“Somebody at work asked me if I was going to Chow Chow, and I said, ‘I hate chow-chow! Why would I go to a chow-chow festival?’”
Apparently schooled in the difference between chow-chow the pickled relish and Chow Chow: An Asheville Culinary Festival — which made its impressive debut Sept. 12-15 — the man who was overheard dissing the former was clearly relishing the latter. On a sweltering Friday afternoon, he was standing in the festival’s grilling area in Pack Square Park, a locally brewed adult beverage in one hand, a compostable plate loaded with meats fresh off the fire in the other, and a big smile on his face.
Meanwhile, North Carolina chef and host of the PBS series “A Chef’s Life” Vivian Howard was presenting a lively global history of peripatetic pickles from the amphitheater demo stage as volunteers passed out samples of bright yellow and green Appalachian chow-chow. Throughout the park, hundreds of attendees who purchased a $125 Pickled in the Park daily pass sampled their way through dozens of food and beverage stations in the Grand Tasting Tent, paused to watch Cúrate chef/owner and president of the Chow Chow board of directors Katie Button and guest chefs make huge pans of paella, and strolled the paved walkways and grassy lawn to peruse 20 more food and beverage vendors in satellite stalls.
In multiple locations around town and throughout Western North Carolina, other ticketed experiences — many sold out in advance — included tours of businesses, farms and historic neighborhoods; demonstrations; hands-on workshops; seminars and meals. All were individually and collectively intended to fulfill the mission of the 501 (C3) nonprofit founded to produce the event: to celebrate the farmers, growers, chefs, brewers, makers, artists, craftspeople and culture of Southern Appalachia.
“I’ve participated in a lot of festivals,” says Button. “We wanted to make this uniquely Asheville, our amazing community of makers. The board felt like the table is the gathering place where you sit down to break bread, pass plates and come together as community. So one goal was collaboration and bringing the community together. Another was to make sure everything had an intentional, educational component. I think we did that in most everything we did. And the other was to raise awareness of MANNA [FoodBank], food insecurity and food waste.”
Party with a purpose
Jane Anderson, Chow Chow board member and executive director of Asheville Independent Restaurants Association, remembers that during the event’s planning stages, local chefs were adamant that whatever form the festival took, it had to have a charity partner. “We invited a crew of chefs together for a facilitated meeting, and the first thing out of their mouths wasn’t about the food, it was that any event had to benefit something, and it had to be MANNA,” she recalls.
Kara Irani, director of marketing and communications for the area nonprofit hunger relief organization, says MANNA benefited in several ways.“Chow Chow offered a place via online ticket sales where people had an option to donate to MANNA, and the committee chose to direct those donations to MANNA Packs for Kids, which supplies a supplemental bag of food for the weekend to over 5,000 kids in our 16-county region,” she says. Ultimately, Chow Chow raised a total of $52,769 for MANNA, including a single $50,000 anonymous donation.
MANNA’s tent and box truck parked on-site at Chow Chow also provided an opportunity to share with guests what is largely behind-the-scenes work. And a significant outcome of the partnership was the rescue of surplus food; vendors’ food overages were donated to MANNA, Veterans Restoration Quarters and Food Connection for distribution.
“Chow Chow had a point person who handled all of it. We brought a truck Monday morning and product was going to people that afternoon.” says Irani. “Food festivals usually operate in the red the first few years, so we were so grateful to be included from the very first year.”
According to Button, John McKibbon, chairman of McKibbon Hospitality and developer of the delayed but now open Kimpton Hotel Arras, was Chow Chow’s unofficial patron saint. “John was one of the first people on board to support us,” says Button. “He was the only one who came on at the financial level of support he did, and the festival flat out would not have happened without him.”
McKibbon, who lives part-time in Asheville, says the reason for his heavy investment is simple. “Our hotels have been very successful here, and we want to take a significant portion of our profits and pour it back into the community,” he explains.
