As far back as February, the hype around this year’s Austin Food + Wine Festival had been everywhere. Now hosting its seventh annual weekend feast, the festival boasted an array of talent from across the country, and Black Texas was there to check out the action with one lingering question from our readers: Was it worth the $625 VIP price tag?
This year’s chef lineup saw more than 70 chefs, vineyards, and distillers bring their A-game to the table with amazing dishes to try. I can admit, I was a bit disappointed to see only two Black chefs on the line-up — not to say that the chefs chosen aren’t talented, but there are likely many equally talented culinary professionals from diverse backgrounds like Nyesha Arrington, a festival favorite from the weekend, who comes from an Asian and African-American background.
Saturday and Sunday’s fanfare was a fun adventure, to say the least. The festival featured food from many local restaurants, and the ever-popular fire pit area which lived up to the hype with offerings ranging from BBQ and fired meats to cheeses and finger foods. Along with the plentiful vendors under the tents, the food was fantastic. Pair that we the right drinks and you’ve got an Austin oasis for foodies.
The drinks flowing over the course of the festival were tantalizing to say the least. There was enough alcohol to fill Barton Springs, with offerings from big brands such as Maker’s Mark and Texas’ own Tito’s Handmade Vodka as well as local favorites like Celis Brewery and Beatbox Beverages, which was featured on ABC’s Shark Tank. With practically limitless libations, if you found yourself thirsty, you were doing it wrong. And while the festival’s main attraction is amazing on its own, it’s Rock Your Taco that steals the show.
Saturday evening, a couple of hours after the festival shuts down for the day, those with a VIP wristband are able to hop back north of the river to see the competitive edge of some of the biggest chefs from the roster at Rock Your Taco. Chefs faced off in a battle royale to see who’s taco takes the cake. This year’s lineup included Tatsu Aikawa & Takuya Matsumoto (Ramen Tatsu-Ya, Kemuri Tatsu-Ya); Nyesha Arrington (Native; Los Angeles); Jamie Bissonnette (Toro, Coppa, Little Donkey; Boston & NYC); 2017’s Rock Your Taco champion, Tyson Cole (Hai Hospitality: Loro); Andrew Curren (ELM Restaurant Group); Cassidee Dabney (The Barn at Blackberry Farm; Walland, TN); Jason Dady (Jason Dady Restaurants; San Antonio); Amanda Freitag (Chopped); Diego Galicia & Rico Torres (Mixtli; San Antonio); Ray Garcia (Broken Spanish; Los Angeles); Stephanie Izard (Girl & The Goat, Little Goat, Duck Duck Goat; Chicago); Paul Kahan (One Off Hospitality Group; Chicago); Tim Love; Bryan Voltaggio (Volt; Frederick, MD); and Michael White (Altamarea; London, Istanbul, Hong Kong, New Jersey, NYC, Washington, D.C.).
Each chef created an original take on the taco for guests to enjoy, including ingredients like swordfish, BBQ beef tongue, and even octopus. In the end, Chef Jamie Bissonnette took home the famous guitar trophy with his winning taco, despite Nyesha Arrington’s dish being the crowd favorite.
Although the festival is a great experience, there is still room for improvement, however.
For the $625 VIP experience, it’s a bit of a tough sell for the average foodie. It’s easy to find yourself waiting in line for 15 to 30 minutes for a single tasting, which eats away at time for the other activities like chef demos and wine tasting demos. Whether you’re dropping $625 or $250 to enjoy the experience, expect most of your time to be spent standing in line. The lack of tents, fans, and adequate seating made it difficult to want to stay for the entire time and sweat through the heat.
Saturday evening’s Rock Your Taco seems to be very well planned out, but it’s easily hurt by the long lines as well. One tip the festival organizers may want to take is to allow guests to vote for their favorite taco to create engagement and a second opportunity for a chef’s cooking to speak for itself. Nyesha Arrington’s line stretched across half the venue at its peak, but somehow she came out of the showdown with no award.
Lastly, they should really consider giving festival fans more for their money, regardless of dropping $250 or $625. Maybe the long lines could be subverted by providing more seating and more interactive entertainment — two sets of cornhole boards is not enough to entertain the masses. Maybe a t-shirt or sunglasses — something lasting a bit longer than a plastic cup and a full stomach.
All in all, the festival does well showcasing Austin’s growing culinary community, but if they want to make the festival worth the ticket prices, they’re going to have to bust out the bells and whistles.
Nick Bailey is a forward thinking journalist with a well-rounded skill set including writing, design, and photography. Nick now resides in Austin, TX after earning a degree in Mass Communication with an emphasis on journalism from Texas A&M University—Commerce.