Austin Food & Wine Festival: Q&A w/Charlie Jones

By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 04.27.12
The Austin Food & Wine Festival starts its three-day run today (April 27) with the New Taste of Texas event at Republic Square Park at 5:30. The walkaround tasting is open only to people who paid $850 for VIP tickets. That ticket price — along with the $250 regular tickets — has been one of many flashpoints for a festival that in one broad gesture last May announced it would bring Food & Wine magazine, celebrity chefs and food-driven national attention to Austin, propelled by C3 Presents, the promoter behind Austin City Limits and Lollapalooza. The hitch in that announcement: the new festival would replace and end the 26-year-old Hill Country Wine & Food Festival with its focus on Texas and tickets as low as $45 for its own walkaround Sunday Fair.
To get a handle on the new festival, I invited C3 partner Charlie Jones to join me for a dinner review at the new South First restaurant called Lenoir. He said during an interview last year that he’d like to see what goes into reviewing a place. Seemed like a fair trade.
We covered the rules: Reserve under a fake name, no flash photography, nothing gets touched until I shoot it, nobody orders the same thing and I get a taste of everything. With that out of the way, Jones and I talked about how everybody should be required to work in the service industry, at least for awhile. About gardening. About the ringing in our ears. Me from standing too close to the speakers at Joe Ely, him from a comm-link blast at Pearl Jam. And finally, about the evolution of the Austin food scene and the festival he and restaurateur Jesse Herman and chefs Tyson Cole and Tim Love brought to Austin, ready or not.
Get details of the festival — which runs through Sunday at Auditorium Shores and features food stars Gail Simmons, Andrew Zimmern, Jonathan Waxman, Tim Love, Marcus Samuelsson and many others for cooking demonstrations and tastings — at
Mike Sutter / Fed Man Walking: Gary Clark Jr. notwithstanding, Austin’s breakout stars of the past year haven’t been musicians. They’ve been cooks: Paul Qui, Bryce Gilmore, Aaron Franklin. How do you account for cooks becoming the new rock stars?
Charlie Jones of C3 Presents: I don’t think that you can look at it quite from that perspective. We have an exciting, vibrant music scene here. Always have. Not necessarily the big stars. But what Austin does is foster the creative environment that now works for chefs, that always worked for musicians, for tech people. It works for a lot of different industries. And I think it’s working right now for the restaurant people.

Among the three C’s of C3 — Charles Attal, Charlie Walker and you — do you guys have unique powers? I have this image of you guys as the Avengers. Like who’s Thor or Tony Stark or the Hulk?
Absolutely. We’ve been competitors and friends at the same time for 15 years. All of us have risen up in our industry from different angles. Charlie Walker’s last job was president of North America for LiveNation, the biggest concert promoting company in the world, so he is really good at running a business. And Charles (Attal) and I, we’re more on the artistic side. I was on the public assembly and festivals and his was more straight talent-buying and picking the hot bands. He has a good ear. If we were to break it up, Walker more or less runs our business, Charles Attal’s about the bands and talent and I create events and kind of run our specialty division for special public assemblies or private events during South by Southwest or election night for Barack Obama.
As a team, Billboard Magazine placed the three of you at No. 33 in this year’s Power 100.  That was only six spots below U2 at 27 and way ahead of Ryan Seacrest at 64. Does that mean you get your own trailer now? What has that done for your self-esteem?
At our gigs we always have our own trailer. We hear good news and bad news and we operate the same way every day. We’re fortunate to be in a business that we all enjoy and we’re passionate about and to live in a great city like Austin. We just put our heads down and do what we love doing.
There was speculation when you announced the Food & Wine Festival last year that it was presented as an ultimatum to the Hill Country Wine & Food Festival. Join us or get steamrolled. Anything to that?
I think that’s unfair to say.
Cathy Cochran-Lewis of the Hill Country festival was more magnanimous when I talked to her last year. She said that you and (Uchi chef and owner) Tyson Cole approached her and said, “What can we do? How can we work together to make this work?”
Absolutely. I’m very passionate about the food and wine industry. I don’t have a restaurant, but I take a very proactive approach to my music festivals to make sure we have good food components.
I see what’s happening in America with food and wine and the change in our culture. People are spending a lot of money on remodeling not their homes but their kitchens, spending a lot of money on wine. Places like this (Lenoir) are working. Then there’s a food and wine festival component that has been more about the trades. I’ve always had this goal of trying to find this middle ground where it was more about the general public and the trades at the same time.
That’s where the idea came up. Austin’s an emerging food scene. I wanted to do something but at the same time I was hearing through the music festivals that Austin really needs a higher-level food and wine festival that’s not just about regional cuisine and wine. And I absolutely agree. So we sat down and met with them (the Hill Country festival organizers) and let them know that we have this goal of creating something new but that we did not want to get conflicted with them. There’s a lot of people on the board that I respect, and I respect the history of what they’ve done. And collectively we agreed that this could be something that could be good for the city and ultimately good for their foundation, going back to their original mission.
How do you guys mesh with Food & Wine magazine? Obviously they’re veterans of this kind of thing.
They were very involved in the programming as far as picking the chefs and their classes. In that particular industry, it helped us with credibility as an inaugural event. Some people still think it’s the Hill Country Wine and Food Festival. Some people think it’s a Food & Wine thing that’s been going on for 20 years.
The ticket prices caused a commotion. There were complaints that $250 for the Weekender pass excludes people and $850 for VIP made people feel even more left out. What was the reaction at C3?
It’s an inaugural event. There’s a lot of things we’re going to do right and lots we’re going to do wrong. We basically had to take what we knew that works at other food and wine festivals around the country and try to take good components and bad components, put them with what we thought would work here in Austin and realize that after the first year we’d make changes. We got a lot of flak about the ticket prices.
How many people can the festival accommodate?
The venue can hold 10,000 or 15,000 people. It’s not possible to deliver a good food and wine experience for that many people. Based on the number of chefs we have doing stuff, the venue that we’re in, we’ll probably shoot for around two to three thousand people.
What do you think you’re doing right so far?
One of the negative things I hear, even about cooking classes, but at food and wine festivals you watch this great stuff being prepared. And a lot of times you don’t even get to taste it. It’s like you learn and watch and then you get hungry and mad. Especially grilling demos. So (Fort Worth chef) Tim Love and I were talking about how there’s got to be a way to involve more people and actually do a hands-on demo. You can watch somebody grill, but until you start the fire and you go through the whole process, you don’t really learn. Grilling is something you really have to get the touch and feel and experience before you get better at it. So we came up with a hands-on grilling demo.

