Austin Food & Wine: How to fix a festival

By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 04.24.14
After an inaugural year marked by dust, heat and a trip to the E.R., Craig and Martha Broadbent came back to the Austin Food & Wine Festival in 2013 for seconds, even at $850 apiece. The retirement-age couple from Garland was everywhere: At Republic Square Park for the Taste of Texas kickoff. At their Weber kettle for chef Tim Love’s grillorama. At the festival’s Fire Pit eating smoked cauliflower. Standing in line at Rock Your Taco. In a pedicab riding into the figurative sunset. They had a great time.
But they had a great time the first year, too. Even as the wind blew dust in their wineglasses and Martha Broadbent cut herself so badly in the Grand Tasting tent that she spent time at Brackenridge Hospital. It’s all in the attitude. “People determined to have a bad time will have a bad time,” Craig Broadbent said.
(Photos at top, clockwise from left: Highlights from the 2013 Austin Food & Wine Festival include Barley Swine chef Bryce Gilmore's Fire Pit dish, 'Top Chef" Paul Qui's cooking demo and a session on low-cost, high-value wines.)
There it is, really. The answer to whether the festival — which kicks off tonight with a sold-out Feast Under the Stars dinner and runs through Sunday — is worth $250 for the Taste pass or $850 for the all-inclusive Savor pass. How much is a good time worth to you? Let’s say you’re hoping to recoup your money in food and wine alone. Even if you priced every sample at $5, you’d have to down 50 canapes, cheese cubes and sloshes of merlot to pay for the Taste ticket and 170 for the Savor. Not a bad goal, but kind of a joyless death march down the math path. (See schedules and buy tickets at the festival’s website here.)
So what else is there? A $250 “Taste” ticket buys entry to the festival grounds at Butler Park from 11-4 on Saturday and 11-3 on Sunday.
In the Grand Tasting pavilion, you can eat and drink to your legal limit (and beyond) from winemakers like Byron, Duckhorn and Matanzas Creek and restaurants including the new Blackbird and Henry, the Dojo and Schmidt Family Barbecue. There’s more food at two Fire Pits, where chefs Bryce Gilmore, Paul Qui, Aaron Franklin and more will cook over open flames.
In theory, that $250 ticket also means you can attend any panel or cooking demo, from “Top Chef” celeb Richard Blais’ preview of his new Juniper & Ivy restaurant to wine vivant Mark Oldman’s bubbly tutorial to TV’s Andrew Zimmern doing single-entendre jokes about meatballs.
(More 2013 highlights, clockwise from top left: A cooking demo from chefs Merlin Verrier and Graham Elliot. Elliot's returning this year, as are TV personality Andrew Zimmern and Austin chef Shawn Cirkiel.)
In reality, most of those seats will go to the holders of $850 “Savor” tickets. They’ll have first dibs on the Webers for Tim Love’s hands-on grilling sessions, for the barbecue demo with Franklin and Wayne Mueller, for Ray Isle’s “Wine Pairing 101.” In addition, the $850 ticket buys access to the 18-chef Taste of Texas event at Republic Square Park on Friday and Saturday night’s Rock Your Taco, where 14 chefs of national renown will make handheld haute cuisine. And there’s a “Savor” lounge with more food and drinks.
Neither ticket is cheap, but from a pure value perspective, I don’t like standing at the barricades for $250. And while you get much more for $850, I figure the $1,700 you’d spend for two tickets would buy seven or eight nice dinners for two, without the crowds. The sweet spot for me? The festival is letting holders of the $250 Taste tickets buy Taste of Texas and Rock Your Taco passes separately for $150 apiece.
Listen, I can watch Rick Bayless, Ming Tsai and Mike Lata cook on TV. But at Saturday’s Rock Your Taco, I can actually taste their food. So for an extra $150, my $250 pass could become a figurative plane ticket to Chicago, Boston and Charleston. And that’s more in line with my suggestion in 2012 that the festival adopt a one-ticket system, even if that one ticket were $500.
(Left: The map of Butler Park for the 2014 festival. Top right: Butler Park is a little worse for wear this year compared to 2013, below right.)
The one-ticket system didn’t happen, but the festival fixed just about everything else on my “Whine and Cheese” punchlist from the first year:
► Festival producer C3 Presents will have to take ownership of the shabby condition of Auditorium Shores the way it did with Zilker Park and Austin City Limits. Which is exactly what they did, partnering with the City of Austin to add irrigation and other improvements. As a result, Auditorium Shores is closed for repair, and the festival is spending a second year at Butler Park before it moves back across the street next year.
► A word on Butler Park. After 2012’s dust bowl at Auditorium Shores, Butler Park was like an oasis, with green lawns and a more compact space to facilitate getting to more of the frustratingly overlapping demo sessions. This year’s a different story. Last weekend’s Reggae Fest and another year of drought have rubbed patches of Butler Park almost raw. The forecast calls for upper 80s to low 90s, moderate winds and only slight chances of rain for Saturday and Sunday, conditions that might lead to another gritty weekend. A C3 spokesperson said, “We are working with Austin Parks to make sure Butler Park is in the best condition possible, including increased watering efforts for this week following Reggae Fest.”
► Crowd control, lines and bathrooms. 2013 marked a big improvement in the traffic weaving in and out of the Grand Tasting tents and the book-signing lines, and they were untangled and straightened like mountain roads through the suburbs. Neither did I see the long bathroom lines of the year before.
► More food and a greater Austin presence. Two birds, one stone. In addition to almost doubling the number of vendors offering food samples, the festival added daily Chef Showcases at the Grand Tasting, which means samples from Austinites such as Josh Watkins of the Carillon, the team from the Bonneville, Shawn Cirkiel’s Parkside group, Allison Jenkins from laV, along with chefs from Salt & Time, Trace, Swift’s Attic, Epicerie, Noble Sandwiches and more. Outside, some of last year’s best food came from the Fire Pit, and this year they’ve added a second pit.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking; map courtesy of the Austin Food & Wine Festival)