Eat to the Beat: How Instagram-Ready Food Goes from Farm to Festival

We got the scoop on this summer’s hottest festival fare straight from the events’ food curators.

The vast array of cuisine choices afforded to festival fans today is light years from Wavy Gravy’s “breakfast in bed for 400,000” (cups of granola donated by the Hog Farm Collective) and sandwiches hastily airdropped in from US Army helicopters attempting to feed the masses assembled at Woodstock. With American festival culture kicking into high-gear after the 1999 launch of Coachella, the caliber and quality of food leveled up quickly.

It wasn’t long after the dawn of Coachella when the husband and wife team of Chris and JJ Parent converted an old ambulance into a rolling pizza truck in Burlington, Vermont. Taking their pies on the road as a way to help finance their shared love of following music festivals, the Parents would connect with the promoters of Coachella, where that pizza—now known as Spicy Pie—has become a huge fan favorite and unofficial food of the fest.

Lolla, Chow Town, 2018 by Katrina Barber

With up to a hundred workers covering five stands spread across the Empire Polo Grounds (including a twenty-four-hour stand in the Coachella campgrounds), Spicy Pie delivers a fun and upbeat party vibe along with the food itself. Now established at more than twenty-five festivals throughout America, the folks running Spicy Pie keep slinging slices even after the headliners are done. “We stay open until security shuts us down,” manager Tori Tremayne told L.A. Weekly last year of the indie company’s dedication to being there for hungry fans. “We stay open until the bitter end.”

The next big paradigm jump in festival food came in 2008 with the arrival of San Francisco’s Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival. Featuring a heavy emphasis on eco-friendliness, Outside Lands has made the most of the sprawling Golden Gate Park locale, with dedicated food and drink installations, including Wine Lands and the now-defunct Choco Lands. The Bay Area’s eclectic food scene is deeply embedded in the fabric of Outside Lands, with local stars like Humphry Slocombe ice cream and Thai/Lao eatery Hawker Fare becoming popular on-site food essentials, and the event’s deliciously ambitious cuisine curation putting the rest of the circuit on notice—festival food is very serious business.

Lolla, Chow Town, 2018 by Katrina Barber

Also meeting that growing demand for fresh festival foods are the dedicated folks working behind the scenes to orchestrate expansive menus found at events like Chicago’s legendary Lollapalooza. Chow Town is a cherry-picked selection of the city’s finest restaurateurs and vendors assembled to fuel the fans that descend on Grant Park for the annual four-day festival.

“We try to have Chow Town highlight local spots as much as possible, and seeing how Chicago has one of the most vibrant food scenes in the country, it’s quite easy,” explains the fest’s food curator, celebrity chef Graham Elliot. “Charlie Jones of [concert promotions firm] C3 and Perry Farrell approached me in 2008 to be a part of Chow Town,” Elliot continues. “It was so much fun that the following year I was asked to help curate the food offerings for the whole festival.”

The chef cites a decided turn toward cleaner, healthier fare as the latest evolution of festival food, reflected in Lollapalooza’s 2018 vendor selection. “Obviously, you’re seeing a younger crowd nowadays, and with that, a greater focus on health and trendy items,” Elliot says. “Juices, gluten-free, veggie-focused, and the like are definitely going to be featured more than ever.”

Lolla, Chow Town, 2018 by Katrina Barber

The Chicago chef is responsible for what is considered by many to be Lollapalooza’s signature snack: lobster corn dogs. Besides selling countless numbers of the delicious seafood-on-a-stick treat, it’s become a social media staple. “I think [it’s] just the juxtaposition of luxury and lowbrow,” Elliot says. “Lobster, mayo, corn dog batter on a stick. The fact that it’s large and fun, and the world lives through Instagram—it’s a no-brainer.”

Elliot will be showcasing those famous lobster corn dogs alongside fare from his latest Chi-Town hotspot, Gideon Sweet. “It’s a cocktail-focused restaurant with a revolving menu of small bites—think American style dim-sum,” the chef dishes. “We’ll be doing a double-booth at Lollapalooza with the lobster corn dogs and spicy fried chicken.”

Elliot is a serious music fan as well, fresh from participating at this year’s BottleRock festival in Napa, California, where he was “very impressed” by the food curation. He’s shared a delightfully eclectic playlist on his website, citing Michael Jackson, Girl Talk, Wilco, Sunny Day Real Estate, and Mark Mallman as some of his favorite artists. “As for who I’d like to see play Lolla?” he ponders. “I wanna see The Smiths reunite, and maybe Talking Heads.”

Lolla, Chow Town, 2018 by Katrina Barber

A newer festival on the annual summer circuit is Las Vegas’s Life Is Beautiful, which, like Lollapalooza, works to inject as much local flavor into the food as possible. “A big part of it is that the festival is so uniquely Las Vegas. There are a lot of things you’ll find at Life Is Beautiful that you won’t see at other big-name fests,” promises Lee Flint, the event’s food curator. “When it comes to who we want to work with, it starts with looking at our own community. And the Vegas community is also one of the most prime examples of a true melting pot in the United States. We have so much from all over the place here.”

Having watched the evolution of festival food at Life Is Beautiful closely, Flint reports that, in 2018, a dish’s looks are more important than ever. “The thing that everyone talks about is something that is not only delicious, but also a great visual piece that can be shared through social media,” he notes. “It’s such a big piece of everyone’s lives today. We’re taking that to heart in terms of not only making sure that we’re providing great quality food, but also hopefully surprising them with the presentation.”

Life Is Beautiful, photo courtesy of Life is Beautiful Music & Art Festival

And fests aside, finding good food in New Orleans is much like shooting fish in the proverbial barrel. So it’s no surprise that eating well at Voodoo Fest is as easy as strolling through the Forked Up Food Court. Expect long lines for Dat Dog, the city’s famous purveyor of premier sausages and hot dogs (who do also have a veggie version). Voodoo Fest 2017 food favorites included deep-fried Oreos, courtesy of Rusty Pelican, and Swamp Kitchen’s decadent crawfish étouffée.

Food discovery has become as essential a part of the music festival experience as discovering music itself. Fest-hopping across America introduces fans to local food and culture that might otherwise be missed between the roadtrip, the campsite, and the main stage.

“[But] it’s still all about the basics today, as it was ten years ago,” insists Elliot, on the ultimate key to curating music fest food. While the cuisine continues to evolve in step with fans’ tastes over each passing season, certain essential elements will always remain the same: “People want simple, tasty food that can be prepared quickly, eaten easily, and carried around.” FL

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