Ever since the announcement of the new Austin Food and Wine Festival scheduled to roll into town April 27-29, there has been a mixed bag of positive and negative responses. Some people are thrilled to show off Austin to a national festival while others have been disappointed with the idea, even threatening to boycott the event altogether.
I'm writing to the complainers. Why so negative, Austin? This isn't the warm and welcoming side of you that we know and love.
It's ok to be sad that the 26-year Texas Hill Country Food And Wine Festival has come to an end. But we still have the newly founded, non-profit, Austin Food and Wine Alliance around to maintain its spirit.
And there's no need to turn your back on what could be a great opportunity for Austin. What better way for some our local top chefs to have an opportunity to get their hands dirty with culinary greats from all over the country?
Complaint #1: It's Too Expensive!
The most frequent complaint I hear is the cost: $250 for a ticket? Yeah, at first glance, that's a lot of money. But let's break it down. For $250 you get access to nearly all of the weekend’s events. If you take a look at the lengthy schedule, that’s a lot of bang for your buck, and you’ll be able to eat and drink your way through most of them.
Let's compare: If you were a regular attendee of the previous food and wine festival then you know you had to pay from $35 to $150 for each event separately. If you went to just three events during that weekend — including one evening event at $100 alone — then you likely spent more than $250 anyway.
Complaint #2: I Like To Bring My Kids!
There are those who have complained because they can no longer bring their kids to Sunday Fair which was a large outdoor event with hundreds of food vendors and often quite a few more wine booths. For about $30, it was essentially a cheap way to walk around all afternoon with a bottomless glass of wine and a few nibbles from area restaurants before driving back from either Driftwood or Georgetown — where the event was often held in previous years — and hope you were sober enough to do so.
Now, I'm a new parent, and I love giving my son new things to experience. But strapping him to a stroller for an afternoon so I can stuff my face and get a buzz on with 2-ounce pours of wine is not one of them. There are some places where kids belong, and some places where they don't. A food and wine festival is one of the "don'ts." Austin has plenty of other kid-friendly festivals, take your kid to Zilker Park for the Kite Festival instead.
You can't get Loup de Mer or Japanese Sea Bream in the Gulf of Mexico, friends. And if you could, they probably wouldn't taste very good.
Complaint #3: We Should Support Our Local Food Economy.
I know the big thing in Austin is to "buy local," which extends to supporting the local food purveyors. And that's a great thing. But using local ingredients isn't exactly a new concept. Any high caliber chef with a good palate knows that the best fruits and vegetables are the freshest ones from a garden that didn't have to travel far. Chefs — good chefs anyway — have been sourcing locally since the beginning of time.
While I commend the chefs that make a go of the “100% local” effort, the truth is, if you get too caught up with the “cause/agenda,” then you sometimes run into the danger of serving mediocre food. Especially in Texas.
There's a reason certain produce from California tastes better; that fish originally from Spain or Japan is flavorfully transcending; or a 20-year-old Bordeaux from a Left Bank French chateau is heavenly. It's because they all come from the climate, the soil, the place from which they should come. Some people call it terroir. I call it God's invitation to get out of your little home bubble and try something really good; the way it is meant to taste.
If you take a look at the restaurants and chefs who are "killing it" in terms of local and national success, they are doing their part to source locally when they can, but they are also expanding our palates with new and exciting things to try. Uchi and Uchiko — home of Top Chef Paul Qui and James Beard award winner Tyson Cole (both also 2012 Tastemaker nominees) — wouldn't be doing so well if all they served was Gulf shrimp, seasonal Gulf oysters and red fish and snapper on their menu year round. You can't get Loup de Mer or Japanese Sea Bream in the Gulf of Mexico, friends. And if you could, they probably wouldn't taste very good.
Another word on "local."
Austinites seem to have battled this identity problem for years. I was raised in Austin and have been here for most of my life. I love my hometown. And in the 30+ years I’ve been here, I can safely say that I have witnessed a culinary evolution that is nothing short of beautiful. Austin's savvy chefs have figured out a way to educate the myriad diners here who may have never traveled anywhere, while at the same time impressing those who have moved here from larger cities around the world.
This culinary evolution would not have happened if it hadn't been from national and global influences from outside of our little "Idea City." Influences from the likes of Thomas Keller, Jose Andres and Morimoto. Chefs have had to pay attention to what was going on in the food world way beyond the boundaries of Austin to bring us flavor profiles that raise the bar well above the average barbecue and Tex-Mex joint — not that those cuisines don't have their well deserved place in Austin.
Do you honestly think we're getting chefs with James Beard nominations, and myriad accolades from Food & Wine and Bon Appetit magazines because they all operate their ideas strictly inside the bubble of Austin? It's precisely because they don't that we get such a rich balance of no-boundaries, globally-inspired cooking here.
The only true reason I can glean for why some people are so down on this festival is simply because we’re afraid of something new. And that’s just silly.
What Happened To Our Friendly Town?
People love Austin because it's one of the friendliest towns in Texas. Because we welcome all walks of life, not just the ones we pick and choose. As a native, I'll admit there are times when I want to tattoo my forehead with "Welcome to Austin, please remember to leave," but for the most part, I love the diversity our city has developed and continues to receive. Believe me, Austin didn't get this cool because we're strictly a town of natives.
So why are we whining about a handful of nationally-recognized chefs and wine experts coming here to enjoy a few days of wine and food?
Is there not a little hypocrisy here? We rush to buy tickets to the Austin City Limits Music Festival. We clamor to hammer out our schedule and "hookie" excuses to leave work during the week of SXSW so we can see bands from all over the world. Do you think ACL and SXSW aren't making a pretty penny off of these two globally-renowned events? So how is the Austin Food and Wine Fest any different?
It's not. We can celebrate our local food, libations and purveyors all year long. And people who come here from out of town will see that, whether they're walking around the festival grounds in April or not. Because it's simply impossible to miss!
Just as ACL and SXSW have helped to raise the bar for the Music Capital of the World, events like the AFWF can only do the same for our culinary scene. The only true reason I can glean for why some people are so down on this festival is simply because we’re afraid of something new. And that’s just silly.
If a weekend of food and wine gluttony is not your thing, that's just fine. Spend your time on the lake, or in the Hill Country or at home cutting your lawn. But if food and wine is your thing and you're just trying to take some silly stand against something that could ultimately be really good for this city, then I suggest you make an attitude adjustment and decide to join in on the fun!
I'll see you in April at the festival.