ACL chef Tim Love preps for the big fest
After the lights fade, the applause winds down and the sun-soaked crowds filter out of Zilker Park, the musicians playing at the 2011 Austin City Limits Music Festival will be hungry. And as the official chef of ACL Fest, Tim Love's job is to feed them.
The Fort Worth-based Love, 39, is one of Texas' most visible celebrity chefs. You might have seen him on "Iron Chef America" besting Morimoto in a chile pepper battle or competing on the 2009 season of Bravo's "Top Chef Masters."
But before his television fame, Love put down serious roots in the Texas restaurant business. He opened Lonesome Dove Western Bistro in Fort Worth in 2000 and quickly became known for his bold "urban Western" cuisine. That means lots of wild game dishes (venison, wild boar) amped up with traditional Southwestern flavors.
He launched The Love Shack in 2007, a burger joint so popular it soon expanded into three locations (two in Forth Worth, one in Denton). In October Love will open his newest Fort Worth venture, The Woodshed, a restaurant focused on using types of wood to steam, smoke, grill and roast meat and vegetables.
In 2008, Love got a call from Charlie Jones of C3 Presents, the production company behind ACL Fest. Jones, who was in Fort Worth producing the Red Bull X-Fighters, had just dined at Lonesome Dove three nights in a row.
Jones enjoyed the food so much that he wanted to get Love on board for ACL Fest, cooking backstage for musicians and their guests. Love agreed to the job and offered to open pop-up versions of his restaurants at the festival food court as well.
Cooking at ACL Fest for the first time in 2009 was "pretty overwhelming," Love says. He didn't have a kitchen or most of the utensils he was used to. "It was just a hole in the ground and some wood," he says.
Turns out that setup suited Love's cooking style just fine. He's a self-proclaimed "meat guy," and for big events like ACL Fest, Love likes to roast whole animals, smoke brisket or make paella over an open flame.
Jones reports that the musicians love this approach. "They definitely respond to seeing whole pigs cooked over an open fire," he says.
On a typical festival day, Love runs back and forth between the food court and backstage catering area. He prepares a happy hour spread for the artists with things like homemade charcuterie, pickles and cured olives. Later he makes a special dinner for the headliner bands after the shows end at 10:30 or 11 p.m.
To feed the musicians he's cooking for this year (Coldplay, Manu Chao and Stevie Wonder among them), Love is flying in pig legs from Spain. He'll crust them in salt and then fire them in an Inferno, an outdoor oven fueled by open flame.
For the band My Morning Jacket, Love is planning a hearty meal that includes beef shins smoked for 16 hours, fresh chile-infused ricotta and grilled French beans with shallots and garlic.
At the food court versions of Lonesome Dove and Love Shack, Love will reprise some of the most popular dishes from last year, including truffled mac and cheese (9,000 servings sold in 2010), wild mushroom and tenderloin skewers (6,500 sold), and his famous burgers (a whopping 12,000 sold).
Making quality food on this scale is an enormous undertaking. Love gathers a team of 30 people to work the food court. For just one dish, the chili Parmesan potato chips, "We come here with about 2,000 pounds of potatoes," he says, "and I have a guy who just shaves potatoes from Friday night to Sunday morning."
It's not just about the food, of course. Love enjoys meeting new people and rocking out to the festival music while cooking. This year he's looking forward to hearing Arcade Fire, Cee Lo Green, and J Roddy Walston and The Business, among others.
Love's involvement in Austin will continue when he partners again with C3 Presents (as well as chef Tyson Cole and restaurateur Jesse Herman) for the inaugural Austin Food and Wine Festival.
The new festival, a collaboration with Food and Wine magazine, debuts in the spring and replaces the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival.
"It's going to be a tremendous event," Love says, one that will most likely include some nationally known chefs.
As to why producers chose to hold the festival in Austin and not a larger city like Dallas or Houston, Love says, "I think this is the right place. Our goal is to make sure it's successful and showcases Texas well." Organizers will try to infuse Austin's unique personality into the festival, adding a musical component to the food-centric event.
Austin's food scene has been showered with national attention lately, and Love thinks this trend will continue to drive the city food scene toward greater creativity and expansion. He sees the influx of new people to the city as a good thing for the food community.
"As soon as you see people moving in from the coasts," he says, "people start adapting and getting more adventurous."
Love is interested in opening a restaurant in Austin but is waiting for the right time and place. He wants to spend a bit more time here and contribute to the community before asking the city to welcome his new venture.
For now, the ACL Fest gig is perfect for Love. While hanging out backstage with musicians might be enough to resurrect rock star dreams in most people, Love is happy to be offstage and cooking. He dabbled in music years ago, playing percussion and bass guitar in a band called The Slam Chops and Mushroom Groovy. Love insists, "They were better without me."