On Sunday afternoon, the last of the fire pit embers on the grounds of Butler Park withered away and the cleanup crew began the arduous task of collapsing the tents, trailering some 100-plus Weber grills and packing up the last little remains of the 2013 Austin Food and Wine Festival.
Considering the great lengths festival organizers took to improve upon the handful of misgivings from last year’s event, it’s fair to say that this year was a definite success. And from the cheerful glow among the laid-back flock of attendees — general admission (Taste) and V.I.P. (Savor) pass holders alike — who casually strolled the festival grounds sipping wine, nibbling food and striking up conversations with local and national chefs, it’s clear that this year’s event won’t soon be forgotten.
The weekend essentially began Thursday evening with what many have deemed the best Live Fire! event yet. Now in its third year, the Austin Food and Wine Alliance event drew a sold out crowd to the Salt Lick Pavilion in Driftwood for a celebration of meat, smoke and fire featuring more than a dozen Texas chefs. Top dishes included Josh Watkins of The Carillon with tasty beef chuck ribs, Tatsu-Aikawa of Ramen Tatsu-Ya with oxtail ramen and beef tongue chashu, Jesse Griffiths of Dai Due with flat iron steak tacos with spicy carrot-top salsa, and the Salt Lick with brisket tacos on house-made tortillas.
The Live Fire! event turned out to be the perfect lead up to whet food-fan appetites as the official Austin Food and Wine Festival launched its kick off Taste of Texas event Friday evening at Republic Square Park. This year, Taste pass holders were given the chance to purchase tickets to the event (as well as to Saturday’s Rock Your Taco party), and it was clear from the more robust crowd that many people took advantage of the opportunity.
Though lines were somewhat long — particularly for Franklin Barbecue and Uchi — they weren’t overbearing. With the lively tunes of the Whiskey Shivers and Delta Spirit on stage and a fleet of servers passing around trays of wines, beer and cocktails, the event boasted significantly more impressive offerings than last year. Top bites came from Philip Speer of Uchi/Uchiko who served two desserts including a play on banana pudding and tres leches with a caramelized milk chocolate sphere as well a lemongrass and spring pea cream with lime sorbet, pea bubbles and parsley cake; and Franklin Barbecue, which served (what else?) brisket. But other highlights included a boldly flavored meatball from Houston’s Chris Shepherd, and shrimp from John Besh’s Lüke restaurant in San Antonio.
Saturday morning started with a somewhat steamy beginning and a few ominous clouds hovering over the grassy digs of Butler Park. (They fortunately only brought the threat of rain rather than the real thing.) As festival goers wandered through the entrance, they were greeted by a large stage surrounded by a fleet of Weber grills and a back row of bleachers for participants and spectators in Fort Worth Chef Tim Love’s fan-favorite grilling 101 class, "Tailgating in Texas" — a packed and energetic crowd for a Saturday morning to say the least.
The grounds opened up to a wide expanse with a large tent pouring bottomless glasses of wines from a wide variety of sponsoring wineries. A large area hosted hand-made fire pits roasting whole pigs from Dallas chef Tim Byres, as well as a collection of Green Egg and hand-built brick grills from San Antonio Chef Jason Dady billowing the familiar aroma of campfire smoke and grilled meats. It was flanked on either side by rows of large tents set up for a series of wine tastings and chef cooking demonstrations.
Saturday’s highlights included a critical roundup of award-winning Texas wines from some of Austin’s top sommeliers (Craig Collins, Devon Broglie and June Rodil) as well as Food & Wine’s own Ray Isle; a creative spin on classic desserts from Uchi’s Philip Speer; a lesson on drinking like a pro from writer Mark Oldman who, along with offering many nuggets of wine wisdom, also taught a willing audience member how to saber a bottle of Champagne; and Jonathan Waxman’s approachable tips on how to make classic dishes like boeuf bourguignon.
The grounds were alive with guests milling around to different seminars and throughout the more expansive and open Grand Tasting Pavilion, which hosted a wider range of wines, beers and food (thank you Ranch 616 for serving classic Texas Frito pie!).
The day soon transitioned to an evening celebrating the beloved taco with more than a dozen chefs vying to win the coveted Rock Your Taco competition with their own creative spins on the famed Mexican street food. Last year’s taco champ was Uchi/Uchiko’s Tyson Cole and, as luck would have it, Cole nabbed the top honor again with a sushi-inspired smoked hamachi with green apple and Marcona almond served in a cleverly-crafted yucca root taco shell. Cole graciously accepted his award from special guest judge, and Texas rock icon Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top.
Sunday began as a fresh spring morning with Chef Tim Love up on stage again, this time giving his top grilling tips to a full house of grilling participants and spectators. Other guests made their way to the open seminar tents while Austin chefs Bryce Gilmore (Barley Swine), Jack Gilmore (Jack Allen’s Kitchen) and Rene Ortiz (La Condesa/Sway) manned the fire pits; Ortiz made smoked pig and grilled lamb, while the Gilmores, who fired things up starting at 3 a.m., had two goats on a roasting spit, grilled gulf shrimp and tasty treats pulled from a custom-made mobile brick oven.
Paul Qui fans squeezed into a standing-room-only tent to hear the celebrated Top Chef winner dish on seasonal and local ingredients from purveyors including Antonelli’s Cheese Shop. But many members from his crowd were soon lured away by the hoots and hollers from the boisterous crowd at the neighboring Marcus Samuelsson demo; Samuelsson's infectious personality quickly riled up the audience as he offered tips on how to make ramen your own.
Wine lovers nestled in for a quick lesson on Sicilian wines from Food & Wine critic Anthony Giglio, whose strong Italian heritage — by way of his home town of Jersey City — and magnetic charm had the audience drinking in every nuance he described on what is one of the lesser known Italian wine regions. (Full disclosure, I may have developed a bit of a crush on Giglio.)
Following his presentation of top Sicilian wines, Giglio saved the last few minutes to drive home one of his biggest pet peeves about wine: Most Americans serve white wine too cold and red wine way too warm. The common mistake with serving red wine is serving it at room temperature — which in Texas is upwards of 75-80 degrees. Instead, Giglio says the perfect temperature for red wine is at a chilled 55-65 degrees, which makes everything about the flavor of the wine “just right.”
And that's exactly how you could sum up the overall weekend: just right.
Comments from Taste and Savor pass holders alike trended significantly higher on the positive side with pros including more beer and wine, better activity seminars, greater opportunity to interact and learn from Fire Pit chefs, and more seating availability for all pass holders in seminar tents.
“This year was so much better than last year,” says Savor pass holder Andy Bailey. “For one, there’s no dust, it’s all grass. Plus, everything is closer together and more intimate. The Grand Tasting is cooler, with a more open format and better flow, and there was always something to do throughout the day. A definite improvement over all.”
The greatest commonality in feedback from everyone I talked to: we’ll be back next year. Here’s hoping the 2014 Austin Food and Wine Festival is as good as this year — if not even better.