NEW YORK I hate conventional wisdom, especially when it’s spouted by someone you suspect hasn’t read a good book in a long, long while. Such was my mood as I departed the hospitality lounge of the Food Network Wine & Food Festival presented by Food & Wine and Travel & Leisure. (That’s FNW&FFPBF&W&T&L. Catchy, huh?) It was in the super-hip and centrally located but somehow lackluster Hotel Gansevoort. This was my second visit to the suite, and I was fed up with dum-dums.
On my first day, picking up a lecture ticket, the firmly seated volunteer in the suite told me that the room was not affiliated with the two magazines, despite the lobby sign saying the opposite, and looked incredulous when I asked her if I could leave a note for Food & Wine’s publisher, my friend Christina Grdovic Baltz. How could she, after all, occupied as she was with a plateful of mini-toasts smothered with cheese that she had helped herself to (super-sloppily, apparently, as the entire tablecloth was inches from a complete fall-down)?
The waiter was little help either, busy as he was hiding in the bathroom and not picking up the towels on the floor. A plate of Pepperidge Farm cookies, similarly manhandled, has sworn me off the brand for a long time. They were also serving a new offering from Coppola Vineyards bottled in what seemed to be a reusable carafe but that resembled a grocery store juice bottle, making it hard for me to consider it seriously.
Then on my second day, I was waiting for my car to be brought around by the friendly but hapless Gansevoort valet service. (They ask you to call 30 minutes in advance to get your car and they mean 40, and when your car arrives it is covered in a thin layer of brown dust even if it was washed yesterday. And when you pay the $40 bill you feel, well, dumb.) I stupidly listened in on a conversation between the same volunteer lady, a newer PR gal who seemed to be taking her place, and an equally new but just as lazy waiter (judging by the new set of towels on the bathroom floor).
This was no ordinary waiter, mind you; he also worked for Great Performances and “was all about making things happen in this world.” Hard to argue with that. But argue I did when I heard he and the two PR ladies mocking the use of the wine glass holder necklaces (is there a name for these things?) and the way festival-goers looked greedy and piggish, given the harsh economic glare.
Now I think the things look silly, and won’t wear one myself despite the practicality. (They hit your upper midriff where my belly already protrudes, so why would I want to add girth there?) But all of a sudden I was just taken with resentment toward these three lazy birds sitting around a hotel room mocking the festival-goers they were there to serve. I explained that if you are a food, wine, or entertainment writer, the glass holder was really handy—it could free a hand to help you take notes. To this Mr. Long Hair Waiter said, “Well, if you’re a serious writer, you have one of those things on your wrist that you tell your notes into.”
I left the un-hospitality suite plagued with self-doubt. What kind of a writer am I? I have no wrist thing to speak into, much less someone else to do the transcribing once I get home to my docking station.
As I drove home in my dusty car, mentally testing different angles for this column—oh, if only I had a wrist thingy—it occurred to me that hosting a large, high-end festival or event is not dissimilar to the daunting if not impossible task faced by the Homeland Security department in preventing domestic terrorism: You can do a thousand things right, in the most important ways, but all it takes is one crazy hospitality terrorist to blow the whole thing to pieces.
Because the truth is, I had left the FNW&FFPBF&W&T&L tent pleasantly surprised. Disclosure time: In my previous incarnation I worked with this festival in Miami, with Food & Wine and Rocco DiSpirito. This festival, a huge success in Miami, is no longer my cup of tea. Overrun with scantily clad spokesmodels and the lower-end liquor masters they serve, not to mention celebrity chefs like Rachel Ray and Paula Deen, it is still, I guess, perfect for Miami.
The New York incarnation welcomed visitors with a Target-themed park on 15th Street and 10th Avenue. Here, you were ushered through a series of tents where you were fast and furiously messaged by a chocolate company, a coffee maker, and Evian water, the only brand I can recall. There was a whole Target parkscape with giant sculptures made from lollipops and red throw pillows on the grass, but sadly, no one seemed to be stopping. With my Waterford glass in hand, I headed into the tent on Pier 54 to the sniffing and tasting event of the day.
Can I stop for a minute to give a commercial for good weather? If you are having an outdoor festival in October in Manhattan in a tent on a pier, I highly recommend this kind of clear azure sky and crisp dry air.
There’s another Evian girl, confirming my worst nightmares, in a fuchsia tunic. (Does it go without saying that all the Evian girls are in fuchsia tunics? I counted at least eight.) But on closer inspection the tunics were not vulgar, so I can deal. The other outdoor displays were equally garish, like your typical rum tiki hut and a Delta lounge that never took off.
