For one weekend, the best of the best in fine wining and delectable dining gather at the Minneapolis Convention Center for what could only be described as culinary heaven on Earth.

Minnesota Monthly’s 16th Annual Food and Wine Experience heads back to Minneapolis Saturday and Sunday for what sounds like the biggest and best event yet.

With more than 200 restaurants, winemakers and culinary companies gathering in one room, the Food and Wine Experience gives local taste buds the chance to swim in some of the most delicious flavors offered in the Twin Cities.

“It’s just an event to really be the one event that all foodies in the Twin Cities put on their calendars,” said Brianne Bauer, marketing manager. “It’s a great way for people to try all these foods from restaurants and sample all these wines before buying.”

And this year, Bauer said there’s even more new exhibits to please everyone’s palate. With a Sweet Spot room to satisfy all your sweet tooth cravings, guests can experience the perks of a sugar high after tasting the best of local bakeries and getting chockfull of chocolate.

This is also the place to check our very own version of the “Ace of Cakes” with the Czar of Cakes Challenge — a competition between the top six bakeries in the Twin Cities to see who can create the most ridiculous and delicious oven-baked goodness.

With more than $3,500 worth of prizes on the line, the Czar-hopefuls will have to stick to two rules: Go big or go home and incorporate a theme of food and wine.

“I talked to quite a few cake vendors and one is doing it all about wine, so he’s going to have wine glasses made out of frosting, tipped over on the cake and red frosting coming out of them. Another is doing pots and pans made out of cake with all these colorful, delicious veggies inside,” Bauer said. “So that should be some good eye candy.”

Hmm, wine made out of sugar and frosting? It’s like they combined my two favorite things in life. I’m starting to think this really must be heaven.

Once folks are fully high on sugar, they may want to step over to indulge their salty side with another new exhibit this year. The Barbecue Pit explores the magic of the open flame and the flavors that abound once these coals start burning.

“If it can be marinated, grilled, charred, rubbed, it will be in this area,” Bauer said.

Getting a bit too full? Take a little break and check out one of the returning favorites of the Food and Wine Experience. The Local Chef Challenge is what happens when Minnesota chefs are asked to try their hand as an Iron Chef. These chefs are put to the test in elimination heats — a la bracket-style — until only two chefs remain.

Competing chefs will prepare an appetizer of choice for the first round. If they are still standing, they move on to the semi-finals and create an entrée of their choice. If they’re culinary chops keep them alive, the two remaining chefs go head-to-head in a combo first course and entrée double whammy.

The winner and ultimate local chef will receive $5,000 in cash. Cha-ching, cha-ching.

Each round is judged by a distinguished panel of culinary experts and local foodies — including our very own Jason DeRusha, who claims to be the amateur of the local celeb judges.

“I judged the finals last year and it was pretty intense,” DeRusha said. “The quality of food coming out of the kitchens in town blew me away, and last year the winner was a bit of an upset — Jon Radle from Grand Café.”

DeRusha said the money is huge for these chefs, so they take the competition very seriously.

“The crowd had a great time watching the chefs work their magic and we talk to them as the cook, so it’s a pretty fun experience,” he said.

A few of the local chefs competing are leaving kitchens like Saffron Restaurant and Lounge, The Corner Table, La Belle Vie and Oceannaire Seafood Room. It’s quite the impressive list.

So heading into the competition, any favorites jumping out at this point, Jason? Hmm, good question.

“Looking at the lineup, it’s hard to pick a favorite,” DeRusha said. “These are truly 10 of the finest chefs in the Twin Cities. I love all their restaurants, so I’m really looking forward to watching them square off.”

The competition may be one of the biggest draws for local foodies, but if the battle of the broccoli isn’t your thing, fear not. There are plenty of things to do and see, including the very popular wine haven, The Reserve, where true winos get a private tasting of some of the best — and most expensive — vineyards across the country.

Plus, folks can find ways to stay green in the kitchen at the Fresh Taste Stage, sample dining truly on-the-go with Barrio’s taco truck, learn a thing or two about the food they’re sampling in a number of seminars and watch how to be a chef through demonstrations.

Bauer said word of the wise to Experience newbies — avoid coming in the middle of the day on Saturday, as that’s typically the busiest time, and definitely come hungry.

“You won’t need anything to eat for the rest of the day,” she said. “Come just willing to have your palate experience everything you’ve ever wanted it to.”

Bauer also encourages checking out the list of vendors beforehand to see which ones you’ll definitely want to hit — so you don’t get too full before you can get there.

Even the mere possibility that one could get too full of delicious dishes that would prohibit them from getting to the good stuff? Yup, this is definitely heaven.

Tickets for the Food and Wine Experience, and the “mini-experience” of Macy’s Gourmet Gathering on Thursday, are on sale now. Tickets are $65 in advance or $70 at the door. Click here for more information.


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