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Cake-Off 

Annual contest brings in county's best pastry chefs to fundraise for the LBC

Baking shows have developed into a binge-watching phenomenon (looking at you Great British Baking Show), with mesmerizing scenes of desserts easy for viewers to get lost in.

They also inspire a longing for decadent desserts left thoroughly unfulfilled, despite your best efforts to fill the German chocolate cake-sized void with Trader Joe's cookies.

This weekend is your chance to star in your own episode of a bake-off, featuring 17 of Sonoma County's best pastry chefs. The Luther Burbank Center is gathering esteemed bakers from the likes of Criminal Baking Co. and Noshery, Costeaux French Bakery, Sift Dessert Bar and more to compete in the annual Art of Dessert event, a sweet night concocted of music, wine, dinner, auctions and, the cherry on top, dessert.

The Art of Dessert began 16 years ago and materialized from the need to fundraise for the center—and the desire to make it fun. Nearly every Sonoma County resident is familiar with The Luther Burbank Center; the first concert I ever attended was the female singer and guitarist Ani DiFranco at the center. But it's also much more than the big name concerts it hosts; originally organized in the late '70s, the foremost intention of the center was to create a space for the community to engage with the arts. "The center is really a community resource," says LBC CEO Richard Nowlin. "People often think of us as a big stage, but we also have these really rich, robust programs serving 40,000 children each year."

These programs take the shape of school performances to support school's curriculum, free summer camps for working parents, free or subsidized tickets to performances for students and low-income families, and teacher trainings so teachers have the opportunity to learn techniques for teaching the arts. "We like to help teachers use the arts to really bring subject matter to life. Kids learn in a lot of different ways," says Nowlin. The center also makes a conscious effort to include culturally diverse programs, like the children's Mariachi ensemble, who will be playing at the Art of Dessert event. "There was a group of kids interested in Mariachi and wanted to learn even more, so we formed this Mariachi ensemble. Some of the most talented student musicians will be performing this year," Nowlin says.

In addition to Mariachi music adding a spicy twist to the evening, a panel of celebrity chefs will judge the desserts and determine the winners.The chefs will be eating at tables with the guests and offering insight into the desserts. One of the panel chefs is Healdsburg's Dustin Valette of the restaurant Valette, who will be bringing his culinary expertise along with "a big ol' gut and a love of food."

Valette started cooking when he was 15, and followed his passion from Geyserville to New York to Hawaii to Europe and back again, incorporating what he'd learned from each place back in Sonoma County. I will be judging the food based on which dish has the most passion . . . it is about showcasing craft, showing what drives that person. Because for me, the term 'best' is very hard. When I think about the 'best food,' it's what gets me the most excited to take the next bite," Valette says.

In past years contestants have shown great innovation, presenting desserts in all shapes and sizes. "We have seen cakes as shoes, guitars, purses, wine bottles—they get very creative," says Nowlin. There will be different desserts featured at each table, so if you are perusing and spot a dessert that looks intriguing, you might have to engage in some good old-fashioned wrangling.

The Art of Dessert happens on Saturday, March 30 at the Luther Burbank Center, 50 Mark West Springs Rd., Santa Rosa. 5pm. Tickets start at $250. 707.546.3600

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