The quintessentially Texas aroma of smoked beef permeated the air at Live Fire! on Thursday night at the Salt Lick Pavilion in Driftwood, outside Austin. Billed as the kick-off to this weekend's three-day Austin Wine & Food Festival, Live Fire! was sponsored by the Austin Food & Wine Alliance. More than two dozen chefs, most from Austin and environs but also one from Portland, Oregon, set up smokers and grills under towering pecan trees on the banks of Onion Creek while 650 attendees stuffed themselves, listened to music, swilled various adult beverages, and watched the amazing performers of Fire Knights, who twirled scary-looking flaming staffs with the ease of high school drum majors.
Meanwhile, the chefs cooked beef up, down, and sideways. There was barbecued brisket from local barbecue hero Aaron Franklin and tongue pastrami sandwiches from Ned Elliott of Foreign & Domestic. Andrew Wiseheart of Contigo officially changed his last name to “Beefheart” for the night; his booth served up, yes, cured beef heart with a chicory-and-strawberry salad.
Naomi Pomeroy of the appropriately named Beast, in Portland, went native with Texas wagyu medallions topped with wild-ramp butter. Jason Dady of San Antonio, owner of Tre Trattoria and Bin 555, did slow-cooked charred beef brisket with blue-cheese spoonbread and a caramelized onion purée. He encountered a problem that plagued many booths: “I’ve been fighting flies all night,” he said, sounding exasperated. ”Maybe our food smelled better.”
Most dramatic entry of the evening was Alamo Drafthouse chef John Bullington’s whole steer, cooked over coals on a specially constructed Argentine-style grill. “We wired very large pieces of meat to the platform, and cooked them for about sixteen hours,” he said. “We turned it once. The beef alone weighed 407 ½ pounds and the metal rack was another 100. It took six guys to flip that sucker.”
After so much bovine protein, it was a relief to find a dessert. Erin Echternach, pastry chef at Fino, skewered fresh strawberries and squares of cake to make grilled strawberry shortcake. Her assistant Christiana Rachut volunteered that “strawberries are the beef of the vegetable world.” Kyle McKinney of Barley Swine made sweet zucchini bread, grilled and served with dabs of goat cheese mousse and candied walnuts. Thankfully, neither barley nor swine was involved.