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Austin Food & Wine Festival: Scene report from Butler Park

Addie Broyles

After a few misty, gray days in Central Texas, the rain cleared just in time for the first full day of the Austin Food & Wine Festival, which this year moved from its first year home at Auditorium Shores across Riverside Drive to Butler Park.

Guests who experienced the dusty inaugural event were pleased with the condition of Butler Park, an under utilized city park that is rarely, if ever, used as an event space. More than a dozen tents were set up next to the Long Center, with lounge spaces set up under tents and a small grove of trees.

(The evening events — last night’s Taste of Texas and Saturday’s Rock Your Taco — take place at Republic Square Park downtown.)

Last year, Fort Worth chef Tim Love’s hands-on grilling classes were among the most popular events of the entire weekend, so festival organizers added a Saturday afternoon class with “Bizarre Eats” host Andrew Zimmern.

But even with the extra class, not everyone who wanted to get into Love’s class could get in, which helped fill the other tastings and demonstrations, including one with San Diego chef Brian Malarkey and another on Texas wines that featured a panel of local sommeliers including June Rodil, Devon Broglie and Craig Collins.

Even more badgeholders didn’t get into the afternoon class, including Austinite Aaron Hix, who attended the festival with his father and wasn’t happy with what he got for the $500 he spent on passes.

Hix says that he was told when he purchased the badges that he should get there early to get into the demo, but he also had the understanding that there would be a one-for-one process of getting in, meaning for every person in the VIP/Savor line who got in, someone from the Taste badge line would get in.

When his noon class with Austin chef Kevin Williamson ended after only 20 minutes, Hix says he headed to the grilling demo area, where the class with Zimmern and Love would start at 2 p.m. After waiting for more than an hour in line, Hix says he watched the class fill up with people who had paid $850 per badge.

“Maybe 10 people in the regular line got in,” he said, leaving hundreds of other $250 badgeholders the option of going to the grand tasting tent or one of the eight afternoon demos or classes that started at 2 p.m. or later.

“I don’t want this event in Austin if this is what it is.”

A festival rep says that the policy for all the demos and classes is that people waiting in the Savor line are allowed entry first and then after that line dissipates, the $250 badgeholders can get in.

While standing in line for that afternoon grilling demo, Brett Sinta of Fort Worth said that the grilling demos were definitely one of the big draws for coming to the festival in the first place.

Both sessions on Saturday filled up before Sinta and his friend Rachel Pauley could get in, but they had been enjoying several other classes, as well as the grand tasting, which featured dozens of wineries and even more restaurants and food companies, who were handing out samples.

When asked if he thought the badge was a good deal, Sinta hesitated and then said it was a stretch. “It’s a once-a-year kind of event,” he said. “It’s challenging to pay this much and have to always wait in a line, but I know that’s part of the thing.”

Sinta said that he knew that if C3 Presents and Food & Wine magazine, which produce the event, lowered the price to get in, the lines would be even longer.

“But if you want to engage with the chefs, it’s like watching live food TV,” he said. “You actually have Smell-O-Vision.”

During an interview on the festival grounds around midday on Saturday, C3 Presents co-owner Charlie Jones said that he’d been getting great feedback from both chefs and attendees, especially those who had attended last year.

“Part of it is the grounds, but we fixed a lot of the programming,” Jones said, citing awkward gaps between glasses and tastings last year that led to a lot of attendees having to sit around and wait for the next event to get started.

One of the most popular of those additions to the schedule was the fit pit in the middle of the park, helmed on Saturday by chefs Jason Dady and Tim Byres, who were giving out samples of their grilled pork and chicken throughout the day.

Jones said it was too early to say whether or not the move to Butler Park would be permanent. “We’ll see how the construction next door takes place,” he said. “Those plans (in conjunction with the city of Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department) are being formalized as we speak.”