For the first two years of its existence, I watched the Austin Food & Wine Festival from afar, mildly jealous of those folks with pockets deep enough to swing a ticket or two. But this year I decided that enough was enough, and found my way through the gates with a media pass.
I started my adventure on Thursday night, with the Cupcake Vineyards Truck Tour event at Freddie’s Place. It’s no coincidence that when I went grocery shopping on Sunday afternoon, my first bottle of Cupcake Sauvignon Blanc for the hot season found its way into my shopping cart (it helps that it costs about $8/bottle at Central Market).
Friday night, I opted out of the Taste of Texas event at Republic Square Park in favor of family time, but after the kids were in bed, I headed down to the Sips and Sweets afterparty held at Mellow Johnny’s. There, I sampled an overwhelming array of sweets from local pastry chefs including tiny and tart key lime pies and delectable truffles by Erica Waksmunski of Congress/Second, chocolatey brownie bars and trifles courtesy of Angel Begaye of Trace, and macaroons, profiteroles, and chocolate delice by LaV’s Janina O’Leary. There were plenty of boozy beverages to be had, but as I was flying solo and driving, I stuck with the Topo Chico.
Saturday morning, I arrived at Butler Park, the festival’s new location, having moved across the street to accommodate repairs to Auditorium Shores, ready to take it all in. And take IT ALL in I did, much to my dismay. After popping in to watch Richard Blais talk about sous vide while also apparently testing new stand-up material, I wandered around the grounds, sampling the goods offered in the “fire pit.” Among those chefs were Andrew Wiseheart of Contigo; while he manned the pit, newlyweds Ben Edgerton and his bride Anne served up smoked white asparagus rolled in pork salt, as well as discussed their new project, Gardner. The vegetable-centric (but not vegetarian) restaurant is slated for a fall 2014 opening on East Sixth.
From there, I checked out the Grand Tasting tent, where I sampled black bass tartare with harissa and smoked eggplant from showcasing chef Allison Jenkins of LaV; it was a flavorful, light bite available on the LaV menu. To her right was Josh Watkins of the Carillon, whose Thai-influenced pork spare rib was a savory, not-too-spicy perfect bite.
Among the local purveyors offering tastes in the Grand Tasting pavilion was Chef Mark Schmidt of Blackbird & Henry, who offered up a brain-searingly spicy jhal muri, an Indian street food snack featuring puffed rice, peanuts, and lentils spiced with coriander, tamarind, and, apparently, insanity peppers. “I toned it down a bit today,” Schmidt said on Sunday. “People said it was too spicy yesterday, so I toned down the spice and turned up the tamarind.” Nonetheless, it was delicious, and I made a(nother) mental note to visit the new campus-area gastropub sooner rather than later.
I also sampled delicious fried brussels sprouts from Tapas Bravas, the Spanish-cuisine-centric food truck located in the newly opened Picnic trailer park on Barton Springs Road, and chased it with Savannah buttermint ice cream from Ohio's Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams (which, at $12/pint retail, is very much a special-occasion treat). I would have tried Lick’s cilantro ice cream, but like Julia Child, I believe that the best place to put cilantro is on the floor. (I did learn, however, that the hyperlocal scoop shop will be opening an outlet in San Antonio’s Pearl complex this summer. Lucky, lucky San Antonio!)
At noon, I checked out “Tour de Femme,” a seminar on female winemakers led by Vilma Mazaite, the sommelier and managing partner at LaV. She cruelly introduced the audience to one of the best Viogniers I’ve ever had, then announced that it’s not available in Texas. Good thing we have Pedernales Cellars’ award-winning Viognier to keep us cool this summer.
At 2pm, after making another lap through the Grand Tasting tent, I settled in for the panel titled “Let’s Do the Time Warp,” moderated by Tribeza Editor-in-Chief Paula Disbrowe and featuring pastry chef Philip Speer, “modern pioneer” Georgia Pellegrini, and “I’ll chicken-fry anything” good old boy chef Jack Gilmore. The panel debated the relative merits of “ye olde time” cooking techniques, determining that gelatin-based desserts are maybe not so awesome but that honoring ingredients through careful, time-tested techniques are of utmost importance. Pellegrini and Gilmore sparred playfully(?) about how to wash cast iron cookery — Pellegrini declared it “sacrilege” to use water on cast iron, while Gilmore copped to boiling his in water. (For what it’s worth, a couple of Google searches yielded advice from very reputable sites recommending using hot water, but not soap or abrasive scrubbers on your skillets and such.)
While I’d planned on attending Rock Your Taco on Saturday night, my too-full belly and son’s baseball tournament schedule foiled those good intentions. Richard Blais unseated reigning champion Tyson Cole with an octopus-and-lamb picadillo taco.
Sunday morning dawned and I, still full, re-entered the fray. As I approached the grounds, my calorie hangover was exacerbated by Van Halen blasting at 11+ in advance of the sailor-mouthed Tim Love’s “Surf, Turf & Earth” grilling demo. I opted for something a little more low-key with Monica Pope’s “Dumplings to Live by” demo, watching her make her famed shiitake dumplings while she slurped a piping-hot cup of butter coffee as the mercury rapidly approached 90 degrees.
My friend and I checked out the fire pit demos from Bryce and Jack Gilmore (a rather bland grilled quail atop a hoecake, and an equally bland smoked chicken), served by an extremely convincing Sam Elliott lookalike. Ned Elliott of Foreign & Domestic served up a pig head taco; between his display of pigs’ heads and the Gilmores’ rotisserie lamb and hanging goat heads, the fire pit was a macabre tableau of abjection.
I swore to myself that I wouldn’t eat anything on Sunday unless it was really special, so I had: a brownie from Baked by Amy’s (moist and delicious and available as a sundae topping at select Amy’s Ice Cream stores), tiny almond financiers by Janina O’Leary, a duck bacon croque madame topped with a quail egg from Lawrence Kocurek of Trace, something I can’t remember from Stefan Bowers (Feast, San Antonio), olive oil & chocolate gelato from Teo, a smoked beet and carrot salad from chef Camden Stuerzenberger of the forthcoming Fork & Vine (and formerly of the revamped, now-closed Hickory Street), a light and refreshing Mexican street-food-style fruit cup from Rick Lopez (La Condesa), duck terrine on toast from a place whose name I can’t remember … it’s all a blur, people.
My friend and I, mindful of our wine consumption, drank as much of the free bottled water as we could possibly handle, and wrapped up the fest with two cooking demonstrations: John Currence’s “What Are You, Chicken?” and Rick Bayless’ “Classic & Modern Make a Pair.” Currence’s demo was very informative; in fact, I bought a chicken on my way home from the festival to roast later in the week, and I feel confident that I will now be able to carve it for serving without hacking the poor thing to death. Bayless demonstrated a mole and the sommelier from Bayless' Chicago outfit, Frontera Grill, suggested wine pairings to go with an array of sauces.
All in all, I had a wonderful time at the Austin Food & Wine Festival. I learned a lot about wine and cooking and sampled the work of people I hadn’t yet had the chance to. I am now inspired to make sure my knives are sharpened at all times so that I can butcher chicken effectively, I know a little bit more about how to talk about wine, and I got to hobnob with some of Austin’s best and brightest food writers and editors. (And, you know, chefs.) I can’t wait to do it all again next year – especially now that I've learned the hard way that pacing yourself is the key to successful enjoyment of an event devoted to eating and drinking top-notch food and wine for three days straight.
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