Wining and dining Fort Worth-style: First food festival showcases regional cuisine

Betty Dillard Instead of being known as “where the West begins,” Fort Worth soon may earn the title of “where the fest begins.” After nearly two years of planning and preparation, Cowtown’s newest destination event, the Fort Worth Food + Wine Festival, will ride into town March 27-30. More than 100 participants – including celebrated chefs, restaurateurs, culinary professionals, winemakers and distillers from across North Texas – will gather at the inaugural feast to take guests on a savory tour of the

Fort Worth food scene. Tastings and parties are slated throughout the city, from a honky-tonk to a historic ranch, from renowned Bass Performance Hall to a drive-in movie theater. The primary purpose of the festival, say co-founders Russell Kirkpatrick and Mike Micallef of Reata Restaurant, is to ring the bell on local farming and products as well as local talent. Festival organizers also established a foundation to raise money for culinary scholarships and to provide internships for those interested in a career in the culinary industry. A month-long pop-up restaurant event last summer raised $45,000 to kick off the foundation’s philanthropic efforts.

“Our focus has always been to highlight the tremendous amount of talent located here in Fort Worth and North Texas to create a destination festival that will bring people to our wonderful city to enjoy all we have to offer,” Kirkpatrick said. Where did you get the idea for the festival? RK: The thought of the festival actually came by participating in another great culinary event. The Buffalo Gap Wine & Food Summit is held each year at Perini Ranch in Buffalo Gap, Texas. Mike and I have participated with Reata for several years. Other Metroplex participants include Jon Bonnell, Tim Love, Grady Spears, Michael Thomson, Gerard Thompson and more. It only made sense that if the demand for our Fort Worth talent was that high several hours west of here, we should show it off in our great city. MM: We figured if it works in Buffalo Gap it should work here. Many of the participants of the Buffalo Gap Wine & Food Summit are from Fort Worth so we felt like there was a demand for Fort Worth chefs and their food. For us, the tipping point was when Johnny Campbell [president and CEO of Sundance Square] showed me the plans for the new plaza at Sundance Square. Now we had a great venue for a festival and could add other sites around the city. We started talking to various people around Fort Worth and we were overwhelmed with the number of people who wanted to see a festival come here. What is the goal of the foundation? MM: One of the trends we’ve seen around the country is that food is becoming more important to people’s experience. People might be coming to Fort Worth to attend a convention; they might be coming to the rodeo or they might be coming to take spring break in the Stockyards. While they’re here they’re experiencing these restaurants. So that’s one part of our mission, to promote: to bring national and regional attention to the Fort Worth food scene and to assist in sustaining chefs, restaurants and the local ranching and farming community. RK: We hope to raise funds to assist with culinary or restaurant /hotel management scholarships for students. One of the qualifiers of the scholarship would be the agreement from the recipient to return to Fort Worth and remain employed in a Fort Worth restaurant, hotel or country club for two years after graduation. We want to cultivate this young talent so that it can continue to help our culinary community flourish. We also want to create a grant program in which those in our culinary community may apply for financial assistance. This may be for a farmer that needs a new piece of equipment, to a craft brewer needing additional startup capital for a brewery, or even provide infrastructure for an existing or future farmers market. MM: Another goal is to educate, to elevate the skills and culinary knowledge of the general consumer. People want to know where their food comes from. More and more you’re seeing farm-to-table restaurants. People want to eat more local food. What distinguishes Fort Worth cuisine? RK: The change in Fort Worth cuisine over the last 10 years has been really remarkable. A decade ago it seems that it was all red meat. Reata, Bonnell’s, Lonesome Dove, Del Frisco’s, etc. The great thing about Fort Worth is that while all of those continued to flourish and still do, we saw a tremendous growth in other cuisines that may at one time not be thought of as a typical Fort Worth restaurant. As our city’s culinary palate developed we have seen the emergence of great independent restaurants such as Shinjuku Station, Salsa Fuego, Ellerbe Fine Foods and Little Lily Sushi. Even after we began to make plans for the festival, more great restaurants have opened. AF+ B, Bird Café, Clay Pigeon and Waters all have had an immediate impact on the Fort Worth dining scene. How has this type of festival impacted the economy in other communities and how do you think it will impact the Fort Worth community? RK: It’s no secret that I admire the way that Charleston, S.C., has developed their festival over the years. I think they grew the festival as the food community of Charleston grew. In 2013, the Charleston Wine + Food Festival contributed $10.7 million to the Charleston-area economy. The festival drew over 23,000 attendees, with over 8,000 of them coming from over 50 miles away. In turn, you can rarely go to a Charleston restaurant that doesn’t have a chef that hasn’t won a James Beard award. It really goes hand in hand. The people of Charleston “get it.” They see how the food community has helped to define them and they have bought into promoting that vision. MM: Charleston has done a good job at staying local and introducing new visitors to the city. That’s an important factor. We hope the Fort Worth Food + Wine Festival will grow like that, too. One of the elements I really like about our festival is that we have events throughout the city highlighting all these great venues Fort Worth has to offer. What can food lovers look forward to at the festival? RK: I think that we have done a remarkable job creating events that can appeal to so many different people. While the lunch at Bass Hall will feature caviar and champagnes, the Meals on Wheels for Meals on Wheels event brings in a dozen of the best local food trucks to Coyote Drive-in. One of the events that I am most excited about is our Sip + Savor tastings. In addition to countless wines, craft beers and spirits, the culinary offerings are what I am fired up about. It’s an opportunity for our great local restaurants to shine. Shinjuku Station, Swiss Pastry Shop, Hot Damn Tamales, Salsa Limon … I could go on all day. I hope that patrons get a chance to taste what some of these outstanding local small businesses are doing. What’s cooking next? Will there be some culinary fundraisers and events before next year’s festival? RK: I would be lying if I told you I hadn’t thought about a couple of events that we could do this summer or fall and I’ve already got a couple of ideas floating around for next year’s festival. I’ve always got a few ideas floating around in my head. We had a great event last summer with “Twenty at the Tower” and although I don’t think we will ever duplicate the same event exactly the same way, if there is a way to do something similar this summer we may try it. I have been truly blessed to have Mike’s support through this entire process. He’s allowed me to do something that I thought would never be possible and added a tremendous amount of guidance along the way. We’ve learned a lot over the past year and, hopefully, Fort Worth will embrace this festival and we can continue to grow it and other culinary events through the years.