Culinary rock stars
Roots fest recruits more foodies to fold.
For seven years, organizers of the Fayetteville Roots Festival have adeptly demonstrated how a successful festival can come together with equal parts music, food and free community programming. Each pillar has continued growing and expanding its economic impact with each passing year. For Roots’ eighth year, though, even people who have watched the festival’s growth from Day One are excited and in awe about the culinary lineup and expansion coming at the end of August.
“Northwest Arkansas hasn’t seen this kind of collective of chefs, I won’t say ever, but an event like this — even those in the scene are hailing it as a big deal,” reveals Jerrmy Gawthrop, chef and owner of Greenhouse Grille and one of the brains behind Roots Fest.
“What a rare, rare gift to have this kind of lineup,” adds Daniel Hintz, founder and CEO of The Velocity Group, an urban planning and experience design firm. Coming from a culinary background himself, Hintz has also been involved in countless boards, organizations and development opportunities to expand the culinary scene of the region. “Usually, we would have to travel to [interact with that quality of talent], and it’s usually at a larger festival where it’s very hard to get access to those people,” he says. “So here we have an opportunity to rub elbows with people who’ve done it and to ask those questions and to get involved and talk to these folks.”
That “big deal” lineup includes 25 Arkansas chefs, 23 of whom are from the northwest corner, and five celebrity chefs who will be sharing their talents with the public at some Roots events, as well as with the students at the Brightwater culinary institute in Bentonville.
“The chefs will be taking over Brightwater — they’ll be in the butchery, they’ll be in the lecture room, they’ll be in the bakery — doing things with the students and teaching,” Gawthrop shares. “Our partnership with Brightwater is so involved, and we’re giving so much back and forth for this event; this was a [chance] for me to have this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the students, not to only cook with these guys, but to learn from them and plate with them. It’s pretty priceless.”
“They’re not only bringing attention to what we have, but they’re also bringing absolute culinary rock stars from around the country to experience what we have,” Hintz says of Roots’ potential for impact lasting beyond the weekend of the festival. “From its very genesis, the Fayetteville Roots Festival was very much about building capacity in the local scene. It initially started out in the music scene, [but] food was always a part of the conversation.
“As the festival continued to grow, I think the indelible legacy of the Roots Festival as it plays with the culinary scene is that now they’re building capacity by connecting the culinary rock stars they’re bringing in with [the community] — you’re introducing these folks to master classes and teaching their style of food to culinary students; it’s the panel discussions that are happening, that pair a chef with a local farmer and [are] getting people in the food system to listen to both the challenges and the opportunities that are there. And who knows what conversations will stimulate from these actions?”
The culinary aspect of Roots is not all celebrity chefs and education, though. The big picture element Roots adds to the local food scene, Hintz says, is its celebration of what goes on behind the scenes to create a robust food economy. In bringing attention to what is actually happening — from food access to local farmers to aggregation and distribution — and activating and celebrating the food system of Northwest Arkansas, not only do locals have a better appreciation and support for the food culture happening around them, but others from outside the region are drawn to become invested, making Northwest Arkansas competitive.
“First and foremost is that [Roots] has grown really authentically and I think because of that, it has built an amazing community around the concept of the festival,” Hintz explains. “It’s moved
from sort of a festival experience — which is still there — but it has turned more into, and will continue to grow into, a celebration of our region, a showcase for sharing our talent and our local food system — and it’s a great economic development opportunity as well, because great places attract talent.”
That celebration is furthered through all the free programming that takes place every year. Nearly half of the festival is free and open to the public — a fact Gawthrop says he and the other organizers are very proud of. With a mantra of treating the chefs like rock stars and the musicians like family, the visiting and local chefs are elevated on literal (and figurative) stages to highlight their craft or their abilities in a variety of series and events.
On Saturday during the festival, the famous chef cook-off will take place during the Fayetteville Farmers’ Market, with area chefs pairing up, purchasing their ingredients from the local vendors, then creating beautiful dishes in an “Iron Chef” style competition, all while festivalgoers and shoppers look on. The chefs are also in the spotlight — as well as farmers, brewers and other food experts — during the popular Taste & Talk series of panel discussions.
“I think it’s very educational,” Gawthrop offers. “And in the end, what you just learned and heard, you get to put it in your mouth. That’s a fullsensory learning experience.”
“I remember last year [at] the panel discussions, some great questions were put out there by folks in the audience who were farmers and need different connections, or were chefs and were wondering how do we create more efficient systems to connect up to local cuisine?” recalls Hintz, last year’s moderator for all the panels. “And there were further discussions after the festival that kept those conversations going that were very solutions-based. The Roots Festival is about capacity building in the truest sense of the word.”
“For the local, I’m most excited. Because we’re here all the time — I’ve eaten at every restaurant around here all the time. So maybe this is just a selfishly driven agenda, and the whole program here is just me looking for more food!” Gawthrop says jokingly of all the opportunities to eat beautiful and unique dishes comprising locally sourced ingredients. “My underlying intent is to nurture the food scene here and to grow some more foodies. That’s what is sustainable for all us restaurateurs — we need more people around here that want to eat good food and want to learn and aren’t afraid to try a shishito pepper. Or [say], ‘What’s this seared pork belly with the pickled radishes all about?’ I feel like it’s a win for all of us to be putting that out there and showing people and bringing the guest chefs in who are doing things people have never seen before. It snowballs after a certain point.”
Arkansas chefs Matt Scott of Bordinos and Jason Paul of Heirloom were the champions of last year’s chef cook-off on the square during the Fayetteville Farmers’ Market. Chefs are given $50 each to purchase their ingredients from the market, then have 45 minutes to create a dish for the competition while Case Dighero — emcee and director of culinary programming and events at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art — gives everyone a hard time.