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The diverse and impressive musical lineup makes the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival one of the most popular events in the world—but it’s the food and drink lineup that rounds out the experience for many festival-goers.

Nic Adler, who also puts on Eat Drink Vegan in Pasadena, has been curating the food at Coachella for four years. I recently had the chance to interview him.

How has the food and drink morphed at Coachella since your first year working on it?

In many, many ways. … There are a lot of things that happen back-of-house to make restaurants and vendors successful front-of-house. For many years, the vendors that we used—and still use—at Coachella have been used to vending at high-volume events. However, a lot of the restaurants that I brought in were not used to being in front of 100,000 people. They might do a food festival with 4,000 or 5,000 people, but nothing on the level of what we’re doing at Coachella. So, there was a lot of work to do … for us to understand how vendors work, what their needs are, and how to deal with chefs. Chefs are artists, and they’re used to very specific things. They know their kitchen. They know where everything is. They know that everything’s working. That’s not always how it works when you come out to a large festival like Coachella.

Putting together the right team to support these chefs, restaurants, bartenders and mixologists took a little bit of time.

All of our restaurants (from) year one struggled a bit. It took us some understanding on what people wanted. It took them (a while to) understand how to put out food in a way that was pleasing to the festival audience. Both of those things have come together, and they’ve kind of met in the middle. It’s made for really interesting, great food that’s visually beautiful, and food that is portable—bowls, wraps and things like that. It just took a little bit of time.

What are some of the restaurants that have been there since the beginning, that were super-successful, and people loved?

It’s interesting: We don’t do a lot of returning restaurants, although the ones that have returned have been there from very early on. Beer Belly would be one that has been with us since the very beginning. KazuNori in the Rose Garden has been there from the very beginning.

We really try to keep the food program (like Goldenvoice President/CEO) Paul Tollett keeps the music lineup: There are some (acts) that return. Maybe they take a year off, and they come back again; they get bigger and go to a bigger stage. We kind of look at the food program in a similar way: We need to have these big names that people recognize, and then we’ve got to have a whole middle tier that people know. … And then we have a bunch of (vendors) that have never done anything like this before, and are kind of the new up-and-comers.

Are you actually the person who chooses the restaurants?

Yes, I do. I have a really solid team. I work closely with Lizzy Stadler, and between the two of us, we spend nine months searching out restaurants and chefs that we think would work well with the festival.

Where are most of the restaurants from? Do you have to stay kind-of local because of the equipment they bring?

Yeah. We do have a good amount from Southern California—but this is the first year that we’re really making a big transition to having Coachella be more of a national food program, so we have 2nd City from New York. In our Outstanding in the Field program, we have chefs from Miami, Chicago and New York. MatchaBar started in New York as well. We’re just trying to look around the country and see what’s happening and bring that to Coachella. We don’t do a lot of Coachella Valley restaurants—although we do have The Venue Sushi this year—only because this is also one of the busiest times of the year for those restaurants.

How many restaurants are at Coachella this year?

In total, in the food program, there are more than 150 restaurants and vendors. As far as our curated, featured restaurant lineup, there are more than 40.

I imagine you’re trying to cater to the organic and vegan crowd, too.

Yeah, being a passionate vegan myself. We have Ramen Hood doing ramen. We have Taqueria La Venganza. We have 118 Degrees. We have Strictly Vegan. I would say there are about 10 to 15 restaurants. Then you have a restaurant like Sumo Dog that is known for their crazy Japanese-style hot dogs, which has a separate grill (for making vegan food) inside of their restaurant. They have amazing vegan hot dogs. … Every vendor has to offer a vegetarian or vegan item on their menu.

How many craft breweries are there this year?

The Craft Beer Barn started four years ago. We’ve consistently had somewhere between 100 to 150 breweries as part of that program, and that includes the rare beer bar, which we introduced last year, where Jimmy (Han) from Beer Belly curates. He spends all year (curating); he’ll call me in September telling me how he got a keg of something, and that he’s hid it in the back of the cooler and wrapped it up. He gets these little gems all year long. … He’s really worked with the breweries to get special, unique kegs out there. That’s also because we invite so many of the breweries to come down: At any given time, there are 20 or 30 brewmasters or owners or technicians who are here onsite at the festival. When you’re walking through the Craft Beer Barn, and you look over and see the head brewer from one of your favorite breweries, that really makes a difference.

Last year, there was a big push for sours, and the IPAs are obviously always really big. This year, one my favorites has been the hazy IPA, the New England-style IPA. I can’t get enough of it. It’s got very little bite on it; it’s super-refreshing, but you still have all of that hop. It’s really exciting to learn about those beers.

We also have a tiki bar that’s something that’s new for the festival this year. I’m really excited to be working on that with the guys from PDT in New York … which stands for Please Don’t Tell. They really ushered in revival of the speakeasy. They’re known to be some of the best bartenders in the world there, and they’ve come out to Indio to be part of this tiki bar. It’s not on any map. We don’t tell anybody where it is. When you find it, you know it.

