More than 800 guests turned out on Friday night at the La Plata County Fairgrounds to celebrate 25 years of Chocolate Fantasia, a gustatory gala to benefit the Volunteers of America Southwest Safehouse and Durango Community Shelter.
After expenses, this year's event raised over $8,000 to help the more than 500 men, women and children who depend on the support and resources of the VOA, said Sarada Leavenworth, event organizer and VOA division director.
The Wild Wild West-themed event went off without a hitching post, thanks to many late nights of hard work and preparation by both amateur and professional chocolatiers. Attendees came decked out in their finest Western wear to have their photos taken in front of an Old West backdrop by Thru the Lens Photography.
“We all have our cowboy boots and our bling-bling jeans that we just love to bust out on occasion,” Leavenworth said.
Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory provided the 10 professional and 10 amateur judges with expert instruction about how to evaluate more than 200 different entries for both taste and visual presentation. Each attendee also got to cast a vote for the People's Choice Award in the professional category.
This year's People's Choice Award went to Morgan Gurney, pastry chef at the Glacier Club and owner of Sweet Treats by Morgan. Gurney said her treat was inspired by the movie “Sundance Kid,” which was filmed in Durango. Her “Sundance Kid Sundae” was a melt-in-your-mouth combination of a steamed truffle surrounded by pudding cake and topped with salted pistachio ice cream and caramel sauce.
Competing for her fourth year in the amateur category, Shari Gustafson took first prize for visual presentation and taste with her sparkly confections dubbed “Cowgirl Kisses Cookies.”
“Durango does a good job of celebrating with great parties for wonderful organizations,” Gustafson said. “When you add chocolate, well, it just doesn't get any better! I love cooking and baking, especially desserts, and I will be contemplating my next entry as soon as I hear what the theme will be for the next year's Chocolate Fantasia.”
First place for visual presentation among the professional entrants went to “Gimme S'More” by Celebrations Event Productions, which also donated its decorating services to transform the fairgrounds building into a scene straight out of the Old West.
“We jumped in and said we're going to a new place with a lot of room and we want to help decorate,” said Mandy Miller Winn, owner of Celebrations Event Productions. “We tried to think of something that not only would fit the theme, but would take that theme to the extreme.”
What started as a simple s'mores recipe from the 1902 Girl Scouts Handbook, then turned into a full s'mores bar on an authentic chuck wagon. For safety sake, an alcohol burner substituted for an actual campfire, but the effect was not lost on the kids as they watched their marshmallows being toasted over the flame. Once the marshmallows were melted, guests could choose from an amazing array of cookies, graham crackers and toppings that included peanut butter cups, bananas, coconut, nutmeg, cinnamon, caramel sauce and more.
“The whole concept was to build a big scene and have fun with an interactive event,” Winn said.
Celebrations Event Productions also created the “Milk Saloon,” a walk-up beverage station that featured an old oak bar, barn wood walls and hay bales. The saloon served up milk, coffee and sodas, and featured authentic root beer on tap, brewed and donated by Durango's Carver Brewing Co. Meanwhile, musician Pete Giuliani kept the crowd's toes tapping.
“We truly appreciate the support of the Durango community and all of our corporate sponsors,” Leavenworth said.
Corporate support for this year's event was provided by First National Bank of Durango, BP America, Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, Durango Business Improvement District and Durango Tourism Office, Celebrations Event Production, and 6th Street Hair Salon & Day Spa.