Please forgive the mindblowing lateness of this post, but I have spent the past several weeks working on getting this website up and running. There is still work to be done, so let's call this the "soft launch" of JeffAmador.com, but I did, however, still wish to finally share my experience and photos from the 2014 Austin Food & Wine Festival, as it was quite an eye-opening and fun experience...let's just get right down to business...
When reading other posts and articles about the Austin Food & Wine Festival, one word tends to consistently appear: overwhelming. Personally, the festival experience, ANY festival experience, mind you, can be fairly daunting to navigate. When the primary focus of a festival is on providing attendees with a seemingly endless supply of delicious food (and constant flow of various wines and spirits), the experience can certainly be, well...overwhelming. As this was my first time attending the Austin Food & Wine Festival, I didn't know exactly what to expect, but I did my very best to plan out which demos and panels I wanted to attend, which chefs I wanted to meet or chat with, and most importantly, which foods I wanted/NEEDED to eat. However, as soon as I walked into the gates of the festival on this cloudy Saturday morning, I went a little hog-wild...
While it would be nearly impossible to go through the entire festival weekend, there were definitely a few highlights that are worth sharing:
Chef Demo with David Bull of Congress and Second Bar + Kitchen
While the first bite that I had upon entering the festival was the grilled pork tongue from Chef Paul Qui, I immediately set my sights upon a chef demo with Chef David Bull of Congress and Second Bar + Kitchen. Having been impressed by Chef Bull's food at his downtown restaurants, I was intrigued by the panel's promise of providing attendees with a "flavor profiling demonstration to wow your taste buds." Guests were seated at round tables and presented with a plate of seemingly unrelated ingredients: salt, lemon, maple syrup, arugula, whipped heavy cream, and black pepper. Chef Bull walked guests through a tasting of each ingredient, with instructions to focus on what taste sensation (sweet, sour, acid, etc.) each ingredient brought and where these sensations were felt in your mouth. Gradually, each ingredient was paired with the other ingredients to note how the various combinations affected the taste. Arugula was dipped in maple syrup to see how the sweetness altered the peppery notes of the arugula. The maple syrup, lemon, and salt were added to the whipped cream, and Chef Bull used this to create a base for an arugula salad and dressing made with several of the same components. It was fascinating to hear how Chef Bull uses this technique to develop dishes in the kitchen, noting that these various complimentary taste and flavor sensations work together to create a complete dish. I have certainly been trying to utilize this approach more often when cooking at home, so I am happy to have been able to attend this panel.
Hops Aboard! Beer Panel Discussion
As I have spent the past (just over a) year getting more and more into the craft beer "scene" in Austin, when the opportunity to hear from the head brewers of Hops & Grain Brewing, Jester King Brewery, and Austin Beerworks presented itself, I made it a priority to attend. The panel discussion was led by Craig Collins, master sommelier and beverage program director for the ELM Restaurant Group (Easy Tiger, Arro, and 24 Diner), and the brewers discussed their respective approaches to brewing beer, changes in the market, and hopes for the future growth of the craft beer industry throughout the country. It became clear from the discussion that each of these men take a lot of pride in their work, have a great fondness and respect for each other, and see the beer industry continuing to grow as craft beer continues to get nationwide attention. In (a very pleasant) addition, each of the brewer's provided guests with a sampling of some of their signature beers, including the debut of one of Jester King's latest offerings, Hibernal Dichotomous, a barrel-aged farmhouse ale with lavender, rosemary, spearmint, and watermelon juice added during the aging process. Just delightful!
Salt & Time Charcuterie Discussion with the Austin Food & Wine Alliance
Anybody that follows me on Twitter is probably well aware that I am moderately obsessed with Salt & Time, the full-service butcher shop, salumeria, and restaurant on East 7th street. I was excited when the Austin Food & Wine Alliance announced that they were bringing Salt & Time owners, Ben Runkle and Bryan Butler, to their tent for a discussion about their process of curing meats, as well as their experience over the past year of being open and providing the lucky citizens of Austin with some of the freshest and highest quality meats in town. While I had visited the shop for lunch and dinner many times, this was my first time to try any of Salt & Time's cured meats, as the owners graciously supplied guests with a beautifully presented charcuterie board containing some of their most popular offerings, including: coffee lomo, coppa, two types of salami, and n'duja, a spicy Calabrian salami that is spreadable at room temperature. I was blown away by the complexity of flavors of each different meat, and it was fascinating to hear about how much work and time one must invest into the process of curing meats, as well as how Salt & Time has adjusted from being a small farmers market operation to being one of the premiere meat suppliers for Austin residents and restaurants, alike.
BBQ (of course!)
No Austin food event would be complete (or LEGIT, for that matter), without featuring Austin's most glorious culinary attraction: BBQ! The Austin Food & Wine Festival definitely did their part by bringing in some of the most talented BBQ pitmasters and chefs to show and tell how they cook meat with fire. Barbecue royalty, Aaron Franklin of Franklin BBQ, was on hand for a day, slowly pulling meat off of his traveling smoker throughout the day, so as to avoid the typical Franklin-related line hullabaloo. Small crowds gathered as Franklin discussed his process, talked about the various cuts of meat, and sliced samples direct from the board to festival attendees' mouths (and he was nice enough to offer me a Real Ale Hans Pils beer, absolutely perfect for the rising temperatures of the second day of the festival). A delicious brisket sample was also provided by the folks from the Noble Sandwich Co., good enough to inspire several visits to the new Burnet Road shop already, and Schmidt Family Barbecue from Bee Cave were also on hand with massive, black-crusted briskets and incredibly moist smoked turkey. We Austinites are incredibly spoiled by the quality and quantity of exceptional BBQ in town, and I have no doubt that non-local festival-goers got a great taste of what Texas BBQ has to offer.
And finally, the epic Grand Tasting Pavilion
The largest and most overwhelming area of the festival was without a doubt, the Grand Tasting Pavilion, a massive area of the park with rows and rows of food and drink vendors showering festival attendees with an astonishing array of culinary delights and perhaps a little something to wash them down. The Chef Showcase stalls featured some of Austin's most prominent restaurants and chefs, including, but not even closely limited to: Alison Jenkins and Janina O'Leary of LaV, Shawn Cirkiel of parkside (among others), and Lawrence Kocurek of Trace. As the Grand Tasting Pavilion runs the entire time of the festival weekend, there was no shortage of incredible bites and samples that were available whenever and wherever you looked. I was amazed by Chef Kocurek's take on a croque madame sandwich, offering mini-sandwiches with duck bacon and quail eggs, and the team behind LaV create such beautiful dishes, including black sea bass tartare with smoked eggplant and harissa, as well as chocolate marcona almond financiers for dessert, they are almost too nice to eat. Almost.
While the festival was absolutely exhausting and had me on a very vegetable-heavy recovery diet for awhile after, I walked away very impressed by the organization and sense of community at the event. I learned a lot, met a lot of fellow members of the Austin food community, and had some incredible food. It was definitely a milestone moment for my continued involvement in the food scene, and I very much look forward to the event next year. Please check out the slideshow below for more highlights of the feasting!