A TALE OF TWO FESTIVALS: AUSTIN FOOD & WINE FESTIVAL AND CHEFS FOR FARMERS FOOD AND WINE FESTIVAL
by Andrew Chalk
I just spent Saturday at the Austin Food and Wine Festival and Sunday at Chefs for Farmers Food and Wine Festival in Dallas. With the two taking place so close together, I thought it would be interesting to compare them.
In both cases I am looking only at the main event in each festival. Austin had to actually cancel Friday’s planned satellite event, Wurst Weekend, due to inclement weather (it almost became ‘worst weekend’) that blew through both towns on the same evening. By Saturday, that was over and both sets of organizers are to be congratulated for their perspicacity, despite starting over a year ago, they chose simply the best weekend of the year for their respective events. Warm, dry, with a light breeze. The weather on Saturday and Sunday could not have been better.
LET’S COMPARE THE EVENTS
Both shows had to choose a closed location, as the food and beverages were all included in the price to ticket holders.
Austin chose Auditorium Shores at Town Lake Metropolitan Park. It is part of the city’s green belt along the Colorado River and easily accessible from all directions, but without car parking nearby. I drove in from my suburban hotel and paid $20 to park a few blocks away. Local knowledge would likely have lowered the price. Auditorium Shores itself is a large flat area that affords a clear view of everything once inside the perimeter fence and a feeling of spaciousness despite the turnout in the thousands.
Dallas chose Old City Park, a historic park south of downtown, also without close-in parking and so requiring an Uber/Lyft or friend ride to get to. Inside the perimeter, the combination of quaint buildings, undulating topography, and verdant plant growth made the layout of the booths and winding pathways redolent of Disney World or Epcot.
Overall Score: A draw. Both facilities, very different, were excellent locations for such huge events. Austin drew on its thoughtful use of the land around its riverfront. Dallas, the big city in the state with the least interesting downtown, was rescued by Old City Park which transported the event from urban grime to a bucolic idyll.
The Austin Food and Wine Festival was a really mixed bunch. The restaurants were overwhelmingly local as food is difficult to transport. Jason Dady, out of San Antonio, half grunge lead singer, half restaurant impresario, was a prominent exception but cooked ‘live’ in the Fire Pit. Junior Borges, creator of Meridian in Dallas, somehow mastered the supply and preparation logistics and had a booth (he also appeared in person at Chefs for Farmers). However, a large proportion of the booths were not restaurants. There were food vendors, most of whom were from Texas. But then wineries and spirit producers, almost all of whom were not. Larger displays, in tents around the perimeter, were almost all national brands, maybe reflecting their higher site fees. One tent was sponsored by Visit Puerto Rico, which heavily lent on the rum angle, courtesy of Don Q.
Cooking demonstrations were popular, ran throughout the day, and were mainly out-of-town chefs like Dallasite Tiffany Derry, Atlantan Ford Fry, and Chicago’s Sarah Grueneberg (who, in consideration, it should be said was born in Houston) with Kevin Fink (Hestia) the only Austin chef.
I only found one local beer, Hi Sign Brewing (Austin) and one Texas wine, Llano Estacado (Lubbock). The latter has a lot to shout about with recent successes and brought in winemaker Jason Centanni who gave a seminar on the wine stage as well as meeting festival goers at the booth. There were several local distillers, who had an evident agave focus. The wineries that were present were national brands from tier-1, like Daou and Jadot, to unknowns.
Chefs for Farmers starts with a mission, to introduce consumers to the farmers who are up the food chain, but on the critical path, of every restaurant they visit. This profoundly affects the kind of restaurant that can have a booth at the event. They have to have a farming connection. In fact, it is displayed prominently on the marquee above their booth. When I was deciding how to display on Facebook, in a way that would be comprehensible to the reader, the 100+ photos that I took at the event, an obvious organizational tool suggested itself: group them by their farmer. The exhibitors who did not have a farmer listed on their marquee typically had a good reason. A case in point would be cheese shop Scardello. They deal with dozens of artisanal cheese producers in sourcing the 200+ cheeses they sell. Some will farm their herds, others will purchase their milk.
Most booths at Chefs for Farmers represent restaurants. Of those that don’t, one area was devoted to Italy and sponsored by Eataly (complete with DJ). Different booths in the Rose Garden (as it was called) showcased different types of Italian food such as salumi, cheese, pasta, gelato, etc. The connection with farmers was obtuse, but this was a well-done exception.
Other booths represented wineries and I only found two Texas representatives, Reddy Vineyards and OC Cellars. The outsider vineyards were high quality as a rule, such as Landmark Vineyards, Justin, Hahn Family, J. Lohr, and Foley Family.
There may have been a brewer but I did not find them. Spirit producers were present, but not as ubiquitous as at the Austin Food and Wine Festival.
The Austin Food and Wine Festival is organized by Food and Wine magazine and Austin event production company C3 Presents. It succeeded the Texas Hill Country Food and Wine Festival. Proceeds go to the nonprofit Austin Food & Wine Alliance which is "dedicated to fostering awareness in the Central Texas culinary community through grants, educational programming and events.".
The philosophy appeared to be to maximize the profit from the festival in order to fund the objectives of the Alliance, even if that meant a festival that did not, in and of itself, promote those goals. For example, only one local brewery, one Texas winery, and no barbecue. There is a lack of localness to its exhibitor base. The organizers do not see that as a problem. In pre-pandemic years they emphasized the star chefs (e.g. Masaharu Morimoto, Marcus Samuelsson and Andrew Zimmern), stressing celebratory. Regarding who does what, I do not know, but I expect that C3, as a local event company, handles the logistics and Food and Wine Magazine handles the editorial. I.e. who appears, what themes appear in tent content, etc. Their geographical strangeness from as idiosyncratic a city as Austin, and so conceptual a state as Texas (they are in New York) may account for the beigeness ladled over local expression at this show.
Chefs for Farmers has anchored most of what it means to be local with its tie between restaurants and farmers. That is good for localness as far as it goes, but cannot handle local beverages. Texas wine, beer, and spirits are not thrust to the front of beverages in the same way.
A PRACTICAL SUGGESTION
When a martian friend of mine walked into both festivals he expected to see a Texas wine tent, a local beer tent, and a Texas spirits tent. In Austin, he expected a barbecue tent as well. He concedes that the Texas cheese industry may be too embryonic to put on a show (most cheese on Mars is green) but just to illustrate his martian New Math may not be totally off, this has already been successfully done. Before they sold Savor Dallas, the late Jim White and his wife Vicki Briley White organized a premier Savor Dallas event at the Dallas Arboretum. Part of it was a Texas Wine Walk that attracted seven Texas wineries, including some of the best. It proved extremely popular.
Both shows are good right now, but represent categories unevenly. Focused exhibits of strong local food and beverage industries would help both shows serve their missions.
FTC Disclosure: I was a media attendee at both events.