave souls skipped the cold shower and Advil for a bloody Mary. My table was filled of chefs, rubbing their bellies one at a time. Slowly each Saturday night survivor stood up for what appeared to be the seventh inning stretch! The thought of a drive home in any direction seemed so far. We were all looking for an excuse to just enjoy more of the Texas sunshine and scents of burning mesquite from the Perini’s smoker.
is a local chef, teacher, world traveler and food writer. The chef is nearing completion of his first book and is also contributor to craveDFW. Follow the chef on twitter: @beyondthekit