2018 Music City Food + Wine FestivalPHOTO: CHARLES REAGAN HACKLEMAN
Headed into its seventh iteration downtown on Sept. 20-22, the Music City Food + Wine Festival has certainly stirred the pot this year. There have been complaints, including in these pages, that the festival has not paid enough attention to local culinary talent, preferring to invite the same nationally known television chefs such as Jonathan Waxman, Aarón Sanchez and Tim Love year after year. A quick look at the festival schedule shows that these “celebrichefs” do indeed receive prime spots in panel discussions, cooking demos and featured tasting events like the big Harvest Night, while local talent toils away under the tasting tents handing out samples of their food to hordes of sometimes disinterested and tipsy festival attendees.
It’s hard to dispute that Music City Food + Wine is not a festival that is focused specifically on Nashville chefs — but then again, it never claimed to be (other than by including “Music City” in its name). There is an expectation among local detractors that the event is of Nashville, by Nashville, and for Nashville, but that is not necessarily the case. The event is primarily produced by C3 Presents, the Austin, Texas-based events-promotion company also behind Lollapalooza and the Austin City Limits Music Festival. It’s also notable that the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp is an active supporter of Music City Food + Wine, a distinction that is unlike other tasting events in town.
2018 Music City Food + Wine FestivalPHOTO: CHARLES REAGAN HACKLEMAN While the NCVC certainly enjoys promoting our hometown culinary talent whenever possible, the primary motive of its existence is to attract visitors to Nashville and to increase hotel room nights. So all other things being equal, they certainly prefer that attendees come from someplace outside of Middle Tennessee. This definitely drives who is featured at the festival and in marketing materials. While we’re all proud of the accomplishments of homegrown heroes like Tandy Wilson, Margot McCormack and Kahlil Arnold, they’re not going to move the needle when Gladys from Des Moines is trying to figure out where to spend her discretionary vacation budget. But tell her that Tyler Florence, Martina McBride and Kathie Lee Gifford will be in attendance (they will be), and Gladys will book a ticket on Southwest.com faster than Paula Deen can butter a skillet.
If you’re looking for the chance to sample food from a multitude of familiar chefs standing behind tables and handing out bite-size morsels, there are all sorts of opportunities to do that around town through the year, and most of them also have the benefit of contributing to some local charitable organizations. All that being said, there are good reasons for Nashvillians to consider attending all or parts of this weekend’s Music City Food + Wine Festival.
Plenty of Nashville chefs will be featured at the Tasting Tents on Friday night and Saturday afternoon, including some you might not recognize — because they don’t have the same sort of public-relations wherewithal as other chefs who receive the majority of ink and pixels from the food media. Because the number of chefs taking part in the Tasting Tents appears to be down this year, attendees will probably have the time and stomach space to visit all the participants — but I would especially point you toward some underappreciated local talent if you’re looking to discover some new favorites.
On Friday, check out pitmaster Shane Nasby from HoneyFire BBQ, Hrant Arakelian from Lyra in East Nashville, Bobby Hodge of Oak Steakhouse, and Liberty Common’s Jeffrey Rhodes to experience cuisine you might not have already tried. They’ll be joined Nashville stalwarts Carey Bringle of Peg Leg Porker and Holler and Dash’s Brandon Frohne, as well as part-time Nashvillians Daniel Lindley of 5th & Taylor and Gerard Craft from Pastaria handing out delectable bites.
Starting at 11 a.m. on Saturday, the tents will reopen to showcase even more Nashville chefs. Fans of Asian food will be pleased by the offering and should make a beeline to Vui Hunt of Vui’s Kitchen, B.J. Lofback from Funk Seoul Brother, Mike Morales of Sunda, and Thai Esane’s Nina Singto. Other local heroes appearing under the tents on Saturday include Nick Pellegrino of Mangia Nashville, Hathorne’s John Stephenson and Joey Molteni, David Tieman from Five Points Pizza, TomKats Hospitality’s Matt Farley, Derek Brooks from the Capitol Grille and the dynamic duo of Deb Paquette and Jess Lambert from Etch and etc. Lokelani Alabanza’s two Hattie Jane’s Creamery locations aren’t in Nashville per se, but the Tasting Tents provide a convenient opportunity to try out her exotic custard-based ice creams without having to shlep all the way to Murfreesboro or Columbia.
2018 Harvest NightPHOTO: CHARLES REAGAN HACKLEMAN While Music City Food + Wine’s signature Harvest Night food and music event does often focus on the sort of nationally known chefs who attract visitors to travel to town and pay the $275 price tag, organizers have made a point to include Nashville notables as part of the program. This year Tandy Wilson, Margot McCormack, Jess Benefield and Trey Burnette, Matt Bolus, Deb Paquette and Rob Newton will appear alongside national luminaries like Rick Bayless, Carla Hall, Sarah Grueneberg, Scott Conant and the aforementioned (and ubiquitous) law firm of Waxman, Sánchez, Florence and Love. After the tasting, patrons will be entertained by a collection of talented Chicago blues players performing Rolling Stones tunes.
Sunday morning’s Gospel Brunch is almost entirely Music City-centric, including the featured musical entertainment from Cedric Sesley and Out for Souls, a Nashville-based community choir that will take you to church while you snack on breakfast and brunch favorites from a talented cadre of local chefs. Among those preparing the morning meal will be the fabulous Katie Coss from Husk, Emma Livingston from The Old School Farm to Table and the aforementioned Newton from Gray & Dudley, the last of whom will be pulling double duty after Harvest Night. If you want a sneak preview of the cuisine that will be coming from Ford Fry’s impending trio of restaurant projects in Germantown, be sure to check out chef Ryder Zetts, who will be offering up the first bites of his food.
So, see? There are plenty of Nashville chefs participating in Music City Food + Wine — just not necessarily all the usual suspects, so maybe you’ll find a new favorite. As for the chefs who made the completely understandable decision not to participate this year, they certainly deserve all the support and acclaim that we locals can heap upon them. Go visit their restaurants soon and often. You too, Gladys!