olive columnist, and restaurant reviewer of the year, Marina O’Loughlin visits what is quite possibly the best food festival in the world, Feast Portland. This year’s event, the festival’s fourth edition, saw celebrated chefs, tastings, tutorials and producers embrace the west coast’s foodiest city with one helluva culinary party.
There are food festivals, and then there’s Feast Portland. In what’s increasingly notorious as the US’s most foodie city, a festival has to be something pretty special to make an impression on locals used to the culinary cutting edge. Be it as simple as coffee (Stumptown) or sandwiches (Bunk), or as sophisticated as fine charcuterie (Olympia) or intriguing ice-cream (Fifty Licks) or hugely influential restaurants (Pok Pok), these guys have seen it all.
But Feast is indeed pretty special. This year’s festival was the fourth, and everyone we met was confidently announcing it to be the best so far. The programme was rammed with talks, panels, ‘drink tanks’, tutorials, celebrations. Parties: many many parties. And dinners – an amazing line-up of international chefs all collaborating in the one kitchen. We were lucky enough to catch the one featuring Christopher Haatuft of Bergen’s Lysverket, a restaurant I loved so much in its homeland I went twice in the one week. The menu was extraordinary: everything from fish head kare kare from Austin’s Paul Qui, to Christopher’s hauntingly good fried oysters with maitake mushrooms and pig’s head.
But of course, most of the fun is in grabbing a dizzying number of dishes from a who’s who of the culinary world at one of the many events. The festival kicked off for us in Director’s Square with the quaintly named ‘Widmer Brothers Brewing Sandwich Invitational’. We could smell the intoxicating scent of BBQ and Asian spices from the end of the road – who needs maps? – probably largely down to my favourite sandwich of the night: Peking quail and Canadian bacon club from Aaron Barnett of Portland’s own St Jack, a wonderful smoky, aromatic mouthful. It didn’t win, sadly; competition was strong from the likes of L.A.’s Eggslut and Austin’s world famous Franklin Barbecue. Plus sandwiches from ‘name’ chefs and famous restaurants: NY’s Maialino, San Antonio’s Cured.
On a night where so many delicious things were being shoved into artisan bread, it was hard to pick a favourite. Portland’s swish Departure restaurant won with their Chinese bbq pork crepe with pickled turnip and fermented chilli. But I wanted Franklin’s to win because the beardy pitmaster told me, ‘you look nice’. Doesn’t take much, really.
This was when we got our first taste of the week’s premier activity: queuing. Or, as our US chums would have it, standing in line. It’s not my favourite pastime, but in Portland it becomes social: everyone’s got something to say. And the queues moved quickly, so it was pretty painless. Plus we were furnished with wine holsters – like a necklace from which you dangle your glass of vino, leaving hands free for grazing. It’s my favourite new toy, and didn’t leave my neck when we went to the Oregon Bounty Grand Tasting in search of, well, Oregon’s bounty. This amazingly fertile state’s wines are already famous and there were more than 30 wineries showing their wares (I was particularly keen on one called Love and Squalor), so our glasses were permanently topped up. But we also tried mini bison burgers, Oregon-harvested salt from Jacobsen, exquisite wildflower honey from Bee Local and chocolate spreads and sauces from Xoxolatl de David.
I think my favourite of the events was called, simply, Smoked – the likes of Pok Pok’s Andy Ricker (‘grilled pig parts with dipping sauce’) and Greg and Gabrielle Denton of the city’s Ox (‘bosc pear ham, burrata, hazelnut-green olive relish, smoke’) demonstrating the powerfully alluring effect that smoking has on food. Chef world superstars like San Francisco’s Chris Cosentino manned the wood-smoke belching smokers and grills.
But the whole of Feast was a blast, each day rammed with delicious discoveries: Andrew Carmellini’s much lusted-over lemon ricotta hotcakes, or the city’s amusingly named Boke Bowl and their fried turnip cake and pork, humming with Sechuan peppercorns – both these at the insanely popular Brunch Event. Portland does love brunch. Then there was the mad genius of topping buttermilk fudge ice-cream with lime, peanuts, candied ginger and bottarga – yep, bottarga (Fifty Licks again). Chubo’s beautiful kitchen knives. Vancouver’s Beaucoup Bakery and their justifiably award-winning almond croissants.
It’s an opportunity to catch the work of some of the US’s finest chefs (more than 80 of them) and restaurants, wineries and breweries in one compact, alluring city; most of the events are downtown, making it even more accessible. If I’ve one regret, it’s that the dreaded jetlag meant I missed some the riotous, messy after-parties; when I go again – and I’d love to – I’ll be sure to pack industrial amounts of melatonin in addition to the anti-bloating pills helpfully included in our welcome pack.
And in case you think all this gluttony is reprehensible, the festival is in aid of charities No Kid Hungry, and Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon. So you might come home with a straining waistband, but you’ll also have a gloriously clear conscience.