Austin in the Big Apple

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Lou Lambert prepares his  signature beef <i>salpicon</i> tacos at the January kickoff reception for the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival's partnership with <i>Saveur</i>.
Lou Lambert prepares his signature beef salpicon tacos at the January kickoff reception for the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival's partnership with Saveur. (Photo By Pam Blanton)

Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival Takes Manhattan by Storm

It was frigid, gray, and bitterly damp, as only a January day in Manhattan can be. But Austin had descended upon the Big Apple, and preparations for a Texas-style party were in full swing. I spent a good bit of time trying to locate some natural smoked cheddar cheese for Austin caterer Quincy Erickson's cheese tarts (easily available in our own fair city but -- go figure -- not in Manhattan, the cheese capital of the Western world). Fernando Saralegui, executive director of the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival, was busy sharing a cab with a whole lot of shipped-in Gulf Coast oysters and Lone Star beer; he was expediting them New York-style to the kitchens of Jazz Standard/Blue Smoke, the midtown club and barbecue restaurant where a busy spate of Austin chefs, caterers, winemakers, musicians, and food-world movers and shakers spent their day preparing to show Manhattan just how we do it in Texas.

The festival is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote awareness of Texas wines and food. Established in 1986, it's the second largest (or third, depending on whom you talk to) culinary festival in the country, with more than 5,000 visitors attending in 2002. The weeklong festivities are held every April in Austin and its environs and are a nonstop gustatory celebration: tastings, classes, wine dinners, parties, and musical events running the gamut from semifunky to semiformal. While the focus is on Texas wines and locally produced and prepared food, the festival also hosts participating chefs and winemakers from all over the country and beyond.

An interesting new development with large implications for the festival is the recently forged partnership with the New York-based food magazine Saveur. It seems a mutually beneficial match: The festival's purpose is to promote the cuisines and foodways of Texas, and Saveur is devoted to the regional cuisines and local foodways of the world. Editor in Chief Colman Andrews is a longtime fan of Central Texas culture, and certainly the magazine is well-positioned to further the festival's mission of spreading the Texas food and wine gospel to a larger audience. From this 18th year onward, the festival will be known as the Saveur Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival.

And thus the January kickoff reception in NYC. To celebrate the new partnership and introduce the festival to the East Coast media, Saveur -- with the enthusiastic assistance of festival staff and board members -- threw a Texas-style party at Danny Meyer's Jazz Standard and invited the press to come on down. And come they surely did.

According to Pam Blanton, the festival's director of public relations and sponsorships, more than 180 invited guests showed up from the newspapers, magazines, and TV, as well as numbers of New York restaurateurs and festival friends. (This is not to mention an unspecified number of crashers and wannabes, who seemingly could not resist the draw of such a bash.) At least one guest arrived with security, and Blanton related that a partygoer told her, "It felt like a Hollywood film opening, trying to get in through the crush at the door."

The kitchen hopped and kept the Austin-style noshes coming out. The guests apparently couldn't get enough of festival President Kevin Williamson's Ranch 616 buttermilk fried oysters; or Louis Lambert's signature beef salpicon tacos; or Quincy Erickson's baby pecan pies and cotija, smoked cheddar, and jalapeño tartlets. Under the leadership of Blue Smoke chef Kenny Callaghan, the Jazz Standard kitchen staff cheerfully cranked out frito pies, chili, housemade barbecue potato chips, and some stunning green-tomato empanadas. Austin's Word of Mouth Catering provided the party favors -- quantities of spiced Texas pecans.

At the bar, Hill Country wines flowed (Fall Creek, Spicewood, Alamosa, and Becker wineries) and those New Yorkers paid attention: tasting, comparing, and asking questions of the vintners. As always, Tito's Handmade Vodka made more than a few converts (and it's now on the bar menu at Jazz Standard and Blue Smoke).

Partygoers came early and stayed late -- schmoozing, chowing down, and listening to Austin's own Kimmie Rhodes and Joe Gracey. Among the revelers were staff from The New York Times, the New York Post, the Associated Press, CBS, Condé Nast Traveler, the James Beard Foundation, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Wine Spectator, MSNBC, Newsweek, Parade, NBC Weekend Today, and Good Morning America. The Austin contingent included Central Market, KLRU, the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, Texas Beef Council, Fall Creek Vineyards, Spicewood Vineyards, Alamosa Wine Cellars, and Becker Vineyards.

So, what's going on here? What is it about Texas food and Texas wine that so piques the interest of the larger food world? Why was everyone in New York so eager to attend the media party and so adamantly vowing that they'd not miss the festival here in April?

Surely, part of it is the ongoing national myth of Texas as the romantic and swashbuckling frontier. Part of it must be that Texas and Austin both are so regularly inserted into the national consciousness by media exposure: the music and film scenes here; the spreading popularity of Mexican food, tequila, and barbecue; NASA in the news; and, of course, the current resident of the White House.

And it is certainly clear that we're perceived as partiers extraordinaire, as people who know how to have a good time without pretense and without attitude. It's happened many times before -- when wildcatter Glen McCarthy threw the opening for Houston's Shamrock Hotel in 1939, Hollywood and New York couldn't get there fast enough, and the legendary party lasted for days (the event was later immortalized in the James Dean film classic Giant).

I think it's not a coincidence that two of New York's restaurateurs best known for hospitality, service, casual elegance, and lack of pretense -- Drew Nieporent and Danny Meyer -- have both attended past festivals, will be there this year, and are enthusiastic ambassadors and supporters. The values of hospitality, comfortable well-prepared food, and regional pride clearly resonate; I suspect that's our real draw to the rest of the world. As Saralegui (a former New Yorker) put it, "There's so much to celebrate here; it's all about a land and its people and what they produce."

The 2003 Saveur Texas Wine and Food Festival, "Stars Across America," will take place April 2-6. For details, go to Early inquiries are suggested -- events sell out quickly, and those New Yorkers will be beating down the door.

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