Culi­nary rock stars

Roots fest re­cruits more food­ies to fold.

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - JO­CE­LYN MUR­PHY

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.”

PHOTO COUR­TESY: MERED­ITH MASHBURN PHO­TOG­RA­PHY

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.

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