Substance and Whimsy

The Never-Too-Serious Epicureans of Austin


Everybody loves it here. When Texans (and non-Texans) are pressed to explain what it is about the Capital City that attracts them, responses usually include some variation on these themes: the Mexican food, the lake, the barbecue, the live music scene, Barton Springs, Sixth Street, sports events, the Hill Country, the bats, and the fact that there is no place else in Texas even remotely like it. Austin welcomes folks to eat, drink, play, and listen. And we're happy for you to do all these things with dedication. Austin throws open its arms to the substantive, the knowledgeable, the creative, the talented, and the successful. Likewise, we shun the pretentious and self-important. The best thing to remember about Austin is that you can't take yourself too seriously here.

There is no better illustration of Austin's endearing penchant for embracing substance and whimsy than the two extremely different food events scheduled for this weekend. Several hundred gourmands and wine enthusiasts will join chefs, vintners, and food purveyors at the Four Seasons Hotel for the 12th annual Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival (THCWAFF), savoring the best food and wine that Texas has to offer. Meanwhile, on the south shores of Town Lake, thousands of funsters will gather to celebrate the 19th annual SPAMARAMA™, Austin's paean to the preparation possibilities of potted pork products. Nowhere else but Austin could two events so diverse be appreciated by so much of the population.

THCWAFF is the brainchild of Fall Creek Vineyards owners Ed and Susan Auler, who hatched the festival idea as a way to educate Texas consumers about pairing wines and food and promote the growing Texas wine industry around the country. The first few festivals showcased Hill Country wines and featured definitive menus created by three of instigators of the Southwestern food trend -- Stephan Pyles, Dean Fearing, and Robert Del Grande. Soon, the Hill Country had its own viticultural designation and the Southwestern chefs had built considerable reputations. These days, the festival regularly attracts vintners and chefs of national and international renown, eager to share their talents while partaking of Austin's inimitable hospitality and the grandeur of the Four Seasons Hotel. Major food publications are now actively represented, too. Original stars Stephan Plyes, cookbook author/chef/owner of Star Canyon in Dallas and Robert Del Grande, chef/owner of Houston's Cafe Annie, Cafe Express, and Rio Ranch, are returning to the festival this year, joining legendary California vintner Robert Mondavi and virtuoso New York restaurateur Drew Nieporent. The participation of all these food and wine luminaries is indicative of the Austin festival's national stature.

Over the last two decades, SPAMARAMA™ founder and organizer David Arnsberger has managed to keep the spirit of a 1978 April Fool's spoof at the original Soap Creek Saloon alive in a variety of locations. "We've held it at all three Soap Creek locations, the Opry House, Scholz Garden, the Cedar Door parking lot, La Zona Rosa...," recalls Arnsberger, "but this year, we've finally found a permanent home." The infamous SPAM™ cookoff, where entrants go to great lengths to create SPAM™ dishes that are either eminently edible, hilariously funny, or outrageously disgusting, will now be held on Auditorium Shores on the Saturday preceding the Capitol 10,000 race, making for a very festive weekend downtown and a very quick clean-up for Arnsberger and his crew.

On Saturday afternoon, cook-off entrants will display their SPAM™ creations to a roving band of judges. Prizes will be awarded for both taste and showmanship in amateur and professional categories. Though organizers lament the drop in participation in the professional category in recent years, frequent winner John Myers, the fabled "Chef Spam," has advised Arnsberger that he will be in competition again this year.

Concurrently, the Wine & Food Festival is not designed as a competition, but a longtime sponsor, the Texas Beef Industry Council, initiated the "Chefs Challenge for Beef" four years ago. Participating chefs are encouraged to create dishes featuring Texas beef and the recipes are evaluated by a panel of judges. The winner gets a trip to New York City to present a dinner at the prestigious James Beard House and enjoys national media exposure. The original 14 entries have been narrowed down to five contestants: Jeff Blank/Jay Moore of Hudson's on the Bend, Rocky Packard of Coyote Cafe, Dan Haverty of Shoreline Grill, Monica Pope of Houston's Boulevard Bistro and Michael Bomberg of Plaza San Antonio's Anaqua Grill. The chefs prepared their dishes for the judges this week and the winner will be announced at Friday nights "Stars Across Texas" tasting dinner featuring signature dishes from chefs of the best restaurants in Austin, San Antonio, Dallas, Ft. Worth, Houston, and Waco. The media coverage that accompanies participation in events such as this can be an invaluable promotional tool for Texas chefs and restaurants. Former winners Jay McCarthy (Cascabel, Central Market), Alex Baratin (Boudro's in San Antonio), and David Garrido of Jeffrey's can all attest to that.

