Austin FOOD & WINE Festival is in its third year and the festival team of FOOD & WINE and BaltzCo, collectively hit it out of the ball park in 2014! With the Festival setting up camp for a second year at Butler Park, FOOD & WINE pass holders were greeted with a host of new tents serving up everything from citrus slushies’ and a game of ping pong from Kim Crawford Wines, to being delighted by a fire engine truck roasting a pig on a spit. And the City of Austin was the perfect setting with its cool, laid-back sensibility. The schedule was jam-packed with chef demos, and two open grill pits worked by a collective group of talented grill master.
Feast Under The Stars
Thursday night's “Feast Under the Stars” was new this year and sold-out the minute tickets were available online. It was a private dinner under the oak trees and stars offering up a “one-of-a-kind dining experience offering a locally sourced, 5-course meal, prepared by five award-wining chefs” that includes Tyson Cole (Uchi/Uchiko), Chris Shepard (Underbelly), Tim Love (Lonesome Dove – Ft. Worth), Kent Rathburn (Abacus), and Jodi Elliott (Bribery).
Food Republic Interview Lounge
The Festival was kicked off in style on Friday at the W Hotel. At Food Republic’s interview lounge, Food Republic’s Editorial Director, Richard Martin, interviewed chefs, food celebrities, and comedians who were also in town for the Moon Tower Comedy Festival. The Festival officially began with Friday night’s big bash, Taste of Texas, which featured sixteen of the best and brightest from across Texas’ culinary scene. The event featured“signature bites” from each of the chefs. Before the night was done I’d named my top four bites!
Austin FOOD & WINE Festival – Saturday Happening’s
On Saturday, how could you go wrong starting off at the Kim Crawford Wine tent for a little ping-pong and a white wine citrus slushy? It was one of the most popular “must do” at the festival all weekend. Lush white interiors, with speckles of hot pink, yellow, and green, welcomed festival attendees, with ball boys & girls at your service, ready to pour you a cold one. Saturday’s schedule was packed with demos, panels, chef showcases, and the always popular Grand Tasting tent, which featured a host of artisan food and wine vendors from Austin, as well as across the country. One could certainly eat and drink their weight in food and wine over the course of the afternoon if they only stayed in the Grand Tasting tent.
With so many great demos, including my personal favorite, chef Graham Elliot’s “So Fresh and So Spring, Spring” why would you? I was able to grab a few moments with Chef Graham Elliot and his partner in crime, Chef Merline Verrier, to talk food, their working relationship, and plans for the future. Partners for almost seven years, these two clearly have fun working together. When I ask both chefs if the dance that took place during their demo is indicitive of how they work in the kitchen together, Elliot says “Absolutely, this is pretty much how it is in the kitchen. I don’t think we’ve ever had an argument. If we got food on the plate, or not, we’re all just here having fun."
Four months ago, Elliot & Verrier opened a new restaurant in Connecticut, which is the first time the two have opened a restaurant outside of Chicago. The two are partners at Primary, but Elliot is clear: “It is Verrier’s restaurant. Under [his] guidance running the day-to-day operations, the restaurant doesn’t box itself into one of the many labels everyone is so apt to put on a restaurant when describing its food."
Verrier passionately asks “Why do you have to put a label on it? We think out of the box, we’re whimsical, we have fun. We want to create a certain atmosphere and experience for our clientele.” Focusing on local partnerships, the restaurant has cultivated relationships with a farmer on the border of New York. The two chefs have worked with the farmer to look through seed books to determine what produce they will grow for the restaurant. The two highly respect the fact that the “farmer won’t sell at farmers markets and would rather donate the food to those in need,” Verrier says. Elliot and Verrier emphasized “chefs are always looking for an edge, so when you can partner up with a farmer, or local food artisan that has the same integrity and vision, and that can facilitate from seed to restaurant, it’s the best type of partnership. And that farmer or artisan knows the product going to the restaurant will get the same respect it was produced with.”
Talking plans to come to Austin, both enthusiastically said if they found the right partner and location, Austin would be a good fit for what they do. “The vibe in Austin is so incredible and we’ve never felt so welcome,” said Elliot.
Rock Your Taco
The taco throwdown featured fourteen chefs giving it their best, but only one chef would come out the winner. And seriously who could eat all fourteen tacos after feasting all day at the festival? The taco fest judges were Christina Grdovic (VP and Publisher of FOOD & WINE Magazine), Graham Elliot, and Andrew Zimmern. There were many stand outs for sure, but who would dethrone Tyson Cole of Uchi? Tyson and team maintained the longest line of the night and received rave reviews from everyone I spoke to.
Which chef won the “Rock Your Taco” title to take home an autographed guitar? First time AFWFest talent Richard Blais, with his octopus and lamb piccadilo taco! Rest assured Blais fans this means the chef will be returning in 2015 to defend his title.
Austin FOOD & WINE Festival – Sunday Happenings
If you missed any of the favorite local or celebrity chefs on Saturday, Sunday was definitely the day to play catch-up! With another full day of demos, grill sessions and the Grand Tasting tent, festival attendees had their pick! With the Austin sun peaking through the clouds and providing a warm-up, the drinks flowed on and the food was a plenty. The opening grill pits were a site to be had, especially since chef Brice Gilmore (Barley Swine and James Beard Award Nominee) has rigged up vertical roasting contraptions from which he hung local chickens to roast in an open fire pit, as festival attendees watched in amazement.
A lesser known fact for out of town festival attendees is The Austin Food & Wine Alliance, a 501c3 non-profit, is the Austin FOOD & WINE Festival beneficiary, which allows the Alliance to “give back to the Central Texas culinary community through a vibrant grant program to fund projects focused on culinary innovation.” 2013’s grant recipients included Confituras, Blacklands Malt, Salt & Time, and Skinny Lane Farm.
Many of the 2012 and 2013 grant recipients and honorable mentions participated in information sessions sponsored by the Alliance during the festival weekend, all of which were well-attended. For more on the Alliance and their events, check out their website.
All in all it really was a fabulous weekend of food and wine. Each year the festival is getting better and as Andrew Zimmern stated “we hope to keep the festival unique like Austin, but bump it up a notch.” If this year is any indication of that “bump” 2015’s festival attendees, as well as the talent, are in for one heck of a festival. Mark your calendars now – it surely won’t disappoint!
All photos courtesy of Rachelle King | Blinded by the Bite! Lifestyle Group except Richard Blais picture via the Austin FOOD & WINE Festival.