How much does Feast Portland tell us about the food festival Aaron Franklin will be starting in Austin next year?
On a recent Thursday in Portland’s Director Park, a line strangely familiar to anyone who’s been to East 11th Street in Austin stretched for the better part of a city block. The queue led to a similar end point: a coveted barbecue plate offered up by a smiling Aaron Franklin, pitmaster of the revered and much-lauded Franklin Barbecue. As both a young father and a hands-on obsessive in his eponymous restaurant, Franklin rarely accepts these festival appearances, yet here he was, with almost three hundred pounds of cow head and shoulder clod (driven up from Texas, no less) serving a few hundred barbecue-loving Oregonians. Why? Feast is a bit of different animal, according to Franklin. But it could also be a blueprint for a forthcoming food festival in Austin’s future.
Now in its fourth year, Feast Portland has quickly amassed a reputation for spotlighting culinary tastemakers from around the world. “I don’t accept festival invitations—except for Feast,” says Franklin. “The organizers care, and they give great attention to detail. Other food festivals can make you feel kind of used—at least a bit—but Feast is a celebration of food and cooking. I love it.”
There are certainly culinary heavy-hitters like Franklin set up at booths during the four-day-long festival, but the event’s lineup is less celebrity-driven than flashy counterparts held in Aspen and Miami (though there were plenty of Top Chef alumni). Feast Portland also features a healthy Texas contingent representing our state’s cuisine. This is due in large part to co-founder Mike Thelin, who developed a love for the Texas food scene while consulting on the 2011 Hill Country Wine and Food Festival (this was before it was sold to C3 and rebranded). This year, he and the Feast organizers brought in affable rabble rouser John Tesar from Dallas; Houston’s cocktail king Bobby Heugel and his Underbelly partner Chris Shepherd; San Antonio star Steve McHugh; and Austin’s leading chefs du jour, Franklin and Paul Qui.
The half-dozen Texas reps mixed, mingled, and, most importantly, wowed their audiences. Shepherd charmed early media arrivals to an evening event by enlisting them to run him pitchers of Widmer beer to braise with. He also waxed philosophic a bit, reminding Portlanders that Texas isn’t “all barbecue and steak. Houston has excellent Vietnamese and Korean food due to the city’s diversity. Most visitors just don’t know that.” Tesar held court and chatted without breaking his working stride, grinning as he asked where I was from (Austin) before cheerfully reeling off a list of people, companies, and professions he thought were ruining the Texas capital’s vibe. And over at the bar, Heugel was just trying to survive: “I’ve served 1,500 cocktails by myself in less than three hours,” he exclaimed.
The Texas chefs each had varied reasons for heading to the Pacific Northwest. Shepherd was there to expose Underbelly’s food to a new crowd. “We get asked to cook throughout the South a lot, but we don’t ever get to the West Coast,” he said. “This is a new audience for us.” Heugel was there to teach and learn. “Having been lucky enough to travel a lot, especially in Mexico, I try to be a voice for the people behind the products we serve,” he said. “It’s also great to exchange ideas at these events with busy pros who don’t often have time to write down or catalog their insights.” It was McHugh, though, who provided perhaps the best reason for his excitement at the invitation: “People sometimes think Texas is a one-trick pony. That’s not true. I love our food scene, and I’m going to be an enthusiastic advocate when given the chance.”
Thelin agrees with McHugh. So much so that in 2016, he’ll debut a new festival in the Austin area. Franklin and James Moody from Transmission Events (a co-founder of Fun Fun Fun Festival) will be co-founders. Both Thelin and Franklin were tight-lipped regarding the name and theme of the 2016 event, though Thelin couldn’t help but tease it a bit. “We’re looking at the spring. We’re working to time it so that the talent we want is available,” he said. “What I’ll say now: this was an idea hatched organically over beers with Aaron and Moody.” Was the new event a response to C3’s annual Austin Food & Wine Festival? “Absolutely not,” Thelin said. “And when you see what it ultimately is, that will be quite evident. We’re not encompassing a region as Feast does. But the common element with Feast is that we’ll heavily curate the talent and experience. We’ll go for the obsessive cooks—the ones that would just cook at home if they didn’t have a restaurant. Aaron’s a great example; he’s obsessed with perfect barbecue and puts everything he has into his craft.”
Thelin sees some real parallels between Portland and Austin, mentioning their respective butcher shops Olympic Provisions and Salt and Time as kindred spirits. He also noted that Portland’s Le Pigeon and Austin’s Barley Swine share a philosophical common ground.
Given the backgrounds and talents of the principals of the new festival, one could surmise that live music, smoked and grilled meats, and lots of quality drinking will likely be involved in the new project, but the outline remains fuzzy—at least publicly—as the trio cement the details. As Austin awaits the announcement, Thelin sums up their ethos: “Our motivation is friendship. We’re doing this in Austin because two of the three founders live there. And because Austin, like Portland, is one of the epicenters of joyful eating. That’s why Paul Qui is there when he could easily be a star in New York or Barcelona. Eating there is about celebration, not pretense. I love that about both of our cities.”