How’s that going to work?
We’re setting up a hundred grills and prep stations for 200 people. So when they get there they’ll have a cooler, their cutting board, all their utensils. They will go from building the fire to prep to cooking to eating. Tim came to town and we did a dry run-through in my front yard. We brought in a couple of guys. One who’s a weekend warrior grilling expert, one who was kind of intimidated by grilling and one who just wants to learn. We had a lot of extra food, and the sun was still up, so I went to my garden and picked a bunch of artichokes and watched Tim prep them.
You grow artichokes in your garden? What else?
I cheat a little bit. I get help from an East Austin farm called Rain Lily. We turn it over every season, keep it organic. In the wintertime, it’s the appropriate greens, cabbages, broccoli, turnips. Right now we’re flipping it for the summer stuff. So it’s mostly row after row of different kinds of tomatoes. Mostly Italian varietals, because I like to can and cook with my own tomatoes all year long. There’s a Japanese eggplant that does well in Texas. All different types of peppers. Hot, mild. We’ll do a little okra. We’re in the second season of our asparagus beds, so they’re finally starting to come through. Beans, squashes.
Do you cook?
It’s my favorite hobby.
Have you ever worked a restaurant job?
Since I moved here in ‘90, I bartended at Houston’s, which is now Bartlett’s. I waited tables at Pappadeaux until I got fired for missing too many shifts. From there I reopened Cain & Abel’s on Rio Grande. I was the bar manager. I went back to school and I took an internship that led me to the Backyard and the concert business. I was like a fish to water. That’s what I wanted to do. I bartended to pay my bills, worked at the Backyard as an intern for free and a volunteer band-runner on the weekends.
Prior to that, me and my best friend that I grew up with, we wanted to open up a bar and restaurant. I went the family route, through all my relatives to raise money to allow me to do something like that. Fortunately — for me and them — they didn’t give me the money.
Let’s talk about the restaurant experience here, the customer service.
Austin in general has had a reputation for many years of having successful restaurants with bad food and bad service. This whole new emergence of good food and good service is changing the landscape here and forcing restaurants that have been around for a long time to adapt. Something else I’m noticing now. People don’t mind coming in and paying 10, 12, 14 dollars a plate for food. But if you charge $25 a plate, they start to get a little standoffish. But they’ll sit down and pay $15 for a top-shelf margarita or a glass of wine all day.
Doesn’t seem fair in a way.
I think it’s taken time for the food to catch up. We’ve always had good margaritas. It’s one of the few cities in America where you know you can get a fresh lime margarita. Go outside of Austin and you’re getting sweet-and-sour. They should pay me $15 to drink it.
Put wheels on the food vendors at the Austin City Limits Festival and you could call it a food-truck festival. Are you happy with the way the food-and-drink part of ACL has worked?
I’ll never take it for granted, but I think it’s a great experience for the person going to the festival. You’re getting something that would normally cost more and you’re getting it fast. I won’t deny that I’ve put people in line and timed restaurants. If they can’t turn it fast enough, they’re gone.
(Festival map and celebrity headshots from Austin Food & Wine Festival. Celebrities, clockwise from top left: Paul Qui, Gail Simmons, Jonathan Waxman and Andrew Zimmern. Other photos by Mike Sutter / Fed Man Walking.)