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Feast Portland festival showcases Oregon’s bountiful food culture, with a hint of Austin thrown in

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com

Portland’s food scene has much to be envied.

Half a dozen gluten-free bakeries, a curbside composting program, a wine bar dedicated to Champagne and sparkling wine, a steakhouse specializing in grass-fed beef, a trio of cooperatively owned grocery stores and more than a dozen neighborhood markets, including a locally owned chain called New Seasons, that feel like mini-Central Markets.

And, as of last weekend, Portland can boast a national food festival that combines the thoughtfulness and high energy of South by Southwest Interactive with the culinary spectacle of local food events like Austin Food & Wine Festival and the Texas Monthly BBQ Festival, the latter of which also took place last weekend.

Feast Portland, backed by presenting sponsor Bon Appétit magazine, made its debut in and around downtown Portland, starting with a Sandwich Invitational on Thursday and ending with a 50-mile bike ride and brunch on Sunday.

Feast organizer Mike Thelin, who as a food festival consultant helped shape the final year of the Hill Country Wine & Food Festival in 2011, says he wanted to provide a mix of small- and big-scale events that highlighted the local food scene but also provided an opportunity for Portlanders to get to mingle with out-of-town talent from across the country, including Austin. (A few chefs even flew in from Europe for the events.)

“I didn’t feel like we needed another luxury food event,” Thelin said as Feast was getting under way on Thursday. Sure, he and co-organizer Carrie Welch created a number of lavish tastings and dinners that cost $150 and $200 a head, but spread throughout the four-day event were lower-priced classes, demonstrations and talks with some of the smartest people in the food industry. (An “all-in” package, which included the major events but not the dinners and classes, cost $650. For comparison, the weekender VIP pass for the Austin Food & Wine Festival cost $850, which covered all the events in the two-and-a-half-day fest.)

Portland Monthly editor Randy Gragg curated what turned out to be one of my favorite events, a thoroughly engaging Speaker Series, which felt like a less-crowded, better-choreographed keynote presentation at South by Southwest (and affordable — tickets cost $30, including sandwiches and Stumptown cold-brew at the intermission).

Gragg invited guests including “Blood, Bones and Butter” author Gabrielle Hamilton, New York food writer Francis Lam, Portland food critic Karen Brooks, Whole Foods Market CEO Walter Robb and U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer to talk about the evolution of Portland’s food scene, the impact of Oregon agriculture around the world, the politics and pragmatism of “local” and how diners and home cooks are influencing national food policy. (I am kicking myself for missing Mark Bittman’s talk, which at $25 a person, was the least expensive ticket of the festival.)

The biggest events of the festival, however, were the themed large-scale tasting events, which took place in a variety of locations downtown and cost anywhere from $95 to $200 a person. This is where Austin chefs Paul Qui and Philip Speer of Uchi/Uchiko, Ned and Jodi Elliott of Foreign & Domestic, and Aaron and Stacy Franklin got to show off their skills.

At Thursday’s Sandwich Invitational, Franklin, eschewing his famed brisket, worked with Rodney Muirhead of Portland’s Podnah’s Pit BBQ to serve a prime rib sandwich topped with queso. (Yes, they used Velveeta.) The Elliotts collaborated on a huge, almost overwhelming stack of smoked pork butt, pickled crab, pear slaw and pig’s ear gravy, but the longest line of the night was easily for Duff Goldman, the Food Network celebrity-turned-YouTube-star, who was cooking “Duff McMuffins” on a huge flat-top griddle.

Naomi Pomeroy, the former “Top Chef Masters” contestant and owner of Beast, who won over Austin eaters at the Austin Food & Wine Alliance’s Live Fire event at the Salt Lick last April, took home the honor of best sandwich with her maple-glazed pork belly with pickled watermelon slaw, but my favorite was a Cuban slider topped with hatch chile relish and matchstick french fries from Sarah Schafer of Irving Street Kitchen in Portland.

On Friday night, Qui and Speer practically stole the show at the sold-out (and very crowded) Night Market event, held at Ecotrust’s renovated warehouse in downtown Portland. Though surrounded by big name chefs including Pok Pok’s Andy Ricker, Eddie Huang of BaoHaus in New York and David Thompson, who runs Thai restaurants in London and Bangkok, the Austin chefs presented dishes that clearly stood out from the rest.

Qui, who won the most recent season of “Top Chef,” personally handed out nori-wrapped hand rolls filled with rice and intensely flavored seared beef tongue to each and every fan who approached his booth. Speer, just a few stalls down, was quick to pass the credit of Uchi’s succulent pork rib topped with a mixture of peanuts, sesame seeds, herbs and sweet chili sauce to Jack Yoss, a new hire to the restaurant’s quickly growing family. Working his own magic, Speer crumbled a kaffir lime mousse hardened with liquid nitrogen on top of lemongrass-infused coconut milk and a tomato tamarind gel. When the cold mousse hit the warm air, it created an eerie fog and a loud popping noise as eye-opening as the mix of flavors.

Because the festival had so many individual events where you could try many different chefs’ dishes, the Saturday and Sunday grand tastings in Pioneer Square weren’t nearly as crowded as they could have been. For a daily cost of $60, which included access to a number of cooking demonstrations from chefs including Qui and Chris Cosentino (aka @offalchris) of San Francisco’s Incanto and a finalist in tonight’s “Top Chef Masters” finale, guests could sample everything from kombucha, beer and wine to cheese, lamb jerky and chocolate from Oregon’s myriad food artisans.

The only booth that had a line while I was there was Jacobsen Salt Co., a quickly growing local salt company that turns water from the nearby Pacific into beautiful briny, flaky finishing salt. (And, yes, it was worth standing in line for salt. You can buy the product at jacobsensalt.com.)

Another thing I liked about Feast was that in addition to the tasting events, demos and speakers, they offered eight sit-down dinners for people who wanted a more traditional fine dining experience. (One can eat only so much food while walking around a crowded space trying to eat, drink and socialize at the same time.)

I didn’t get to attend any of these multi-course collaboration meals, but I admire that the organizers set them up with the intention of allowing nationally known chefs such as Iñaki Aizpitarte, a Basque chef making waves in Paris, and New York’s Gabrielle Hamilton to cook with local chefs of note in their home city.

The only class I was able to make — there were more than 20 total, all individually priced from $45 to $125 — was one called Strange Brew with Bon Appétit’s Andrew Knowlton, who led a discussion on cutting-edge beer trends with a handful of groundbreaking brewers from the area. We got to taste half a dozen experimental beers, including one that tasted like a salty cucumber margarita, but for the price of the $45 ticket, I would have liked to have seen a few snacks thrown in there.

Bon Appétit, which a series of Grub Crawls in a handful of U.S. cities this summer, is clearly interested in exploring new ways to celebrate, share, explore and learn about food, not to mention expand their brand as hip trendsetters, but Feast organizers Thelin and Welch, who will soon start planning next year’s festival, are the ultimate cool-hunters when it comes to food.

Welch runs one of the most well-respected food public relations companies in Portland, and Thelin has a hand (either formally or informally) in many forward-thinking food events of note in the country, including Meatopia, the New York meat fest which is slated to debut in Austin next year.

People have long asked me if South by Southwest would ever develop a food track, as it has done with film, music, technology, education, sustainability and fashion. If they wait too long, Thelin and Welch might just take Feast on the road to fill that gap.