Bringing their A game
McKibbon says he was impressed with the parts of Chow Chow that he experienced, including Pickled in the Park. “The vendors and restaurants really gave their all,” he says.
Button agrees. “The chefs brought their A game; they put a lot of thought into what they were making and their dishes told a story,” she says.
David Van Tassel, executive chef of Corner Kitchen, spent all three days in the Grand Tasting Tent, working with general manager Rachel Morgan. “It was a lot of work, but we had fun, and we were lucky to do all three days,” he says.
Corner Kitchen offered cold food samples with a different culinary theme each day — Spanish with gazpacho and tuna escabeche; French with vichyssoise and chicken liver pate on puff pastry; and Southern with a chilled creamy collard soup, black-eyed pea relish with bread and butter pickles, and tasso ham with crawfish mustard on house-made grits crackers. “Everyone there seemed to be really enjoying themselves and really interested in the food, where it was sourced, the process,” says Van Tassel.
The restaurant also created a unique mocktail each day to accommodate nonimbibers or people who wanted a break from alcohol. “There were a lot of beer, wine and spirits people there, but I didn’t see anyone who looked like they needed to be cut off,” Van Tassel notes.
For Button, that’s a mission accomplished — at least one of them. She says her motivation, in part, for having the paella station anchor one end of the tent was to balance the booze.
“A lot of food festivals I’ve done, there can be a whole lot of beverage and not enough filling food,” she says. “I thought if we do a giant paella rice dish, no one will go hungry. It was also neat for people to watch. And it gave me a chance to bring Jose [Andres] to Asheville. My husband, Felix [Meana], and I used to work for him. He is a mentor and friend.”
Andres leads World Central Kitchen, which he founded in 2010 to aid earthquake-ravaged Haiti. A 2019 Nobel Peace Prize nominee for his global efforts providing meals to people in need, Andres and WCK set up three massive kitchens in the Bahamas anticipating Hurricane Dorian. He left his team there to fly to Asheville, where he made oxtail paella, spoke to the crowd at Pickled in the Park then flew back to the Bahamas to resume his work.
That makes him the ultimate celebrity chef as far as McKibbon is concerned. “Jose’s presence brought a lot of publicity to the event,” he says. “But beyond the publicity, he is an inspiration to everyone who worked on and participated in the festival.”
Another highlight for many organizers was the Makers Market. The tented pop-up store stocked with locally made products was located outside the ticketed area, allowing free access.
“A core vision for the festival was not to make this just about food and wine,” says Anderson. “We really worked to include the whole community, on the board and in the event — makers, growers, historians, farmers. When I walked through the Makers Market, my heart just filled with pride. Here were these people who live among us that do this beautiful work that goes to tabletops and kitchens in restaurants and people’s homes.”
Envisioning future festivals
For some Chow Chow organizers, including Button and McKibbon, revamping the cooking demonstration area and moving it from the park’s unshaded plaza to possibly a tent with seating tops the list of changes to be discussed moving forward.
Anderson wants to see more free things for casual visitors and families to do — and more food trucks. She also suggests better signage, less lounge seating inside the Grand Tasting Tent (“People tend to park, and you want to keep them moving,” she says) and more surfaces for resting plates and cups.
Van Tassel hopes organizers will offer more affordable options for hospitality industry employees, possibly a discounted ticket package that could be sold to participating restaurants and distributed to staff by management. He also thinks a later start time for the tasting on Friday would increase traffic.
Final numbers on attendance and funds raised for MANNA Packs were not available by press time, but McKibbon says he is ready to jump on board again. And Anderson is already dreaming of what Chow Chow 2020 will look like with the fencing around the Art Museum gone and the museum and Hotel Arras open.
John Fleer, Chow Chow board member and chef/owner of Rhubarb, which gave him a bird’s eye view of the site, was positive. “In the eight years I’ve lived here, I’ve never seen Pack Square Park look better,” he enthused. “I think we have set sail with a very solid product. We’ve got a great experience under our belts, many valuable lessons learned, and I think next year will be pretty amazing.”