The guy across from me at the dinner table has spent most of his career in the music industry. He and his brother run a record label, one that for more than 20 years has been turning out music you've certainly heard of. But what he really wants to tell me about is his new venture, which has nothing to do with music at all. These days, his passion is channeled into a pizza parlor.
We're sitting in a garden on the edge of the Empire Polo Club, at a long curved table that seats about 100 diners. It's the last night of the first weekend of Coachella, and just beyond the white picket fence at the edge of the garden lawn looms the famed Sahara tent, the festival's airplane hangar–sized EDM headquarters, where at any time of afternoon or night during the weekend you can find thousands of writhing bodies holding glowy things aloft and dancing to thunderous electronic music. Right after we sit down to dinner the resonant boom of the music pauses for 30 minutes between DJ sets, but just after we're done with our hamachi with avocado, shiso and crispy quinoa, and before the steaming platter of salt and pepper prawns with curried arroz chaufa is set on the table, the music comes back like a postapocalyptic air-raid siren. When you look up, a lightning storm of laser beams is visible shooting out of the Sahara.
"We don't usually do these dinners next to a giant tent with a rave going on," one of the organizers says, almost apologetically, before he goes on to describe the biodynamic wine we're about to drink.
The organization putting on this particular meal is Outstanding in the Field, and the typical locations for its mass dinner parties are farms and natural settings. But twice every evening during the six nights of Coachella, Outstanding is feeding hordes of festivalgoers — at $225 a person — a family-style meal cooked by notable chefs, mainly from L.A. Many of the diners here bought tickets to the dinner as a way into the festival, which sold out in record time except for a loophole through which you could buy a festival pass if you also signed up for one of these meals. Some are friends of the festival, here as guests. But all of them are having a blast.
My tablemate serves as a fine example of the reasons why Coachella and other festivals are making food an increasingly integral part of the programming. Over dinner he talks about how jaded he's become with the music industry. But the food scene feels fresh and exciting to him. He talks about his pizza dough the way he likely once talked about his label's bands.
Outstanding in the Field is only one small part of the growing culinary focus at Coachella. For reasons of simple logistics, food has always been a component of the festival, but only recently have the offerings stretched much beyond carnival fare. Longtime festivalgoers have their favorite late-night go-to stalls, and though my Coachella mission was mainly to check out the newer, higher-end alternatives I can attest to the fact that some of the most satisfying food in this setting comes battered and fried and served on a stick. It wouldn't be Coachella without Spicy Pie, the pizza vendor that's been there since the beginning, on which many people rely for padding after a long day of drinking.
The upscale options aren't exactly an easy fit. A giant festival in the desert known for its scantily clad rich kids and pervasive drug culture isn't the obvious front line for America's burgeoning interest in food.
But in the last couple of years festival organizers, with the help of noted vegan and Roxy owner Nic Adler, have made a concerted effort to step up their food game. Adler has recruited well-known Los Angeles chefs to set up stalls alongside the more traditional festival food and to populate the VIP areas with gourmet offerings. Last year, L.A. chefs such as Bäco Mercat's Josef Centeno and Night + Market's Kris Yenbamroong were added to the food lineup. This year, Coachella partnered with the restaurant reservation app Reserve to bring sit-down dinner service to the VIP area. POT, Terrine and a hybrid of Scratch Bar/Gadarine Swine all set up shop, offering prix fixe meals for $50 per person throughout the weekend (and next weekend as well).
This new endeavor is not without its hiccups. Last year, Yenbamroong shut down his newly opened Night + Market Song for the weekend in order to work Coachella, in the hopes that the extra income from the thousands of festivalgoers would help offset the new Silver Lake restaurant's many expenses. But things didn't go smoothly. At first he was placed in an area of the festival's sprawling grounds that was new — and where foot traffic was low. Logistics were difficult. He says he wound up throwing away 75 percent of the food he brought. When he came back the following weekend, he was put in the VIP area but left after the first day because demand there wasn't much better.
Yenbamroong acknowledges that 2014 was the first year Coachella had tried for more ambitious food, and stresses that he thinks the intentions of the organizers were good. "But the biggest bummer," he says, "is that people just weren't into it. No one wanted that food. Everyone is essentially there to party. They've spent $600 to get in, and they spend money on a hotel and drugs and getting there. And then they'll go without food or split a corn dog with a friend. Even if they might eat at my restaurant in L.A., it's like a switch goes off once they're in the desert. It's not what they're there for."
On the first day of the festival this year, the pop-up dining areas and kitchens simply were not built in time, and the sit-down dining at POT, Terrine and Scratch Bar/Gadarine Swine had to be canceled for the evening. For the rest of the first weekend, the pop-up dinners were sparsely attended.
All of this — the hiccups and the successes, such as the perpetually packed KazuNori sushi counter in the rose garden VIP area — points to the ways in which festival organizers are feeling their way into what works for Coachella in terms of food culture. It's not yet clear how the more formal dining experience fits into this festival, even as other music and cultural fests become increasingly food-centric. In recent years, South by Southwest has gone from simply existing in a stellar eating town — and therefore being a draw for food obsessives — to having an entire swath of its programming focused on food, not just the eating of it but panel discussions around food writing, sustainability and so on. As food becomes a bigger force culturally, cultural festivals by extension have to adapt.
Zach Brooks, the man behind the podcast Food Is the New Rock (the name says it all), points out that at many festivals, such as Jazzfest in New Orleans and Outside Lands in San Francisco, food is secondary only to the music. "But think about Coachella," he says. "It's the opposite. There's music, then dancing, fashion, art, drugs. Food is really far down on the list." However, he insists, "If Coachella is going to become a legacy festival, one that lasts for years and years and years, they have to get serious about food. It's an amenity, but people care more and more about it. The bands do, as well as people spending money on a VIP pass who want something better to eat than carnival food."
This year, you start to get a sense that he's right. The food lineup was smart, including folks who are insanely popular in L.A. but also work well in a festival setting. In the mornings, Eggslut served a hangover-cure breakfast bowl, then morphed into a Ramen Champ noodle spot in the afternoons. Marcel Vigneron debuted his vegan concept, Beefsteak, at the festival before it opens its doors in L.A.
Despite the fact that the sit-down dinners weren't wildly popular, the POT pop-up was delightful. Taking an hour out of festival madness in the late afternoon to enjoy a salad, a plate of sizzling barbecue and a fiery hot pot absolutely restored me — and was worth every penny of the $50 it cost. In the midst of all that dust and heat and booze and music, there's a lot to be said for shade and real service and plated food. And at the $225 Outstanding in the Field dinner, Ricardo Zarate and Tin Vuong partnered to create a fantastic meal, one that led to more conversation and camaraderie with strangers than any other part of my festival experience.
The diners in the rose garden, with the sample-heavy sound of 20-year-old French producer Madeon throbbing in the background, are not the type of people you'd run into at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic. Yet they shelled out an extra few hundred bucks to come to this dinner (even if many of them made the purchase as a way into Coachella). They eagerly listened to what the host had to say about the sourcing of certain produce from County Line South Farm, just as many of them were eager to soon find their way to the Sahara tent, to sweat and dance to their favorite DJ.
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As the organizers of Coachella continue to nail down the ideal culinary lineup in this world they've created, it remains to be seen whether this event can become an actual dining destination rather than a music festival with good food.
My guess is that it can. Look for an airplane hangar–sized dining tent full of chefs as celebrated as DJs, coming soon to a polo field near you.