Both SPAMARAMA™ and the THCWAFF generate coverage from the national press, though, as you might imagine, in completely different outlets. SPAMARAMA™ has enjoyed more national television exposure than any other Austin entity (except the Longhorn sports teams), having made numerous segments on CNN and network morning programs. On the other hand, the Wine & Food Festival (or Texas restaurants, chefs, and wineries) shows up in glossy national food magazines such as Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, Southern Living and Gourmet. Over the years, THCWAFF has developed an impressive track record of attracting sponsors such as major grocery chains, airlines, wine merchants, and food purveyors eager to be associated with such a classy event. But what about SPAM™? Arnsberger admits he's found it easier to secure sponsorships now that SPAMARAMA™ is associated with the well-respected charity United Cerebral Palsy. He's proud to welcome Cen-Tex Beverage, Celis Brewery, and Cutrer's City Markets as some of his sponsors this year, as well.

One sponsor that Arnsberger can't count on is Hormel Meats themselves -- the makers of SPAM™. After years of threatening to sue the Austin party out of existence because of what they termed "negative promotion," the food manufacturing giant finally entered into a legal agreement with Arnsberger which states that Hormel owns the trademark, and has set guidelines for how the name can be used in publicity. The agreement also prohibits Arnsberger from "making fun" of their product. This year, Hormel will donate (rather than sponsor) T-shirts and caps to be used as some of the prizes for the event. "It would be great if they'd sponsor us. I tried to make them see they'd get so much mileage out of showing they had a sense of humor about themselves, but it didn't work," says Arnsberger in true irreverent Austin spirit.

That contagious, fun-loving Austin spirit regularly inspires THCWAFF participating chefs to contemplate trying their luck in the local restaurant market. Frequent festival-goer Mark Miller brought a Coyote Cafe to Austin two years ago this spring with a huge media blitz that backfired a bit with the public. San Antonio chef Jay McCarthy was wooed away from the Alamo City to be executive chef at Central Market, though after less than a year he is considering other offers, including opening his own restaurant in another market. Houston's Robert Del Grande has planned to bring his Cafe Express concept here for some time but those plans have yet to materialize.

Within the past month, the owners of the stylish, highly regarded Houston restaurants Americas and Churrascos have been scouting available locations around town and chatting with successful local restaurateurs about what it takes to make it in Austin. Nicaraguan-born chef Michael Cordua is famous in Houston and around the state for his personal interpretation of South American cuisine. The Texas A&M graduate has fond memories of recreational trips to Austin as a college student and he says that many of his employees with similar memories have volunteered to be part of the team here, should they actually decide to come. "We all associate Austin with a fantastic quality of life," says chef Cordua, "and you can't beat the Hill Country for surroundings." Michael Cordua will represent his two restaurants at the THCWAFF "Stars Across Texas" tasting event Friday night which should give him and his partner, brother Glen Cordua, another opportunity to evaluate their Austin options.

Any restaurateur considering Austin would do
well to heed David Arnsberger's admonition to the Hormel folks and be sure to bring their sense of humor with them when they come. No one expects you to actually serve SPAM™, you understand. Just bear in mind that the same Austin that is home to the Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival is also the birthplace of SPAMARAMA™, The Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Challenge, a rite-of spring beer bash celebrating Eeyore's Birthday, and one helluva bizarre Halloween party on Sixth Street. Think irreverrant, informal, whimsical. Pretention and dress codes aren't likely to succeed here, and at the same time no one here needs to be taught how to dine out. If you serve us your best cooking, show us a good time, relax, and don't take yourself too seriously, surely we'll come for dinner.

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