Inside the tent, which was well-organized overall except for some dead space in front that felt like a mistake, I worked on a headline like “Gluttony Contributed to the Fall of Rome….”
On my right was champagne vintner Nicholas Feuillatte, one of my favorites. They were offering their superb blended vintages—their rosé is sublime and so affordable compared to the bigger names—and offering a new vintage champagne bottled in a festive raspberry dimpled dark glass. Refined and lively. How many times has this column said the same thing: Whether you are a party-goer or giver, start with just one glass of champagne. It just works.
Rather than shun the clacking mini plates of food, I was oddly drawn to the tables. Paper plates! Bless the gods of heaven above! (And sorry, by the way, about the environment, but it is a little late to start boo-hooing now, isn’t it? The off-white paper means recycled doesn’t it?) At last, a festival that freed me from the tyranny of drop tables. After my first bite I looked for a garbage bin. Right there! In fact, they were everywhere! For the first time in years of going to food festivals I thought, “I can do this.”
See, I am clumsy. I also always carry a big bag filled with newspapers and stuff, made desperate by the idea I’ll be stuck in traffic with nothing to do. (Although now with the advent of People.com on the taxi screens, I wonder if I’ll ever read again.) On top of all that, I know a lot of people and am loud and effusive. Put all that together and it spells wine tasting disaster.
But this festival was quite well-organized. The wines and spirits and restaurants were well-balanced, as you walked from, say, the Telepan restaurant station to the Ferrari-Carano wine table, there was either a wine receptacle or a flat space.
A New York Times booth in the center of the room provided a welcome place to sit for a minute and call my sister, who had her fourth child the day before—bienvenue, Alexa Ann—and to discard some of the brochures I was laden with. Aha, I thought, pleased to find no waste bin and therefore something to write about—but then some attendant came and took the unwanted flyers out of my hand. Nifty. I ran into Caryl Chinn of Karlitz & Company, a food event professional whom I respect. (She spent years doing the events and marketing for Bon Appetit.) No surprise to learn she had a hand in the efforts.
I’ve written too much already, and honestly, we’ve got miles to go before we sleep, so I’m going to try to focus.
Restaurant That Caught My Eye: Ilili. Not only the food, but the flowers, and their people and even their logo. Fifth Avenue between 27th and 28th. I’m going.
Food Idea: Domestic unpasteurized cheese. In our provincial country, unpasteurized or raw-milk cheeses have always been verboten. But now I gather if they are aged more than 60 days it’s O.K. I found three worth asking for: Roth Kase’s Roth's Private Reserve, Roth Kase’s Buttermilk Blue, and Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese's Petit Frére. They were magnificent. I know my cheese, I'm sorry to say, and had never heard of any of them. Which, actually, is the part I liked the most.
Hudson Valley Foie Gras: Served at the James Beard Center table. (Guess their hard times are over.) I think I’m not the only person who thinks theirs is among the best foie gras in the world. And it’s domestic. Go U.S.A.!
Serving Idea: One restaurant had these little black plates ergonomically shaped like a large spoon. All you had to do was open the pie hole and aim. Heaven.
Every Silver Lining Has a Crowd: I chose to attend the lecture titled “The Line at Le Cirque,” featuring Terrance Brennan, Geoffrey Zakarian, Michael Lomonaco, Stephen Kalt, and Dieter Schorner, all talking about their time on the cooking line at Sirio Maccioni’s fabled haunt (now in its third incarnation). It was as I expected—a real slice of time from the beginning of “important” food and its place in New York, moderated by Dana Cowin, editor of Food & Wine.
I learned, for example, that Zakarian was hired at Le Cirque only after he agreed to work for free, which he did for six months. Maccioni told him his check was waiting in the kitchen.
Too bad the event was marred by poor planning and promotion. The inexplicably small crowd counted 45, excluding staff and handlers, so the empty chairs were hard to ignore. There were only two microphones that had to be passed between the chefs, which embarrassed the listeners as much as the hosts. On top of that, the amplification was set too low, so it was impossible to hear most of the program—particularly when the protesters outside from Edible Eats, a food supplier to one of Brennan’s restaurants, started chanting. There were two stationary videographers, including one who blocked a decent part of the audience’s view, and neither of them, I gather, knew where the volume knob was.
As I said, a little thing can ruin a lot.