First aid for the Austin Food & Wine Fest

By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 05.03.12
Auditorium Shores had all the charm of a prison-yard garden party for the debut of the Austin Food and Wine Festival last weekend. Dust and heat shimmered across the bald lawns as if driven by scirocco winds, and the Grand Tasting pavilion rose above the waste-scape like Bedouin tents across a high-horizon desert in a David Lean film. A scene as hot and messy as Lawrence’s sacking of Aqaba, with elusive rewards for the conquerors and no sympathy for either side, because complaining that your gourmet festival was too dusty is, as they say, one of those First World Problems. Here’s some whine to go with that cheese from this probationary first year.
► C3 will have to take ownership of the Auditorium Shores situation the way it did with Zilker Park. Either that or move the festival, because we can’t have company over if we can’t keep the place nice. Austin has two premium bandwidths of outdoor festival weather: early spring and late fall. Dozens of events jockey for a limited number of public spaces, so those spaces get beat to hell. The previous weekend's Reggae Fest guaranteed that whatever early spring vigor remained at Auditorium Shores would be rubbed bare. The Austin City Limits Festival is the reason there’s grass at Zilker, because C3 took proactive steps after 2008’s Grapes of Wrathapalooza, teaming up with the city to improve the grounds. If raising our national culinary profile is one of the festival’s intentions, we need a prettier spokesmodel than the dirty-foot wastrel on Lady Bird Lake.
 “But this isn’t Aspen.” How many times did I hear that in the debate over ticket prices? At $250 and $850, Austin isn’t close to the $1,125 they charge for the Aspen Food & Wine Classic in June. “But this isn’t Aspen.” True. In Aspen, the weather allows them to hold a festival in mid-June. The press photos show lawns around and even inside the tents. Their festival starts with a full Friday’s worth of events and runs through Sunday afternoon. Their names are bigger than ours: Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay, Tom Colicchio, Mario Batali, Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz. We can’t conjure mountains or hope for temperatures in the 60s and 70s. But we can do better than a backyard barbecue in a rubbed-out dog-and-jogger park.
 Kill the two-tier ticket system. One ticket, one price, all-access, even if it's $500. No matter how much you charge for a VIP ticket, let’s not pretend that $250 for the LIP (Less Important Person) badge was a cheap date. I saw a lot of Weekender badgeholders throw up their hands in aggravation after waiting in lines outside the tents only to see the separate VIP line fill all the good seats, especially for the premium events like Tim Love’s grilling demo and Tyson Cole’s roll-it-yourself sushi tent. It might not have been worth a $600 upgrade to grill your own New York strip or hear Lucinda Williams croak through “Drunken Angel” or sip champagne with Mark Oldman, but it sure as hell would’ve been better than flushing $250 to stand behind a barricade like a gawker at the Today Show, then fight the tent mobs for a bite of grocery-store cheese and a few sips of room-temp wine. An aside to friends-of-friends, exhibitors and a few press people: Never take a premium seat if it leaves a paying customer standing up. I may be new to the un-anonymous world of press badges, but I do know the pass I got from the organizers gave me access to the grounds as a working journalist, not as a member of the royal court. Along those lines, could we limit the big photo rigs to the first five minutes of the presentations instead of having them wander in and out the whole time? Standing on the periphery of the grilling show, mostly what I saw was the videographer’s backside. Fixed cameras, maybe? We’re not filming the kids from “Glee.”
 Half-drunk people don’t know when to shut up. The afternoon sessions got too much help from the crowd. Nobody paid to hear you “whoot” every time a celebrity mentions something you’ve heard of.
 Lines and crowd control. With no-reservation situations like Barley Swine and Franklin Barbecue and the prime hours at Uchi, you might say that Austin’s contribution to the national food discussion is that good things come to those who wait. If so, the festival was 100 percent Austin. From overhead, both the VIP and main festival grounds must have looked like a snakehandler’s convention, with long wavy lines extending from every tent, booth and bathroom. The lines for book signings ran right through the middle of the courtyard between the three Grand Tasting tents, adding to the beehive dance you get when people have no clear traffic lanes. At the VIP tastings, the lines drew out like spokes from a wheel, leaving only the hub of the concert stage clear for milling. A note to populist chefs: Build-it-yourself stations are a bad idea at a festival full of food people. They’re particular and inquisitive, and 10 options becomes an exponential bottleneck of indecision.
 More bathrooms. The line for the bathroom at an outdoor festival should never be more than two people long. The lines stretched 20 people deep outside the potty trailers, which to their credit had stalls and sinks. But I’d rather step into the Superman booth of a porta-potty than wait in line like a cross-legged second-grader with other pee-ple. For perspective, the Schlotzsky’s Bun Run — also happening along Auditorium Shores last weekend — had as many toilets as the Food & Wine Festival. And the St. Patrick’s Day Fest at the Dog & Duck Pub in March had even more. When we drinks, we has to go a wee bit more often.
 More food. This will alleviate the half-drunk problem and balance the dining-for-dollars equation. I felt sympathy for the harrowed few who plated hundreds of well-composed bites: Finn & Porter, Z’Tejas, Bess Bistro, Ranch 616, Stubb’s, Sullivan’s, Trace, Trento, Judges’ Hill, Holy Cacao, Delysia Chocolate, even H-E-B. Invite, pressure, cajole more people to come: the Larry McGuire empire (Perla’s, Fresa’s, Lamberts, Elizabeth Street), the Carillon, the Asti/Fino guys, Antonelli’s Cheese, Shawn Cirkiel’s group (Parkside, Backspace, Olive & June). This is Austin’s time to catch the wandering national eye. Don’t let Andrew Zimmern and Gail Simmons and Marcus Samuelsson steal our sunshine.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)