Disclosure: I attended the Austin Food + Wine Festival as a member of media.
Now that I’ve had time to reflect back on this year’s Austin Food + Wine Festival, I realize just how enormous the event is, and how even over two full days I didn’t experience all it had to offer. I kicked off my fest in the right way, though, by hitting the first Tasting Session, a seminar on “Breakfast Wine” taught by Master Sommelier and Whole Foods Global Beverage Buyer Devon Broglie. Devon is a wealth of knowledge, and I can firmly state he’s never steered me wrong on wine choices. So when I saw he was talking wines paired with breakfast, I had to attend. In the Breakfast Wine session we talked about the sugar and acidity levels of the wines, and what foods pair best with each. Devon instructed us to sip, and think about a breakfast food that would taste yummy with that particular wine. With his enthusiasm for wine and food, Devon was lively and entertaining while teaching us that yes, you can pair a Riesling with French toast, and a Lambrusco with chicken & waffles. And that Riesling? Devon calls it “sommelier Gatorade” as you can drink it anytime, with anything, even if it’s just because you’re thirsty.
Let me back up a moment and say that your best bet for a seat in one of the Tasting Sessions is at the very first one of the festival. After that, the crowd realizes there is magic happening in the tents, and lines form quickly for sessions, often a half-hour prior to the seminar, leaving you baking in the hot sun. And boy, is there sun! The last weekend of April is historically sunny and warm. Pack a travel sized (non-aerosol) sunscreen with you to this festival. Shade is limited.
The Grand Taste is, indeed, grand. I wasn’t able to taste everything, but everything I tasted was a flavor sensation. You really do get a feel for restaurants by these sampling events, as they go all out to deliver the perfect bite. In the photo above, two of my favorites were polar opposites: Knotty Deck & Bar’s Frito pie, and Garrison’s Black Garlic & Foie meringues. The simple Frito pie fulfilled all my desires for a juicy, salty, tangy, beef-y, crunchy offering. Garrison’s pretty little taste bombs of richness and crisp meringue blew me away. When you sample at a festival and weeks later you are craving the dish you tried, you know the restaurant hit it out of the ballpark.
Lines for some of the Grand Taste participants were long, but moved fairly quickly, as did the queue for the Fire Pit foods. This year the set up for the Fire Pits was quite different, with a “viewing area” and one large sampling station. The Fire Pit is an impressive mix of live fire cooking utilizing roasting, smoking, grilling and other techniques on a variety of foods. It’s as much of chance to interact with the chefs and their teams as it is to happily scarf down smoked meats.
When you have a chance to eat roasted pork, ask if you can have some of the crispy skin. If you’re adventurous, or simply have grown up eating “nose-to-tail,” ask for offal. I jumped at the chance to eat a smoked pig eye, as Chef David Bull’s team cheered me on. If you’ve never partaken of smoked bits, like eyeballs, it seems outlandish, grotesque even, to consider eating parts. But I grew up on traditional barbacoa, made from a cow’s head and pretty much everything in it, paving a life-long love for offal. (Side note: smoked pig’s eye is tender yet chewy, much like a thick chunk of ham, with a bit of a juicy gelatinous quality from the collagen proteins found in the head. Quite good!).
Often, while talking about the Austin Food + Wine Festival people will tell me they don’t ever go because they don’t like wine. Now the name isn’t going to change, but let me tell you, there is a lot more alcoholic beverages than wine at the festival! Spirits and beer are abundantly available for sampling. One of my favorite moments was making a boozy milkshake with Horchata ice cream and Guinness.
Around the festival, there was much to enjoy as well. The Glenfiddich Dome featured several cocktails, along with a “vapor station” to demonstrate how our sense of smell affects our sense of taste. Monkey Shoulder brought out its ridiculously huge cocktail shaker truck, Toyota helped us take home personalized swag (the cutting boards were a favorite), and Maker’s Mark paired their mint julep on Sunday morning with a selection of Voodoo Doughnuts. The classic 1942 Don Julio truck provided a perfect photo opp, while the show from the Hendrick’s Gin World’s Most Utterly Inefficient Cocktail Bar was prime time for Instagrammers looking to “boomerang” a quick moment. And yes, I will be making succulent planters out of cans, thanks to the inspiration from Austin Eastciders and their adorable table decor.
For the All In ticket holders, the festival started one night early, with Chef Tim Love’s Grillin’ & Chillin’ at Auditorium Shores. This hands-on grilling demo is a wildly popular event. Chef Tim Love is a larger than life personality, with an infectious sense of humor and zest for having fun. This is the first year the demo has been held at night, a genius move. The only drawback to previous years’ Grillin’ & Chillin’ demos was standing in the sun for hours, learning how to produce the tastiest grilled steak while wondering just how burned your body was becoming. I heard nothing but positive feedback on this night event.
Rock Your Taco, the taco throw down held on Saturday night was a rollicking good time, as usual. Boston-based Chef Jamie Bissonette dethroned the King of RYT, Chef Tyson Cole, with his succulent Thai pork sausage soft taco. Among the participants, local favorite Chef Andrew Curren offered up a Green Curried Shrimp taco, while cheflebrity Amanda Freitag wowed attendees with her Lechon de Coco taco. The tacos were plentiful, music was upbeat, and the good times rolled on.
If you’ve wondered whether the ticket to the Austin Food + Wine Festival is worth the price, let me tell you in no uncertain terms that it is well, well worth it. The abundant food and drink, creative experiences, educational demos and sessions are a solid value, but the atmosphere adds in even more. At the fest I talked with strangers who I shared shaded tables with, and almost all of them were not Austinites. I met people from D.C., Wyoming, Chicago, New Mexico, Miami, and more. They all had a common connection in that they specifically picked this food festival out of numerous food and wine festivals across the nation, to experience Austin’s culinary scene. Those of us who live here tend to take it for granted that we have illustrious chefs and highly respected restaurants in town, but tourists are planning cuisine adventures that bring out of state tax dollars into our city. Attending the festival was their main objective, but I found myself answering questions about where to find the city’s best breakfast tacos, barbecue, craft beer bars, and more.
Saturday and Sunday’s closing dance party with DJ Mel are a great way to work off some of what you’ve indulged in that day. Tradition calls for Chef Tim Love to pour one last sip for those lucky enough to be close to the stage. Chef Jason Dady, who chose to announce opening his Austin restaurant, Chispas, via a chalkboard sign at his Grand Taste table, joined him onstage on Sunday. Music and dancing after a day’s worth of memorable gustatory moments is one wonderful way to end the day, and put another festival to bed.