Feast Portland: Celebrating Great Food and Local Artisans

We chat with founder Mike Thelin and Bon Appétit’s Adam Rappaport about what makes this festival unlike any other
Staff Writer

Byron Beck

Feast Portland founder Mike Thelin hangs out with chef Chris Cosentino.

“The universal and most dominant conversation in a city these days is food,” Mike Thelin, co-founder of Feast Portland, told us. “The ways we used to talk about music, now we talk about food. Today it’s all about urban language, fashion, culture and food. That intersection is where it’s at.”

That certainly proved to be true at the third annual Feast Portland 2014, which took place the weekend of September 19, 2014. The festival was co-founded by Thelin and Carrie Welch, and what makes it so relevant are all of the chefs, artisans, purveyors, and food lovers that the festival partners with and connects.

It was strange, Thelin told us, that the universe just seemed to be pointing him to Carrie Welch. Everywhere he went people kept saying to him, “You should meet Carrie Welch. She’s moving out there [to Portland].” So he listened, and when they finally did meet, it was kismet right from the start.

Feast is a food and wine festival, yes. But it is strangely more than that. What makes it so different is that “we really started it at a time when there was an extraordinary new momentum in food,” explained Thelin.

“It’s harder to find a movement that’s happening when it’s happening. But this you can see,” he added. It’s a whole different conversation than it was five years ago. Plus we’re in Portland, Oregon which is the greatest food city in America; there is this currency in creativity here.”

So much of the food scene over the last 10 years has been about celebrity chefs. But in last five years, food has become something altogether new, Thelin explains.

“It’s the new music. It’s this urban language. There’s social capital in knowing the new restaurant. We could have gone the route of those big TV stars and we have total respect for those festivals. But we wanted to do something different.”

That’s why Feast focuses on all things local and craft and authentic while at the same time serving the community. “Food is the language of the city. Let’s put our local chefs forward. Let’s celebrate place. Let’s put a little soul in it too and change people’s lives. We’ve donated $100,000, plus we can be an incredible platform for them. We have an incredible agricultural bounty here but also a high rate of hunger.”

Feast is, of course, about wine and food. But it’s also about craft, about urban culture, about making things. “Portland is the city that defines this whole era, this whole movement; Brooklyn also. People are making things for the sake of doing it.”

That would explain why they choose to partner with, connect to, and feature Oregon companies like Will Leather Goods, who designed the festival’s official bag. “They have the same obsession with what they do that Portland has with food. Even though a bag is very different than a bagel, they come from the same passion.”

It’s that passion that defines Feast. Passion and authenticity, both of which are found in nearly everything Feast guests experienced. “People demand better. They want authentic products. Jacobson Salt Co. is another incredible company. And they have a cool tie in with Oregon history. Lewis and Clark came here and made salt by boiling the water.”

Feast is all about recouping that culture of creation and discovering, or uncovering, what is authentic and unique and bringing it forward. That is what’s afoot.

“This is no trend. Food culture and craft culture and local products are really how the way things always have been and always should be,” he added. “The idea of soulless, cheap, mechanized food production, that’s a trend. We’ll look back at the post-war years as the time we got away from who we are. Now we’re getting back to who we really are. It’s in our nature to want to do things our own way.”

“It’s an exciting time. We’re rediscovering ourselves. America is having a renaissance on many levels and food is the biggest part of that.”

Bon Appétit editor in chief Adam Rappaport told us that when Feast co-founders Welch and Thelin came to him at Bon Appétit to pitch Feast, he was sold the minute they told him the kind of festival they envisioned and the types of chefs they wanted to bring in.

“They wanted to get a mix of authentic chefs with a lot of street cred doing their own thing. It’s about being a great chef, not a celebrity chef,” Rappaport told us. And now, “Every chef wants to be here. Mike and Carrie run a really tight ship.”

It doesn’t hurt that Portland, Oregon was where Welch and Thelin wanted to have Feast. “Portland is such a good city. So dynamic. And it’s a nice size city. You can get around and get a handle on it. There are so many amazing things to go do.” And as for food, Portland has that in spades as well. “It's ridiculous. For a city this size, it's absurd how many good restaurants and bars there are.”

Bon Appétit has partnered with Feast from its very first festival in 2012. And even then, it was relatively smooth sailing. “It was weird how smoothly the first Feast went. It set the table for the years to come. Of course, that year Mike [Thelin] looked like he had gone 12 rounds in a fight. Now he looks tan and relaxed and happy.”

The reason why Feast works so well is simple, Rapport explained. “Good ideas work a lot better than questionable ones. This one makes sense.” And now, everyone at Bon Appétit wants to be here, Rappaport says. “All the editors are climbing over each other to come.”

What Rappaport finds the most perplexing in food right now is the polarity of things. “There’s this gluten-free obsession and yet the best bread ever is available right now. All of those artisanal bakers. It's ironic. Like the political tenor of our country. People are either all right or all left.”

But there’s one thing not up for discussion, Rapport says: “If you're going to eat bread, eat really good bread. Don't eat the crappy stuff.”

When it comes to the good stuff, Rappaport says there is a demand for it and for information about it. People want to have access to heirloom tomatoes and fourteen kinds of radishes and eggs from pasture-raised chickens. They want the product and they want to know where it came from. The bottom line, says Rappaport, is that “the better the ingredient, the less you have to do it.”

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