Published in The Beer Goddess

“There is good living, where there is good beer.”

Since I started writing about beer, this has been my mantra—and, of course, good food is part of good living, too.

There’s more synergy between the beer and food worlds than ever before. Brewers have produced a range of delicious beers to suit nearly every kind of food. The Brewers Association reports that the number of breweries in the U.S. just passed 5,000—a record high. That means there’s a ton of beer-and-food-pairing potential! Therefore, it’s no surprise that restaurateurs are increasingly recognizing the versatility of craft beers—and their various complex favors—when it comes to food pairing.

“Dr.” Bill Sysak is respected around the world for his encyclopedic knowledge of beer styles and flavor profiles. Dr. Bill, as he’s known in the craft-beer community, is the co-founder and CEO at Wild Barrel Brewing Company and the former craft beer ambassador at Stone Brewing Co. He suggests matching strength with strength: Strong-flavored foods demand assertive beers. And for crying out loud, taste things first!

“I’ve always been a proponent whenever possible of knowing the flavor profiles of both the beer and the food, personally, versus just reading about it,” says Dr. Bill.

Grains like wild rice or polenta pair well with clean and crisp Bohemian-style pilsners or American amber lagers. The complementary grain flavors balance hops while staying light on the palate.

Love sour and funky beers? Try them with rich meats and root vegetables. Combining these flavors brings out umami.

While filet mignon is classically paired with pinot noir or cabernet sauvignon, a rich stout has the potential of bringing out flavors that one won’t taste with wine. Brown ales are also bold enough to complement roasted meat.

That said … breaking the rules is totally OK—and even encouraged! Discover what works together on your palate.

Wes Lieberher, the executive chef at Beer Belly in Los Angeles, is a rule-breaker, as well as a food and beer lover. You must try his beer-braised octopus. He’s putting his own twist on what’s popular; for example, he created a French dip with duck and duck au jus. When it comes to pairing, he tends to experiment with what’s available.

“I leave it open,” Lieberher says. “We switch our taps so much, so there’s always a different beer, so there could always be a slightly different flavor to it, which is kinda cool.”

As for breaking rules: He pairs his beer-battered fish and chips, a lighter dish, with a hoppier IPA, rather than the lighter pilsner used in the dish.

“A lot of people will say, ‘This goes with this,’” Lieberher says. “I won’t cook with an IPA, but IPAs will go great with something I’m using a lighter beer with.”

More and more, brewers, restaurateurs and chefs are using what’s available to them locally. This tends to lead to better natural pairings.

“I was one of the first major people at my level—beer-and-food pairers—to talk about regionality,” says Dr. Bill. “Back when water was bad for you, people had to have whatever (alcohol was available in the) area of the world they lived. … In the Grape Belt, they drank wine with their meals, or diluted wine for their children. In the Grain Belt, everybody drank beer or mead or cider.

“If you had to eat the same kind of food sources every day, and the only beverage you had to wash it down with made you say ‘yuck’ every time, those styles wouldn’t survive, right? You would find the styles that work well.”

Julia Herz wrote the book on beer pairing. No, really: She co-authored Beer Pairing: The Essential Guide From the Pairing Pros with Gwen Conley. Herz is the Craft Beer Program director at the Brewers Association and a certified cicerone.

“The localization movement isn’t just isolated to food,” she says. “That’s where we became aware of it—from the slow-food movement, farm to table—and now it’s farm to keg to tap! We’ve got brewers thinking like chefs.”

While beer has reclaimed its place at the dinner table in some places, many restaurants still put only wine in the spotlight. Herz believes it’s time that more of the 115,000 people in the U.S. craft-brewing community speak up with a simple request: “Dear restaurateurs: It’s time to have your menu present beer in the same manner as food and wine.”

Herz suggests trusting the waiter or beer-server if you’re at a restaurant that has a respectable-looking beer menu

“Go to establishments that hang their hat on pairings. Have them be your guide,” she says. “If they have wine pairings, it’s a good place to push them and ask them about beer pairings.”

But to repeat: The one definitive source for what beer works well with what food is your own palate. Experiment and embrace your inner anarchist.

“We all aren’t the same tasting type, and we’re not all going to perceive what we taste as the same,” Herz says. “So it’s all about the journey—experimenting and being able to articulate to yourself or to others what you did and didn’t like.”

Thankfully, people are taking her advice. As of March 2016, nearly half of craft-beer drinkers surveyed said they drink craft with food more now than they did a couple of years ago.

Make no mistake: Beer is king and should have a place at the dinner table. When combined, the sales of wine ($37.5 billion) and spirits ($69 billion estimated) in the United States barely surpass the sales of beer ($101.5 billion—$19.6 billion from small and independent U.S. craft brewers). This tells us there is unmistakable potential.

Cheers, and bon appétit!

Published in The Beer Goddess