The Great American Food & Music Fest Clusterf-ck [events]

Photograph by Cammie Nguyen

Thousands of hungry people descended upon Mountain View’s Shoreline Amphitheatre for Serious Eats’ first annual Great American Food & Music Festival hosted by Food Network’s Bobby Flay. While Serious Eats’ founder Ed Levine envisioned the nation’s best food aplenty, the festival was a serious bust. Food was nowhere to be seen, and by the looks of the famished hordes of disappointed attendees, the festival was far from festive.

Oversold, understaffed, and unprepared, the event deteriorated into chaos almost immediately. And to add insult to injury, the prices for admission ranged from $35 to $90, which (if you could get it) included one free plate of food. Plus $15 for parking! Not a bad deal for the chance to sample dozens of iconic American dishes, but a crashing payment system, three-hour lines, and vendors ill-equipped for the crush of attendees meant that many, many guests wound up paying through the nose to receive almost nothing.

People were really angry, and justifiably so. Cue the user-review shitstorms on Serious Eats, Yelp and Twitter — the phrases "epic fail" and "disaster" were uttered often and loudly.

Clearly, the food was the big draw, as attendance for touted musical acts Marshall Crenshaw and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy paled in comparison to the unbelievably long lines snaking across the too-small venue of people waiting for food and book signings.

Angry hordes of attendees chasing down event organizers in demand of refunds. Later, a ticket line was converted into a dedicated refund line, and when the refund line got out of hand, organizers blocked it off with security personnel. Those departing exercised their civic duty by warning those entering of the train wreck inside.

Photograph by Cammie Nguyen

Complete lack of signage or anyone that knew where or what anything was resulting in rampant confusion. Cooking demos failed to impress as advertised with last-minute cancellations for what could have been really cool demos like Chris Cosentino’s hot dog-making. Those that did run both went long and started late, making it really tough for the hard-core cooks to plan their days. Did Nate Appleman ever show us how to make his famous A16 meatballs? We’ll never know, because as of half an hour past when he was scheduled to start, there was still no sign of Appleman or his meatballs.

Photograph by Cammie Nguyen

Worse yet, once you were finally able to get a morsel of food past your lips, you came to find that no food, not matter how iconic, is worth that kind of wait:

  • Katz’s Deli’s signature pastrami on dry cardboard bread that was clearly not that of Katz’s.
  • Ten dollars for a slightly damp, tiny bagel, cream cheese and lox from Barney Greengrass.
  • A three-hour wait for a soggy Tony Luke’s cheesesteak. Though from the mouth of Tony Luke himself, his roast pork sandwich was the choice we should have made.
  • Bountiful brisket from Southside Market – but the artery-clogging, greasy Elgin sausage monstrosity was enough to stop our hearts – in the biological sense.
  • Never even getting to taste a Junior’s cheesecake due to a seemingly instant sell-out.

A few bright notes in an otherwise dismal day:

  • The ever-confident Bobby Flay sightings were plentiful
  • Food Network’s marketing head, Susie Fogelson showing support for Flay, Guy Fieri and the network’s other stars backstage
  • Those that managed to cough up $90 for a Grand Wine Tasting ticket were granted access to two large tents of local wineries pouring their wares. No big vineyards here, but at least the crowds were more controlled. And the wine was free-flowing.
  • And charismatic wine expert Joshua Wesson was a treat in his seminar demystifying wine pairings for contrast – despite the organizers’ goof-up with, wait for it…not providing food for the pairings?

In response, the next day Levine posted a half-hearted apology on Serious Eats, simultaneously (and somewhat self-defeatingly) immediately closing comments on the post, effectively telling the unhappy masses, many of whom expressed a simultaneous rage at the day's failure and willingness to reattend the following year, that he didn't want to hear any more about it.

If you’re feeling generous, take Levine’s last comment to heart:

I am heartbroken about what happened at the fest. I only wanted to provide serious eaters with an opportunity to taste some of the serious food I have been fortunate enough to experience. Let me say again I am truly sorry.

The Great American Food & Music Festival was a classic case of good concept gone bad. As lovers of food, not war, let’s give him another chance to do it right.

— Cammie Nguyen

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