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Chefs Weigh In: The Pros and Cons of Food Festivals

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Welcome to Hot Topics, in which chefs chime in on a major issue in food.

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[Photo: Food & Wine Classic / Facebook]

With every passing year, there seem to be more and more food events — festivals, symposiums, charity functions, or some amalgam of the three — popping up across the country. Which begs a couple of important questions: which ones are worth it, and what are chefs looking for before they commit to traveling, spending time away from their restaurants, and investing money and effort into a production? With that in mind, we asked five chefs to reflect on the issue, which revealed that their main concerns tend to center around transparency, equity, rigor, and efficiency. But it's best to let them explain in their own words.

Here, now, Grant Achatz (Alinea, Chicago), John Currence (City Grocery, Oxford, Mississippi), Frank Falcinelli and Frank Castronovo (Frankies Spuntino, New York), and Michael Cimarusti (Providence, Los Angeles) take on the question.

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Grant Achatz

Restaurants: Alinea, Next, The Aviary — Chicago, Illinois

What kinds of festivals do you enjoy taking part in and what kinds of festivals tend to turn you off?
This is an interesting topic right now. There are certain events — and I'm not going to name names — that seem to leverage a chef's name for their publicity and public draw, and then the organizers claim to the chef that it's a not for profit situation or something along those lines. They'll say you're going to get so much publicity from participating that it's worth it to prepare 800 portions of your signature dish, when you're only getting a plane ticket for you and your assistant and one night in a hotel. They may even ask that you get your purveyors to donate the ingredients. Most supplies are donated to them — everything from food, serviceware, beverage, etc.

I definitely don't want to bash them all. There are some phenomenal events. For instance, I'm going to the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. It's not about pandering to the magazine — it's that it's really well put together. They draw excellent people, it's a beautiful setting, the wineries are fantastic, and the demos and panel discussions are interesting. It's first-class. Star Chefs, which might not be a food festival per se, even though the public can attend, is another wonderful opportunity.

There are events you just want to do because you're connected to the cause — when it's a real charitable event. Or you may be friends with an organizer or you're simply interested in what organizers are doing. We always honor charitable requests from organizations that are close to us and our investors. Our closest being the University of Chicago Cancer center, for which we recently raised $339,000 by donating proceeds from one table, sold at auction, per evening for our Next El Bulli menu. Ted Talks might not be a food festival, either, but it's something I'll point out here as being a compelling event.

I'm not going to lie. I look at these things as opportunities. We recently were flown to Japan, for example. All we had to do was present — not even demo — for an hour, and then we were able to parlay the visit into a research trip for the Kyoto menu of Next.

You may not agree with the premise of this question, but here goes: chefs have more notoriety and command more respect from the public these days. Do you think it's the case that the festivals you criticize may have been worth it years ago but are no longer as vital for a chef?
Partially. The organizers might ask for you to cook a dinner for 200 people. You'll go on the website and see what they're charging for it — something like $2500 per person. I don't want to sound greedy, but it begs the question, "Why are you leveraging me so that you can make money?" It's not about greed, it's about being fair.

Again, I'm not naming names, but why are all these food festivals popping up all over the country if no one is profiting from them? They wouldn't exist if they weren't making money. So, what do the chefs get from that? It just doesn't seem equitable.

And yeah, having more consideration for what the chef brings to the table is partially because of what you just said, even though it makes me feel weird to say that chefs are becoming more and more like celebrities.

Finally, can you talk a bit more about the problems with charity and food festivals?
That's the problem in general with charity. Very often, there isn't enough transparency. Let's put it this way: if someone approaches me and says, "Fly to Kansas City and cook a dinner with four other chefs, and it's going to be for oral cancer research." That's great. But then you go on the website and see what they're charging $1500 per ticket. You know that you have to cook for 300 people. That's back of the envelope math. Chances are that if they're doing that to the chef, they're probably doing it to the wine purveyors and everyone else. Do they ever send you a copy of the check that they wrote to the American Cancer Society? I'm obviously not suggesting that everyone who does these is dishonest, but we could use some more transparency.
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John Currence

Restaurant: City Grocery, Oxford Mississippi

Any general reflections on food events these days?
Right now, events are either dead-on or as wide of the mark as you could possibly imagine. There's very little in between.

Tell me more.
Festivals are set up for one of two things: for people that want to rub elbows with celebrities, or for people who are engaged with food and want to taste and learn and experience as much as they can. Right now, you have both of those going on.

Atlanta is an incredible example of the latter of those two. It's a big festival that is truly engaged in what I think is the most important part of our responsibility as chefs: educating people on the heritage and tradition and importance of the preservation of our food ways. At the same time, it gives people the entry point for understanding the way that we are changing how we eat.

What about the ones wide of the mark?
I had a meeting with our publicists recently and basically told them that I don't even want to consider events anymore that aren't involved in some intellectual pursuit, because I have a responsibility as a chef. Maybe it's just because I'm getting old, but my focus is on mentoring these days and doing outreach to educate kids or any adult that will listen to the fact that our factory foods are killing us.

