Food festival events with hundreds of guests, makeshift kitchens, and volatile outdoor elements not only make for some chefs’ best war stories but also create an incredibly difficult work environment that, when chefs pull it off, is supposed to appear easy.
It’s anything but.
Chef Anthony Gray of Bacon Bros. Public House, an outdoor event veteran who is participating in euphoria, recalls the time he was on stage at a Charleston Wine and Food brunch event, cooking pork belly in Green Egg grills he’d never used before, and while mic’d up, turned around to see one grill engulfed in “pork belly fat flames.”
The line was 100 people deep while he panicked and yelled at his wife, acting as his sous chef, for all to hear. His chef friends in the audience, including Sean Brock, were in hysterics watching Gray run out of ingredients and literally go down in flames.
“That was the sloppiest, worst event,” Gray says, laughing about it now.
He equates it to the nightmare public speakers have of showing up without clothes on.
Or he tells about the time he and Bacon Bros. COO Jason Callaway served 5,000 people at Bacon Fest in Houston, cooking bacon-wrapped hot dogs over open flames in the hottest possible environment. Because of the crowds and the heat, all of their carefully laid plans became obsolete.
“That was a nightmare,” he says. “It was probably the closest ever to a battle situation.”
Mistakes and dealing with the unknown in such a public forum create quite the learning environment, chefs attest.
Chris Coleman, chef/partner at The Goodyear House set to open in October in Charlotte, North Carolina, will be bringing his years of food festival experience to euphoria once again.
“The first few festivals I did, I went way overboard — way overboard with the amount of food I prepared and brought, the style of dish and number of ingredients or plate touches needed, and overall length of prep time needed,” he says. “As I’ve done multiple festivals each year for the last six years or so, I’ve honed in on the amount of mise [en place] needed, and really dialed in on easy-to-prepare, easy-to-garnish plates.”
Gray says he learned the simplification lesson the hard way one year at a Delaware March of Dimes event. Again, he and Callaway were working together, and for their scrapple and sunny-side egg dish, they decided to crack and fry to order tiny quail eggs — 1,000 of them.
Coleman says the key is choosing dishes that can be prepped ahead.
“If anything can be done in advance and held, I always do that in my ‘home kitchen’ before heading down,” he says.
The amount of prep for hundreds of servings, even for a simple dish, is daunting. For this year’s Taste of the South, Coleman is doing a pickled shrimp dish.
“Catering rules dictate 1.5 pieces/servings per person, but it really depends on the dish,” he says. “Shrimp is super popular, so I will probably prepare around 1,000 pieces (around 40 pounds) for a 600-person event. Some folks won’t eat shellfish, some will be vegetarian, and some will come back for seconds.”
Chef Austyn McGroarty of Woodside Bistro, who also runs Premiere Party Catering, plans to serve Korean barbecue wings at the Greenville Kick-Off party. He says his team will prep about 1,000 wings to be smoked in advance and fried at the event.
“We’re excited to do this event in front of people who talk about food all the time,” he says.
McGroarty brings up another key aspect of festivals — the guest-and-chef interaction. It’s a main reason food-lovers attend multi-chef events, and Gray says that’s always a deciding factor in his menu planning.
“The festivalgoer paid all this money to be here,” he says. “We owe it to the public to put on a show.”
Because of that, Gray always plans to cook part of the dish on site so guests will have an experience similar to sitting near his open kitchen in the restaurant.
“You have more draw if you have a live fire and are cooking,” he says.
The goal, of course, is to be memorable and provide the best dish possible, regardless of the unknown elements — like blowing an electrical circuit or other vital equipment malfunction — the chefs had to manage and overcome to do so.
“My opinion doesn’t matter nearly as much as the guests’,” Gray says.