Festivals can be super fun and offer excellent exposure, but they also come with a price tag. Restaurant veteran Amelia Zatik Sawyer weighs the pros and cons.
Ten years ago my husband, a chef, opened his first restaurant. That same year he was invited to his first food festival. He had attended them before as a sous chef for his previous bosses, but had never been asked to cook at one with his name on the sign. We were ecstatic. It was a big deal for him and for his brand new restaurant. Participating in the festival meant getting his name out there. It meant networking with other chefs. It meant people from all over the country—if not the world—would get to try his food.
Since that festival, he has attended hundreds more and I have often been his lucky (or unlucky), companion. For chefs coming up in the industry, there are a few certainties that continue to hold true. Winning a James Beard Award is like winning an Oscar for a chef. Being named a Food & Wine Best New Chef (which he was in 2010) is the fast track to getting a young chef's name into the mouths of the media. But what about food festivals? Do they help with a chef's career?
To understand if a food festival is worth it, first you must understand the value and benefits of the festival, because each one is different. The bigger festivals are great for networking with chefs. The people who attend these festivals are not there for you. For the most part, they are only there to drink out of their wine glass necklace, eat lots of food, and take selfies with Giada De Laurentiis. This does not matter. The bigger festivals are great in a young chef's career. You meet a ton of chefs. You form friendships with them in the kitchen while prepping for 1,000 guests on a sandy beach in 100-degree weather. You follow each other on the 'gram. It’s chaotic and hard and a lot of work (see my unlucky companion comment) but many important moments can be had in times of chef chaos.
Financially, the big festivals tend to cover more expenses for your restaurant. Usually, they cover a hotel for a chef and a sous chef, flights, and a certain dollar amount for the food you are asked to cook. The bigger festivals also get big sponsors. That means that if you are comfortable cooking with corporate meat, eggs, and shellfish, you may get food donated for your dish. However, if you are a chef who’s not into commodities, you will most likely foot a portion of the bill for your dish.
Smaller festivals provide a different dynamic. Usually even less is financially covered, but the people who attend these small festivals are genuinely interested in your dishes and drinks. They love food. They know food. They want to eat food. They want to meet all of the chefs, not just the big names. As a chef's career grows, these festivals are more appealing. For one thing, you are not serving 3,000 plates to a crowd of 1,500 people. Usually, these events are much more easily managed and as a chef, you can handle them on your own. The smaller festivals also offer smaller panels and nowadays are offering panels geared towards chefs and the realities of the restaurant industry.
Recently I attended and spoke at the Atlanta Wine & Food Festival for a session that did not allow the press or media, and was only for the wellness of chefs and industry people. It was quite a beautiful moment to experience, and the size of the festival allowed them to offer that. This intimacy also allows for more interaction with the media and chefs. The media really gets to know you as a chef and you really get to know the media. Interacting with other chefs (even the big names) is easier and more honest. Sitting down and shooting the shit with Andrew Zimmern over a cup of green tea could never take place at one of the big festivals. But at a small one? Absolutely. Please pass the honey.
So are these festivals worth it? As with most everything in life, we are our own guides—but a little insight never hurt anyone. To me, food festivals are worth doing in moderation. Once you get on the circuit you will be invited to more and more and more and more and more. Saying yes to all of them is highly ill-advised. The financial burden on the chef and the restaurant can be extreme.
Cooking at as many festivals as you get invited to will not make or break your career. Cooking really well at one festival possibly could. You never know who could pick up a plate of your food. All it takes is one People Magazine editor to love your chicken brioche sample. The next thing you know it’s featured in the magazine and your restaurant is booked for the next six months. Plus a weekend away is always good for restaurant people. The industry tends to take care of everyone else before themselves. That’s hospitality right? So a little fun and sun for a chef or restaurant group can be a good thing. Food festivals can grow your brand, your social following, and can give young chefs confidence that they may not be able to find in a restaurant setting. So when you open that invite to that festival, reply all YES—at least once.