Where’s the Beef? And Other Food Festival Questions

Written by Regan Hofmann on . Posted in Dining Our Town, Dining West Side Spirit, Eat & Drink, Our Town, Our Town Downtown, Special Sections, Summer Guide, West Side Spirit.


A survival guide to summer fests

 

This past weekend, The , the chefs-as-rock-stars food festival that had many bemoaning the end of civilization and the rise of the foodie monster, took place in Prospect Park with some 75 vendors and 40,000 attendees. The first day of the two-day event ended with chefs, critics and hungry parkgoers alike making Woodstock ’99 comparisons, bemoaning long lines, ill-prepared vendors and a Byzantine beer system that left people cranky and thirsty.

The truth is, though, what happened in Brooklyn is no different from what happens at every food festival—it just took place on a larger scale under closer scrutiny. Lineups? You can’t get into these chefs’ brick-and-mortar restaurants without waiting in line; why would a limited-edition outdoor version be any different? As for scarcity, consider that they can only serve as much as they can carry into the middle of the park—no walk-in coolers, no pantries, no back-up supplies. It comes with the territory.

The real problem was one of expectations. An outdoor food festival can be one of the greatest joys of the summer or an absolute hell on earth—the only difference lies in how you’ve prepared yourself, both mentally and materially. Here are a few tips to make sure you’re never left stranded, sweaty and starving surrounded by an ocean of food.

Decide why you’re there. For many, the draw of food fests is the fact that they gather a dozen or more top chefs/purveyors in one convenient spot. Rather than having to trek from borough to borough (or beyond) to sample each, you need only walk across the parking lot. Others, however, see the all-day fest as a test of endurance, the chance to eat as much as possible. This is especially true at events where the price of entry gets unlimited tastes; they are bound and determined to get their money’s worth.

Figure out which of these camps you fall into before you arrive and you’ll save yourself the awkward realization that you’ve filled up on hush puppies at the first stand before you’ve even reached the main course.

Recon. There’s nothing worse than having your heart set on a specific vendor or food item, then getting to the party and realizing you can’t find it. Heavy crowds and the landscape limitations of venues like Madison Square Park mean some stalls end up tucked away in a corner, signs obscured by trees or hat-wearing hipsters. Most events post detailed vendor lists online in the week before the big day or provide maps at the entry; don’t be ashamed to spend some time studying before you go barreling into the fray.

If there’s no guide, take a lap of the venue. Turn down every alleyway and make mental notes of the important spots to hit, as well as essentials like washrooms and drinks. While you’re at it, you can plot out your “must-eats” to make sure you hit all of the highlights.

Water. Seriously. It sounds like the advice your mom would give, along with use the bathroom before you leave the house (come to think of it, you probably should do that, too. Outdoor venues + overindulging attendees= porta-potties you don’t want to have to use). But trust me. Those long lines are a lot easier to wait in if you’re not dehydrating as the minutes tick by, and the sun is a lot less sweltering.

Bring the biggest water bottle you can comfortably carry with you; if it’s a closed venue with no outside containers admitted, make the drinks table your very first stop. If it’s especially crowded, get two bottles at a time and keep one in your back pocket. It’ll keep you cool and keep you from having to interrupt the fun to go back later.

When all else fails, corn. It’s the outdoor food fair’s great equalizer. At the lowliest of tube-sock fairs and the swankiest of charity fundraisers, somebody will be grilling corn on the cob. It may be called elote or topped with crème fraîche and caviar, but it’s always the elemental essence of summer, all fresh, sweet produce and smoky fire, so messy can only be eaten outdoors. If you can’t find your friends or the heat is getting to you, stop, breathe deeply and find the corn—it’s impossible to stay crabby with greasy fingers and a soot-smeared chin.

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Regan Hofmann

I like to tell people what to order. If there's something on the menu I haven't tried, I have to get it—but if it's terrible, I'll be the first to hide it in my napkin. I'm so white I'm practically translucent, but I was raised on Chinese food. I can nitpick a Michelin-starred restaurant to death, but I'm happiest somewhere the health department would shudder to walk past. I promise to never use the words sammy, guilt-free, delish or mouthfeel, and will make fun of people who do. Still with me? Let's eat!
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