Food Network's Festival Stretches Its Scope (and My Belt)

The New York City Wine & Food Festival grew in its second year, with hints of a shift in values in the food community.

By Ted Kruckel October 14, 2009, 12:33 PM EDT

Guy Fieri, up to his usual theatrical antics, at the New York City Wine & Food Festival

Photo: Courtesy of the New York City Wine & Food Festival

If there is one thing that really struck me about the second annual Food Network New York City Wine & Food Festival, sponsored by Food & Wine and Travel & Leisure, it was the sheer size and diversity of it all.

Last week, I wrote about the plethora of food festivals happening this month in New York, most of which have no problem filling kitchens, dining rooms, stores, and other venues with paying, eager eaters. Yet at the same time, the industry’s oldest and most prestigious magazine, Gourmet, up and folded, and downtown, perennially top-rated Chanterelle closed its doors.

But at the New York City Wine & Food Festival this past weekend, it was as if those closings happened on an altogether different planet. The four-day affair kicked off with “Celebration,” a V.I.P. event on Thursday at the Food Network studio. There were so many celebrity chefs that festival founder Lee Schrager found himself in trouble when, during his speech, he began thanking present network personalities Alton Brown, Guy Fieri, and Sandra Lee, and suddenly a bunch of others started shouting out their own names. Lee wisely widened his thanks to “everyone at the Food Network, including the security guard, who five years later still doesn’t recognize me.”

He spoke just after Food Network president Brooke Johnson told the room the cable channel had just finished its best quarter ever (in ratings) and me privately that advertising and affiliate revenue were up slightly for the year, which was pretty darn good, didn’t I think? Certainly.

But when I asked Brooke about the folding of Gourmet and the difficulties facing the hospitality industry—if you think restaurants are suffering, talk to somebody in the hotel business—her eyes glazed over as she said, “Well, I’m always sad to see a great magazine in our industry close, but it doesn’t really affect us at all.”

And as far as her network's sponsorship of the festival goes, she’s telling the truth. Over 10,000 tickets sold for the paid events, and no one could even guess how many attended all others. (There were 120 events on the schedule this year, compared to 87 last year.) The festival was even on target to exceed last year’s charitable donation of more than $1.1 million, which is split evenly between Food Bank for New York City and Share Our Strength.

Consumer interest in food may be zooming, but it has more to do with a weird sort of circus entertainment than with anything resembling the culinary world I knew when I toiled in it a decade ago.

For example, a big attraction everybody talked about was the Iron Chef America set at the end of the pier. I’ve watched this show; my friends Anita Lo and Bobby Flay have been on it. To me, it seems a bit more like an obstacle course than a demonstration of real high-level cooking, but to people at the Food Network, Iron Chef America is a big deal. At the kickoff party, I ran into one of the show’s judges, Karine Bakhoum, who I have known forever.

She is back, she wanted me to know, for the new season, and her fan mail is more voluminous than ever. The idea that the judges on this show get fan mail never occurred to me. Karine is a lively sort, and as an hors d’oeuvres tray passed, she reminded me that she is also a professional taster. (Her busy, busy business card for KB Network News, of which she is the president, also mentions public relations, consulting, media networking, as well as food… style… personalities.) Did I want her to taste the zucchini professionally for me? Why not?

“It’s warm, which is good,” Karine ruminated. “The crème frâiche has a lemony touch, which is noticeable. It’s crisp and gooey, which is hard to do.” Honestly, she said more and I couldn’t write it all down fast enough, but in all honesty, she didn’t point out anything that I didn’t pick up on myself. In fact, when I asked her, “Don’t you think it is just a tiny bit oily?” she agreed. Maybe I could be a professional food taster! So anyone who wants to pay me to taste their food—call me!

All of the food at this event was made from recipes of Food Network personalities, but not one waiter could identify one hors d’oeuvre as being from any specific chef. It was the “idea” of celebrity chef food more than the actual preparing, which was done by Taste Caterers, by the way.

But my favorite example of food as circus entertainment was the Illy Push Button House, which I found to be ridiculous and absolutely riveting at the same time. Illy makes coffee and its ancillary products, so of course it made sense for them to create a railroad container that converts with the push of a button into an apartment, which they staged en plein aire in Gansevoort Plaza. Truth be told, opening and closing the unit was far more laborious (and tedious to watch, despite the presence of a fire breather) than the phrase “push button” implies. But who cares? It was still a railroad car that turned into an apartment, not to mention a mini lecture hall where notables like Alain Ducasse and David Bouley made appearances open to the public. Honestly, the mind reels—how the festival got these guys to do this, I am dying to know.

But at the same time, I am trying desperately not to laugh. I can’t help but be amazed at how this festival has created such a massive presence. Right here in this corner, the couple-days-old Tanuki Tavern is serving noodles to festival card holders, while Spice Market is doing the same thing with chicken satay for so many people, I won’t even consider getting in line. And these are two of about six restaurants I can see from where the Illy Push Button house is.

The night before, after leaving the V.I.P. party, a cast of thousands was roaming from shop to shop at Chelsea Market After Dark. There I met Brian Kenny Pham, who coordinates Food Bank volunteers, 750 of whom he said were working this weekend. After buying some Eleni’s cookies (not as good as I remembered) and a cupcake (just as good as I remembered), I headed to the Standard Hotel, which served as the home base for the festival, to take in the scene. I couldn’t get in the door of an event called Bacon & Blues hosted by Thrillist, so mobbed was it with hip young foodies. And every seat in the lobby and bars was full as well.

In the Grand Tasting tent, I was slightly taken aback by the crowds, and I went on the quieter beverage trade day. But inside, it is a well-run affair, managed again (like the rest of the festival) by Karlitz & Company. The best display was by Diet Coke, which offered me healthy eating tips and an automat food display (produced by MKG Productions) of tasty, help-yourself items. They were also done by Taste, F.Y.I.

Grgich Hills was a standout with some reserve chardonnay. There was DJ Chef, who cooked on a skillet and spun records at the same time. He told me he was especially popular at bat mitzvahs, which seemed just right. I was fascinated by the ActiFry cooking machine by Tefal, even if it was a tiny bit unappetizing to watch.

My favorite morsel of the whole weekend was by Thomas Preti Caterers, one of the participants in this organization’s elaborately staged BizBash Hors d’Oeuvres House. Mr. Preti made foie gras French toast, which was both satisfying (if like me, you are addicted to foie gras) and faithful to the concept of French toast (if you care about that, which I don’t). It came with a chilled apple soup and a Calvados granita, and the whole plate was like some zany billionaire breakfast.

I would love to tell you some of the other nifty finds I saw, but I’m tired, aren’t you?

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