My grandmothers would not approve of wandering through a big social affair juggling drinks and food in each hand and stuffing my face with mini entrees along the way. And certainly not on board with my peppering the host/chef with questions like ‘is there any dairy/meat/eggs/gluten in this beautiful dish you’ve slaved over’? But that’s the nature of food festivals, and the dietarily restricted brave enough to attend. Despite the disapproval of my grandmothers and the occasional ‘omg there is literally nothing for me to eat’, I’ve turned eating and drinking well at these events into a sport: how many healthy and plant-based bites can I cobble together in a sea of foie burgers, pork baos and bread-bread-bread?
After a month of back-to-back food fests (including the polar opposite Tastemakers SF and Veg Society’s VegWorld Fest), I put my survival tactics to the test. After living to tell the tale, here is my take on food fest need-to-knows:
1. Eat before you go
This is really survival 101 for me. Unless you’re the kind of eater with an iron stomach and an open mind to all things meat and fried, fuel up in advance. If you forget and arrive with an appetite but without options to match your dietary constraints, chances are you’ll end up hangry and unleash that hanger on things you normally wouldn’t normally like a mouthful of truffle fries, random rice side dishes, chips and guac and margaritas (guilty of this with all of the above). Which is fun until it isn’t: tummy ache and regret are 100x worse than a hangover imo. If you instead pre-game eat before the event then you can spend more time mingling and sampling a combo of healthy and slightly naughty bites without being an insatiable, ravenous beast.
At Tastemakers last weekend, a first time event in San Francisco, the only vegan bites were a delicious-but-teeny kiwi popsicle and squares of chocolate from my fave SF chocolatier Dandelion chocolate. Had I not done it up on spaghetti squash and meatless meatballs earlier, I would have been starving or my blood sugar would have been cray. At VegWorld Fest, most of the options were treats - so after a pre-game meal I tried one dairy-free ice cream bar and didn’t need to stuff myself with fried empanadas or greasy noodles.
2. Get info in advance
Get the scoop before the day of the event. Email the organizers, DM their social person on Instagram, whatever you have to do to inquire about vendors making something to fit your dietary restriction. Maybe you’ll be surprised to hear there is someone doing vegan, paleo waffles. Or that unfortunately all you’ll be able to do is drink and eat dark chocolate (this happens to me a lot) so that you can prepare accordingly. This brings me to:
3. Don't be late
Arriving fashionably late is not a thing when it comes to crowded, buzzy food and drinks events. Getting there right when the doors open is the way to guarantee you get as much as you can, sans potential queuing, have the freshest food and get to chat with vendors before they are sweaty and exhausted. At an extended evening affair like Tastemakers SF, that ran from 7pm - 1am, the early birds were the only ones who got to try the IG-famous donut wall. Most of the food was gone by 1030pm, which was the time I was able to get a drink in my hands due to crazy queuing. At niche or more casual events like VegWorld where some vendors were serving food out of large containers - I’d rather have something early rather than after 50 people have talked over the food, getting who knows what into it. Having arrived there thirty minutes after it opened, I had my pick of where to eat - and was able to nab the hot ticket items like Conscious Creamery’s decadent chocolate-covered hazelnut ice cream bar.
4. The best ones are in new places
Getting to run into friends and say hi to favorite restaurateurs while sipping craft cocktails is one of the main reasons to visit a food festival at home. On the road though, checking out a local Pinot fest or Sake Saturday is an easy way to try all of the restaurants on your ‘must visit’ list in one go and possibly make new local friends.
5. There is no dress code
Unless explicitly stated on the invitation, dressing for a food event is a moving target. At Tastemakers, the first woman I saw at the entrance was teetering out of the venue on black stilettos, strapped into a white Herve Leger band-aid dress. The first guys I saw when walking in were in plaid shirts, hoodies and casual jeans. Inside, it was all-out-glam, just-out-of-bed and everything in between. At VegFest, well, we know what the fashion is like at grassroots vegan events: lots of vegan slogan tees (my favorite was a vegan bad bitch cropped version), Tevas and hiking gear. Basically, I would think even my grandmothers agree that ‘you do you’ is the best policy when it comes to crowded food parties.