I came as close to vomiting as I could when our accountant told us how much we had spent on travel, food, and time on the event schedule for last year. It was disturbing.

What are the economic sacrifices you have to make?
A lot of people don't realize where the hidden costs are in going to do a dinner somewhere. Even one course for one hundred people — if you're going to ship the ingredients over, you spend lots and lots of money. In addition to all the expenses, you're taking time away from your restaurant. The great festivals tend to be more conscious of those sacrifices and tend to be more respectful. Then there are the others that are just trying to put on a show. Once you agree to it, they'll tell you where you need to be and when, and that's it.

It's a lot easier for me to say these things now, since I've been doing this stuff for two decades. At the beginning, I would have made any sacrifice to make it happen.

I don't want to make this seem like it's all dollars and cents. I'll have been away from the restaurant 35 weekends by the time this year ends. I just think there's an odd parallel between the organizers that seem to care a bit more about the sacrifices the chefs make and events that are interesting. They try to compensate in every way that they can to show you that they appreciate your time. Those are the festivals where chefs will wrap up the weekend and then call other chefs who weren't there and tell them to make it happen next time. It happened to me with Palmetto Bluff this year, for example.

You suggest that because you've been around for a while and are established, you have the luxury of saying "No." But what about rising stars? Do they still have to participate in what you consider the sillier events?
The big festivals can be incredibly lonely. I remember how I hardly knew anybody, and the people in the crowd had very little idea about what City Grocery was about. But if you want to break in, I think you still need to play the game. And that's what everyone has to realize: unless you're in a major metropolitan area where a David Chang can stumble into your place and tell all his friends, it is a game you have to play to survive. There are very few examples of pure austerity out there.
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Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli

Restaurant: Frankies Spuntino, Francesca, and Prime Meats, NYC

What kinds of festivals are you attracted to?
FF: We just did Frieze, and it was so well organized and financed and efficient that it was great. They weren't looking for a big cut or to make money off of the restaurant. They just wanted to provide a great service.
FC: It was a whole different ballgame.

What are you guys not into?
FF: Just the lame stuff.

What constitutes "lame"?
FF: Lame is when the people involved aren't your peers, when it's not a good facility, when they plan something for Tuesday or the day after a holiday.
FC: We like to do things when there are other restaurants we love involved.

Why, for example, did you sign on for GoogaMooga?
FF: We thought Neil Young was playing!
FC: Well, they asked us first, because they were doing it in Brooklyn. And it was food first, music second. Then we started seeing all of these great people jump on, so it got good and exciting.

Do you find yourself agreeing to fewer things these days?
FC: Honestly, we did less stuff in the past and are doing more now.

How come?
FC: People ask and beg. If you're around for a while and are an established name, they want you more.

So you basically find yourselves doing favors?
FC: Yeah, man.
FF: A lot of the time, they need an anchor. Someone will call and say that Jean-Georges and Daniel Boulud are attached to an event. Are you going to say no? Conversely, especially for things in Brooklyn, they use us as the anchor and we do the outreach.
FC: And honestly, in a lot of these cases, the organizers are so good at what they do that you end up learning from them.
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Michael Cimarusti

Restaurant: Providence, Los Angeles, CA

What do you consider before committing to a food event?
There are two determining factors for me: if it's a charity event, which they usually are in some way or another, it has to be something that I truly can stand behind. It's a bit like Sophie's Choice, in the sense that these all tend to be really meaningful and you just have to weigh them based on your personal connection to that charity. For me, the ones that are near and dear are the Special Olympics and Meals on Wheels and Alex's Lemonade. That's one of the first things I look for.

Next, I consider the promotional aspect. Is it an event that will represent or showcase the restaurant properly? Some events are clearly run better than others. For instance, I love Pebble Beach, which brings in great chefs from around the country and the world. There's a charitable aspect to it, but you also get to meet wonderful people and you have a thoughtful audience.

What are some of the negatives you've encountered over the years?
There are some events that make it difficult to be charitable. It's important to remember when you go to these things that everyone there is donating their time, money, and manpower. The inefficient ones, the ones that lack the basic resources, make it very difficult for you to put your best foot forward. They need to be run well so that the people involved can do something close to what you do at your restaurants.

Other chefs I've talked to suggest that there can sometimes be a lack of transparency.
I've never seen a report that specifically says the amount of money donated, but there are some charities that have been around for a while and do really tangible good. Those are the people I try to work with. My wife, for example, is on the board of the Special Olympics here, and I have intimate knowledge of the good they do.

Do you find yourself doing more or less events these days?
It's been pretty steady. Maybe this year we'll do a few less, but there's always something that comes up that's too worthwhile to say "No" to.

In general, it's tough to decline, because a lot of these events have very worthwhile charities behind them. Saying "no" might suggest that you're not interested in the cause, but it's usually never because of that. You just can't do them all.
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