To start off the morning, I picked up a crisp glass of champagne from the Veuve Clicquot airstream trailer before getting the lay of the land and heading off for a few demos.
Of the demos I attended, One Pot Party from Los Angeles duo Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo of Animal ranked high on the list not only for the fantastic chef hosts, but also for the accessibility of the dishes they served. Shook and Dotolo are known for pushing the envelope with their inventive food, but for this demo, they showed us how to create relatively easy-to-make crowd pleasers such as beer braised short ribs.
After working up an appetite at a couple of drool-worthy demos, it was time to head over to the HEB Grand Tasting Pavilion to taste a few bites. The Grand Tasting event brings together winemakers, food artisans and chefs all under one roof, allowing festival goers and industry professionals to discover new products and flavors.
One such discovery for me was San Francisco-based artisan salumeria Columbus. Crafted using Old World techniques, their award winning finocchiona salami, strikes that unique balance of fennel, salt and bitterness. It was exceptional when paired with fresh figs and crumbles of Gorgonzola. I’d be lying if I said I tried just one.
New to the fold this year was a daily Chef Showcase featuring local chef standouts dishing up samples of their best dishes. Vespaio pastry chef Sandi Reinlie created a delicious marjoram and strawberry panna cotta. Light and flavorful, it was perfectly refreshing on a humid afternoon.
On the savory side, sandwich kings Brandon Martinez and John Bates of Noble Sandwich Co.delivered with their juicy pork pastrami, which was sliced to order and paired with spicy slaw.
One needed only to follow the billowing smoke and smell of grilled goodness to find yet another new trick the fest had up its sleeve. This year, the AFWF welcomed the addition of a live fire pit complete with a rotating lineup of chefs each day. On Saturday, Chef Jason Dady and Chef Tim Byres could be found roasting whole pigs for dishes such as carnitas tacos for a very happy crowd.
I rounded out the day on a high note by grabbing a spot at Graham Elliot’sAmerican Classics 2.0 demo. Elliot, known for his use of molecular gastronomy and original reinventions of traditional dishes, spoke to the crowd about his ‘farm to table to stomach to couch’ style of cooking. While I lack the skill and equipment to create either of the two dishes he presented, his energy and humor made for one the best moments of the festival so far.
Rock Your Taco
After kicking up my feet a bit, it was onto the weekend’s top event, Rock Your Taco. Thirteen top chefs gathered at Republic Square Park to go head to head in a culinary showdown that put the official food of Austin — the taco — front and center.
From yucca shells to asparagus-toppers, these thirteen chefs delivered a range of tacos unlikely to be found on menus anywhere. Chef Tyson Cole and his team from Uchi once again took the crown for top taco, and Cole couldn’t help put show a bit of emotion over his victory. The esteemed panel of judges, including ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, had a clear favorite in Uchi and Co., but from a crowd perspective, there were plenty of winners in the group.
The boys from Animal, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, created a fresh Thai basil fish taco while Chef Marcus Samuelsson drew inspiration from his Ethiopian heritage for his barbequed goat taco.
For his ‘duck dynasty’ taco, Brian Malarkey, chef/owner of Austin’s upcoming Searsucker restaurant, ambitiously incorporated duck three ways, including whipping up his own version queso fresca out of foie gras.
Is pastrami the new pork belly? If last night’s taco competition is any indication, that answer may be a firm yes. Three chefs made pastrami their key ingredient. The first, Chef Marc Murphy, served a pastrami, Swiss cheese, coleslaw and rye crumble taco while fellow New Yorker Chef Christina Tosishowed us her savory side with a pastrami taco topped with Russian dressing and caraway seeds. My favorite of the pastrami trio came from La Condesa Chef Rene Ortiz who served a rye tortilla topped with tender brisket pastrami, spicy mustard and habanero salsa.