Thirty restaurants, more than 100 wines, two sun-soaked afternoons and I’m toast.
I’m talking about the West of Western Culinary Festival that took place this past weekend at the Phoenix Art Museum.
Other food writers are going to give you more details about the specifics — which chef did what dish — in greater detail than I will. (Coming soon, entertaining wrap-ups from Howard Seftel from The Arizona Republic, Carey Sweet in the Scottsdale Republic, and Jess Harter’s already posted his East Valley Tribune summary). But I do have a couple of observations that I’d like to add.
First, if you are a restaurant junkie, this festival needs to be on your schedule for next year. West of Western attracts some (I’m wondering why not all) of the top tables in town.
It also showcases the talent behind some of the top hotel and resort restaurants: the Four Seasons, the Phoenician, Wild Horse Pass (restaurant Kai, the only Mobil 5-star restaurant in Arizona), The Wyndham (we have a Wyndham?) and the Sheraton downtown, the Fairmont Scottsdale, two Marriotts (Camelback Inn and JW Marriott at Desert Ridge, the new Montelucia Resort, the Pointe Hilton at Tapatio Cliffs, and even La Posada in Winslow.
Noticeably missing were Binkley’s (and Cafe Bink), Los Sombreros, Barrio Cafe, Tonto Bar & Grill and Cartwright’s, Lon’s at the Hermosa Inn, the new Mission, Christopher’s, Vincent’s, Sea Saw, Cowboy Ciao, Digestif (although Chef Curry did a demo), and many more.
Some chefs put more into this festival than others. And the festival goers noticed. (A blob of burrata from Prado? Bland garlic panna cotta that blended into the white plate from the new, hip Posh?)
Some chefs went for shock and awe: Kai handed out four samples, including my favorite, pulled lamb on fry bread with fig and curry “mud”, Quiessence dazzled with at least 10 (I lost count). Roka Akor grilled Moroccan Korean spiced lamb chops that perfumed all of central Phoenix and presented elegant butterfish tataki.
Tapino did a different kind of shock: foie gras ice cream float with local Sonora Brewing Co. root beer. There wasn’t much of a foie gras taste, but he did get a lot of attention, at least until he ran out before 2 p.m., with still 2 more hours of the festival to go.
But here’s the thing, most of the restaurants missed the opportunity to connect with their target market. Sure, they handed out generous samples, but very few took advantage of their captive audience by marketing their restaurants. They could have been handing out critical information.
If I were a restaurant giving away that much free food, I’d also create a small flyer with what the dish was (so the customer could remember it later, because frankly, after eating thirty samples, who can remember what? Who did that delicious seared scallop atop mushroom cream, or the cocoa nib dusted scallop, or the scallop on top of the farro salad and wasn’t there one more scallop dish –all on Saturday?)
The flyer needs a few other things, too, perhaps a few key menu items on it, maybe tout a fabulous happy hour or at the very least, promote the restaurant’s website. SOMETHING.
Huge kudos to the organizers and volunteers are in order as the festival ran as smooth as the Ecuadorian chocolate pudding from Kai. The boy scout volunteers kept the trash empty and the festival staff kept the water tubs full. Cooking demonstrations, culinary lectures and short food-focused films gave eaters a chance to take a break, clear out some tummy room before heading back through the gastro gaunlet.
All in all, the festival was fabulous — again. I know that as I took each sample, I made sure I asked what it was, and then I thanked the chef for being there, making the festival worth the ticket price. Even though I’m pointing out some shortcomings of some chefs, I so appreciate them coming and feeding us, giving us a glimpse into their fascinating world of creativity. Because, at the end of the day, I am a restaurant junkie, just like all the other festival goers.