My Feast Portland experience involved lots of learning and tasting (at least when I wasn't at the Apple Store, tending to a sick phone that didn't survive an operating system upgrade), but very little hobnobbing. I didn't want to inadvertently fall into conversation with publicists or chefs, so I talked almost exclusively to fellow writers and friends.
Members of both groups are adept at critical thinking, which is a euphemistic way of saying that I know a lot of complainers. And I'm not complaining: A discussion of how things could be better, whether in the political sphere or on the dinner table, is always pretty interesting.
So I was very surprised by how few of my reliably judgmental companions could come up with anything bad to say about Feast. The scheduling was seamless. The prices were fair. The chef lineup was smart. Overall, it was a model food festival.
"It's pretty amazing that this festival is in its first year," said Andrew Knowlton, restaurant editor for Bon Appetit, which organized the event. "It feels like the tenth year."
Granted, the involvement of Bon Appetit assured a level of stylishness that a homegrown, modestly-funded festival would likely struggle to achieve. But even glossy magazines are allowed to make mistakes on their first outing: It was striking that the only snafu I encountered over four days of culinary revelry involved an elaborate Tillamook cheese social media campaign, through which phones equipped to order grilled cheese sandwiches were distributed to select Feast attendees.
When I left Nostrana on Saturday night, a guy with a "Comfort Call" phone had been waiting two hours for his sandwich delivery. While the delay was frustrating, event organizers had nothing to do with it. Surely there were behind-the-scenes flubs, but it's to Bon Appetit's credit that none of them were apparent to attendees.
The success of the festival was attributable to a few things. First, the festival featured a great mix of programming. In addition to the tasting events and dinners, the festival included seminars which were much smarter than the typical "Pairing Wine with Seafood" session. Instead of dumbing-down their material, presenters challenged eaters and drinkers to think about basic ingredients in sophisticated ways: Portland Monthly's Karen Brooks reportedly riveted hundreds of audience members with a discourse on the carrot, and a panel of leading craft brewers engaged in a lively discussion of what it means for the industry to embrace lager. There were interactive opportunities, too: I attended an incredible butchering workshop in which five of us were given a side of pig, sharp knives, saws and instructions.
As the schedule suggests, the festival did an excellent job of playing to Oregon's strengths. Rather than just showcase local chefs, Feast Portland played up charcuterie, Dungeness crab and wine. Dozens of wines were poured at the Oregon Bounty Grand Tasting, which may have been the most important event of the festival.
Tickets to the Grand Tasting, which was situated in the center of downtown, were $60, which is wonderfully reasonable by festival standards. The price helped secure the goodwill of regular Portlanders, and -- along with the formal attention paid to food policy and hunger relief - helped the event feel more like an inclusive celebration, and less like an opportunity for rich people to eat foie gras truffles (although that happened too.)
Assuming the festival returns, the second edition will be telling. It will be interesting to see whether organizers reach out to new talent, or settle for a roster of regulars. I wonder too if programming will continue to emphasize Portland-specific subjects, or if it will suffice for the festival to just tap into the city's food seriousness as its focus becomes more national in scope. The enthusiastic participation this year of Aaron Franklin, Marco Canora, April Bloomfield, Hedy Goldsmith and Sean Brock suggests there's little to stop the festival from becoming a must-do on the American culinary calendar.