Loosening the belt
Top restaurants and celebrity chefs unleash 4-day feast for Fort Worth Food + Wine Festival 2022
Well, Cowtown didn't forget how to chow down. After two leaner years, the Fort Worth Food + Wine Festivalcame back with a full serving of events for 2022 — and even improved upon its own recipe for success.
About 7,000 hungry attendees (think: half the capacity of Dickies Arena) showed up to fill up at seven different events across three venues throughout a perfect, shorts-weather spring weekend, March 31-April 3.
The range of restaurants involved — hello, first-timers Courtside Kitchen, Il Modo, Funky Picnic, Dusty Biscuit, The Fitzgerald, Paloma Suerte, and more — demonstrated just how much the city's culinary scene had changed since the last full FWFWF, back in the long-ago, pre-pandemic spring of 2019. Overall, a gut-busting 150 different chefs and vendors participated.
And, in an exciting first for the festival, one of the events was a big-ticket dinner featuring an out-of-town celebrity chef.
Called "From Houston to Ho Nai," the $195-per-person dinner served as a fancy festival kick off Thursday night at the Near Southside BRIK Venue. Chef Tuan Pham of Fort Worth's Sour Sisters - A Taste of Vietnam collaborated with Houston's Chris Shepherd, a James Beard Award-winning chef, for a four-course, wine-paired dinner of Asian-influenced Texas cooking.
One of Houston's most famous chefs, Shepherd earned his Beard Award at Underbelly, a restaurant that blended locally sourced ingredients with culinary techniques inspired by the city's diverse immigrant community. He is the author of the 2019 cookbook Cook Like a Local: Flavors That Can Change How You Cook and See the World, which lucky dinner attendees went home with.
Shepherd's participation didn't just fit a particular food theme for the night; it fit with the Fort Worth Food + Wine Foundation's mission to raise money to help those in the culinary industry. Shepherd's nonprofit Southern Smoke Foundation has provided millions of dollars in emergency relief to hospitality workers in crisis situations. He's currently focused on mental health initiatives for the hospitality industry, he told the crowd. Likewise, the FWFWF provides grants and scholarships to aspiring culinary students and financially assisted struggling Fort Worth restaurants during the 2020 shutdown.
Shepherd and Tuan's easy, brotherly camaraderie was evident not only in their affable remarks to patrons but in the complementary dishes they prepared, family-style, for the table. One "wow" moment was when big bowls of Shepherd's Viet Crawfish and Pham's Crab Fried Rice with Fried Eggs were placed on the table. Strangers became fast friends reminding each other how to disassemble and eat crawfish "properly."
Another rave-worthy pairing were Shepherd's Vietnamese Fajitas (prepared with lettuce leaves rather than bread), alongside Pham's Baos, which came both steamed and — in a unique twist many said they hadn't seen before — fried.
Cocktails made with Fort Worth's own Blackland Distillery spirits began and ended the evening, and glasses of the finest wines of the weekend were kept full. (The complete menu, including wines, is here.)
The best of the fest
Always a favorite Fort Worth event, Tacos + Tequila kicked off the festival across town at Clearfork, (maybe slightly unfortunately) at the same time as "Houston to Ho Nai" dinner. Patrons feasted on tacos filled with brisket, seafood, veggies, and more — none attracting a longer line than chef Tim Love, there with the buzzy birria tacos from his new Stockyards restaurant Paloma Suerte.
If burgers were more somebody's thing, they came out Saturday night, at the always popular Burgers, Brews + Brews event. More than a dozen chefs grilled up their tastiest burgers, judged both by celeb judges and festival patrons. And the judges' winners were (drumroll) .... Kincaid's "Cowboy Candy Sliders" in first, Kelly's Onion Burgers in second, and Easy Slider in third. People's Choice award went to the forthcoming JD's Hamburgers. And judges' pick for best brew went to Cowtown Brewing.
Friday night proved to be the most gloriously gluttonous night of all. It started with The Main Event featuring more than 100 wines, craft beers, and spirits along with dishes from 27 chefs, restaurateurs, and artisan producers. The event attracted out-of-town chefs, such as John Tesar from Knife Dallas, and Tom and Lisa Perini of Perini Ranch in Buffalo Gap, as well as barbecue expert Matt Pittman of Meat Church BBQ.
The longest line of the night, though, seemed to be for something entirely new and different (and perhaps the buzziest offering of the entire festival): Beer-battered, deep-fried sunflowers prepared on site by chef Jenny Castor of Luckybee Kitchen.
The party moved to Whiskey Ranch later that night, for Nite Bites. The sweet soiree saw 16 chefs serving both desserts and savory bites and 14 mixologists shaking up TX Whiskey cocktails. Vibing with the '80s theme, guests sported their neon best and were given light-up bracelets synched to the pulsating beats from a DJ. This one also featured a friendly competition. Judges' top cocktail was from Sidesaddle Saloon, a TX concoction that included lemon juice, apple bitters, house-made cinnamon syrup, house-made apple/red jalapeno syrup, cinnamon sugar rim, and Granny Smith apple Fresno chile brulee for the garnish.
You might not have guessed it from the event name, but Culinary Corral (once called Rise and Dine)brought the brunch crowd out to Clearfork late Saturday morning. The three-hour celebration of that magical meal that spans breakfast and lunch featured 25 chefs and 35 beverage vendors. Stars of this show included Mac's on Main chef Rena Frost's beefy take on Eggs Benedict; shrimp and grits from chef Jon Bonnell's Waters; a veggie taco with a jicama shell from HGSply Co; and (not to leave the drinks out) a Jagermeister cold brew espresso martini.
Things got sizzling Sunday at Ring of Fire - A Live Fire Event, which closed out the festival with 22 pitmasters and chefs hosting Fort Worth’s biggest cookout. Participating restaurants include Dayne's Craft Barbecue, Heim BBQ, Smokestack 1948, The Original Black's Barbecue, and many more.
In major "user experience" upgrades, festival-goers who'd once complained of huddling together over trash cans and high-top tables at Heart of the Ranch at Clearfork — home to most of the events — could enjoy more while sitting down at picnic tables, lounge set-ups, and Adirondack chairs across the space.
Clever activations and colorful photo opps, such as the Hello Trouble Hall pop-up bar and the chances to play croquet and learn to sabre champagne, upped the all-important "Instagrammability" of the whole weekend, too.
And in a "cheers" for the environment, the festival increased its recycling efforts throughout the weekend. All those bottles clinking during each event clean-up? They were going to recycling bins. And yes, they were all empty to the last drop.