By Mona Day, Observer Newspaper -- When you think of Utah, what immediately comes to mind is its national parks and spectacular natural beauty; what does not come to mind is food and drink. Utah tourism sees that as a problem, one worth attacking head on. Towards that goal, Visit Utah and Visit Salt Lake recently took over Crafted Kitchen in the Arts District of Los Angeles for an afternoon of education in Utah’s current culinary scene. Dubbed the ‘inaugural class of Utah U’, they flew in some Salt Lake culinary ambassadors – top chefs and mixologists from the state’s urban corridor – to serve as instructors for some one-on-one lessons on the region’s offerings. The classroom setting was complete with backpacks, cards, and notebooks with pens to make sure you would not forget.

Possibly the organizers’ biggest headache is the pervasive notion that Utah is a dry state and you won’t be able to get a drink. That notion, they pointed out, is completely unfounded. Not only can you order full-strength beer pretty much everywhere, but the local mixology scene is hot, and on the national radar. Case in point are Scott Gardner, Matt Pfohl and Sean Neves, the three owners of Water Witch, which has been noted as one of the best 19 undiscovered bars in the country. The celebrated mixologists kicked off the afternoon with two of their most popular offerings, both based on American malt whiskey. One drink added pineapple, lime, chile, and fermented honey, while the other blended it with Oloroso sherry, toasted buckwheat, ginger, and aromatic bitters. Both were thoroughly refreshing in the warm downtown afternoon.

Next the question was posed what makes food in Salt Lake so different? The answer lies in the state’s history: Utahns are farmers. As such, farm to table is hardly just the latest fad in Utah; what has just recently been added is today’s eclectic range and sophistication. The afternoon’s chef instructors and their menu choices certainly made the point.

Briar Handly, founder of and executive chef at two of the best restaurants in Utah, Handle and HSL, has been nationally recognized for his passion for combining sophisticated, challenging creations that use local ingredients in comforting and subtle ways. His offer- ing, Garlic Scape Chawanmushi, was a perfect example. Its mind boggling array of ingredients included coco- nut milk, shallots, garlic, lemongrass, ginger, kaffir lime leaves, sesame oil, grapeseed oil, miso paste, sambal chili sauce, white wine, and then made aromatic with basil, mint and cilantro, garlic, fresh lime juice. The result was a dish of astonishing complexity and subtle flavors elevating the humble staple of Japanese breakfast into a gourmet masterpiece.

Mike Blocher and David Barboza of Table X restaurant take pride in food inspired by local ingredients, serving refined dishes in their casual but approachable restaurant. Making good use of their garden behind their restaurant, they bake their own bread daily, and even churn their own butter. Their offering, a vegetable steak with chick pea puree, spruce salt and preserved currants was a vegetarian dish made with large russet potatoes, daikon radish, and turnip, all thinly sliced and rolled up around chopped cabbage into a roulette, then sliced, baked, topped with spinach, and served with the purees. Riding the current trend of plant based food, the dish was multi-layered and multi-textured. It also made a spectacular presentation.

Zachary ‘Buzz’ Willey is executive chef at an award-winning Salt Lake favorite Pallet – a hip but comfortable restaurant built in an old dairy load- ing dock. There you can stop in for a charcuterie plate with a glass of wine, or spend a leisurely evening over a full meal. His demo dish was Jerk Duck Leg Glaze, well seasoned with garlic, lemon juice, habanero, brown sugar and butter, black peppercorn, anise, whole clove, cinnamon, coriander, nut- meg, and allspice. It was spicy and flavorful, but without the fire of its more authentic Jamaican cousin.

Rounding out and finishing off the menu were four cheeses from nationally recognized Caputo’s which has four gourmet stores offering cheese, chocolate and cured meats. Today’s selection included Barely Legal made with goat milk from Mesa Farm’s small herd and aged only 60 days, just enough to make it legal – hence the name. Beehive Promontory was a creamy, award-winning cheddar made with milk from local Jersey cows. Caputo’s House Cheddar uses unprocessed curds from Beehive cheese, which are then butter-wrapped and aged six months, then wrapped in duck fat and aged another six months. Double Skull Taleggio is fully ripened in Caputo’s cave and washed with Epic Brewing’s Double Skull Doppelbock beer. The chocolate selection was a 70% dark Amano Dos Rios using beans from the Dominican Republic exclusive to Amano. The beans come with natural orange and cinnamon notes.

Coffee shops are integral to today’s urban scene, and Salt Lake’s coffee culture is teeming with cafes serving some of the best-sourced beans and carefully brewed cups in the country. Representing that culture was Campos Coffee, an Australian specialty coffee company. Their drink was cold brewed coffee served with heavy cream, sugar, dried strawberry powder and an optional dash of bay leaf bitters. Adding greatly to drink’s appeal was its dreamy, poetic name: Her Name was Summer.

Upon completion of the curriculum, the graduates had to agree that today’s offerings came from no culinary desert. Clearly, Utah U had accomplished its mission. And more. At least one particular graduate, moi, had even decided there was enough material worth re- searching at the Phd level – with a field trip to the city.