SunFest reinvents its food court
‘Top Chef’ finalist Lindsay Autry adds fresh fare to menu
On a grassy stretch of waterfront in downtown West Palm Beach, chef Lindsay Autry is picturing one of the strongest, flashiest additions to SunFest 2016: the food court.
Standing between Evernia and Fern streets a stone’s throw from the Tire Kingdom stage, Autry is looking over the concession booths that compose the Eatery, the rebranded, upscale row of vendor booths unveiled through Sunday during the 34st edition of SunFest.
“SunFest has great music, but this helps people remember SunFest also has great food,” Autry says, gazing at the booths’ rustic signboards, which bear phrases such as “Nashville Chicken and Fries” scrawled in bold, chalk-style lettering. “It’s going to draw more people in and tantalize them.”
When the five-day music and arts festival bowed along the Intracoastal, so did Autry’s new vision of the Eatery: upgraded décor and a revamped menu, which now includes Nashville hot chicken, waffle fried chicken, vegan-friendly bowls and a Sunday brunch. It’s a trendy, health-conscious face-lift for SunFest’s popular food court, already home to bacon cupcakes, elephant ears and other deep-fried grub.
“It will still be very carnivalesque,” Autry, in charge of shaping the menu since December, says with a South Carolina twang. “We’re not reinventing the wheel, but we are bringing vegetarian and gluten-free options to the table. People are very aware of what they eat these days, and SunFest noticed that there wasn’t as much attention to the food, the guest experience. So we’re freshening it up.”
SunFest hired the Palm Beach Gardens-based Autry through a new partnership with the Palm Beach Food and Wine Festival, a 10-year-old foodie affair founded by Autry’s fiancé, David Sabin. Autry, whose resume includes stints as Season 9 finalist on Bravo’s “Top Chef” and executive chef at Sundy House in Delray Beach, worked with Sabin and longtime SunFest concessionaire San Francisco Puffs and Stuff on the new festival fare.
“I started looking at trendy food, healthy food. Chicken and waffles aren’t healthy, but they’re superpopular now,” says Autry, 34, who rose through the culinary world under James Beard-winning chef Michelle Bernstein. “I was just reading about how Nashville Hot Chicken was catching on, and then two weeks later, KFC started offering it. So that had to be added.”
There’s also grilled- cheese sandwiches, including the Palm Beacher (spinach, artichoke and mozzarella on ciabatta) and the SoFlo (a Cuban-style sandwich with ham, Swiss and pickles on medianoche bread). The waffle fried chicken is served with spiced honey. Crispy fried pickles are plated with Sriracha ranch sauce. Autry even nodded to the Sunday brunch trend: the Sunday-only “Funday Station” offers hash brown waffles, which come “loaded” (cheese, bacon, sour cream and salsa) or “On the Sweet Side” (maple syrup and bacon).
For health-conscious festivalgoers, there’s a gluten-free flatbread pizza (also with pepperoni and barbecue chicken), and a Veggie Bowl, with rice, black bears, avocado and chimichurri.
The new Eatery is a string of 20 colorful booths stretching along south Flagler Drive a block from Meyer Amphitheatre, boasting familiar SunFest staples (Italian sausage, pineapple chicken) and new offerings. Anew wooden platform, which organizers are calling a “boardwalk,” runs parallel with Flagler, and will feature plush lounge chairs.
“We wanted to freshen up the whole experience. You buy your chicken fingers. You turn around. Now what? ‘Where do I pop a squat? ‘Where do I scarf it?’” Sabin says. “You go to our new boardwalk. It feels like dockside dining at a waterfront restaurant.”
Sabin says he “leapt at the chance” to help revamp SunFest’s menu after executive director Paul Jamieson approached him during last December’s Palm Beach Food and Wine Festival. A self- described “SunFest freak,” Sabin ties his favorite memory to Sheryl Crow’s 2008 performance, when the pop-country singer brought onstage an unannounced special guest to cover “All Along the Watchtower.”
“It was Eric freakin’ Clapton,” Sabin says, reached by phone in New Orleans. “It still gives me goose bumps to talk about it. It’s once-in-a-lifetime, this godfather of rock ’n’ roll.”
Jamieson says Sabin and Autry worked with SunFest organizers to beef up the volunteers and vendor staff for the Eatery, which he estimates cost about $30,000 for construction and menu testing. He says the couple are massive SunFest fans, and trusts that Sabin and Autry’s Eatery vision hews close to the “something for everyone” SunFest vibe.
“This is one of the neatest new things we’ve had in years,” Jamieson says. “The food at SunFest is thought of as one kind of thing: funnel cakes, big, greasy burgers and Italian sausage, and people think that SunFest is all about that. But people want a more eclectic menu, and this is it. Eatery is a great execution of that.”
Lindsay Autry, left, changed the perception of SunFest’s food vendors as offering “carnival food.” Two of the new items added to the Eatery menu are glutenfree flatbread pizza and Nashville Hot Chicken.