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.