Pop-Up restaurant, Coachella 2016EXPAND
Pop-Up restaurant, Coachella 2016
Courtesy Goldenvoice

How Coachella's Culinary Curator Has Made Food the Main Attraction

We’re only a few days out from Coachella 2017 and while the artist lineup surfaced months ago, the food lineup was just released. We can expect more Asian cuisine than usual, including items made with matcha, and poké bowls. There will be more high-end, curated choices in general admission than previous years. But perhaps more importantly, will the $100 hot dog with caviar make another appearance?

But Coachella isn't the only music festival with a stellar food lineup. Arroyo Seco Weekend, Goldenvoice’s newest event slated for June 24-25 at the Rose Bowl, bills the chef and restaurant lineup on the same flier as Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. High-end L.A. restaurants like Broken Spanish, Redbird and Union will make a showing, alongside trendy casual spots such as Beer Belly, Fat Dragon and Petty Cash. Basically, it's a collection of restaurants your friends have been Instagramming.

The Church Key, Coachella 2016EXPAND
The Church Key, Coachella 2016
Courtesy Goldenvoice

The discovery and sharing of food has become just as important as discovering and sharing music. “I knew [band] before it was cool” has turned into “I ate that before it was cool,” because unique food with quality ingredients is more accessible than ever. And given the marketing power of social media, it's more picturesque.

Goldenvoice plans the food as carefully as it does the bands. The culinary director of Goldenvoice, Nic Adler, has been curating Coachella’s food program for the past four years, and is also at the helm of Arroyo Seco’s chef and restaurant lineup.

“It goes back to that conversation that, say, if grunge or EDM is going to be the next big thing, it’s our job to look at food that way,” Adler says. “For example, if I didn’t have matcha this year, I would be missing it. That would be me misunderstanding the trends. Someone having matcha for the first time at Coachella 100 percent will happen. And then they can always remember, oh I had that at Coachella. Just like they saw a band for the first time that nobody knew. Four years later, that artist is headlining.”

Adler says that for Arroyo Seco, there was a conscious effort to make sure the food lineup aligned strategically with the musical acts.

“Obviously you can’t say enough about Tom Petty, and Mumford & Sons, but [there will also] be someone that feels that strongly about Redbird or République or Petty Cash. And the lineup’s not totally done on the food yet — you’ll see a second round of restaurants come on board,” Adler says. “Most fests are driven by the talent, that’s going to get the people there, so understanding what the talent was allowed me and the team to book food vendors that were complementary to the person who would be coming to see Tom Petty or Alabama Shakes.”

But the importance of food at music festivals is not purely based on trends and marketing, and Coachella wasn’t the first to do it. The New Orleans Jazz Fest has always placed food and music at a relatively level playing field, because aside from the tremendous culinary culture of New Orleans, the experience of eating and the experience of listening to a live band can be equally fulfilling. So why haven’t music festivals turned their efforts to food curation until recently?

Logistics. It’s one thing for a chef to turn out dishes to hundreds of guests from the familiarity of his kitchen, but it’s quite another to feed nearly 100,000 people at a festival. Concessionaires selling greasy staples like pizza and lo mein built their businesses on serving food to the masses, while flagship restaurants require specific strategies to succeed. That’s one reason many of the high-end food choices have historically been concentrated in Coachella’s VIP area, but that’s changing this year.

Hanjip, Coachella 2016
Hanjip, Coachella 2016
Courtesy Goldenvoice

“This will be the first year that we have a good amount of curated food in the GA area because we’ve figured out how to help vendors do it better, and that they can do well in general admission,” Adler says.

Accessibility also plays a role. Ten years ago, being a “foodie” meant knowing about Michelin starred chefs and eating at expensive restaurants. Today, the focus is on fresh, unique ingredients with interesting presentation, opening the infinite world of food up to everyone. And that’s a positive thing.

“People look at food completely differently than they did six years ago,” Adler says. “I’m talking about the masses. There were the foodies who kind of always loved food, and the majority of it meant over-the-top, kind of big-name chefs and restaurants that you can never get in, and it definitely wasn’t accessible. Social media and Food Network opened it up to all kinds of audiences. You have Roy Choi bringing it down to the street level with the introduction of the food trucks, and that whole period of time where people were bringing food to the streets. And now we’re not eating to eat. We’re exploring and discovering through food.”

Given their sheer size, music festivals are gradually becoming as influential to the culinary world as social media and television, and chefs are using them as test markets.

“Curation [of the food] has come because one chef was able to go out there and tell another chef. Not only were we able to go out and make money, we all had a good time,” Adler says. “The other thing that comes from it is, we become a test market for new concepts. We have a couple chefs that are doing projects this year. KazuNori debuted at Coachella three years ago and Ricardo Zarate did Rosaliné last year. They’re testing their concepts, tweaking their menus. They’ve been able to come up with a dish that was for Coachella that they then realized did so well that it’s on a menu in the restaurant.”

For roughly $400 a ticket, people can immerse themselves in a highly curated cultural wonderland that allows them to discover with all their senses. While musical talent will be the biggest selling point for the foreseeable future, these festivals are becoming more of a holistic experience and drawing a wider demographic.

“I think that we’ve started to see another group of people come to the festival, where everything is a little passive, including the music," Adler says. "They’re just there because of the Coachella experience, and they’re kind of taking everything as it comes and trying not to set too much of a schedule for themselves so they can experience as much as possible.

Sumo Dog, Coachella 2016EXPAND
Sumo Dog, Coachella 2016
Courtesy Goldenvoice

“I think the great part about festivals is they are what you make them,” Adler adds. “And I know they say we’ve gotten fancy, but I think we’ve moved to a place where good food doesn’t have to mean fancy food or expensive food. We work with our vendors to make sure there’s that dynamic there. Good food is good food — you can find good food for $7 or for $200.”

Coachella specifically runs the gamut with its food offerings, starting with pizza for $7 a slice, which isn’t objectively cheap. However, in relation to the $225 it costs for a family-style farm-to-table dinner with Outstanding in the Field, it’s the most financially humble option.

While some might argue that a $225 dinner doesn’t belong at a music festival, the evolution of these events is not entirely on its producers. Festivalgoers of the early 2000s have grown up and their priorities have changed. At 19, grabbing a slice of pizza between stages so you can see as many shows as possible might have been the mode of operation. At 35, spending $50 at one of the pop-up restaurants might seem like a better way to refuel.

“No one’s telling you how to festival,” Adler says. “That is up to you. If you want to camp, you can camp. If you want to sit down at a long table, you can do that, too. It’s not fair to charge someone and tell them how they’re supposed to be. You can wear what you want to wear and you can see 100 bands or you can sit on the grass with your friends and talk to them for the entire day. You pay for it, you interact however you’d like to.” 

Goldenvoice culinary director Nic AdlerEXPAND
Goldenvoice culinary director Nic Adler
Courtesy Goldenvoice

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