I look forward to the last week in July every year. Yes, it’s hot. And yes, that is a slow time in the restaurant business, but it’s also the weekend of the Natchez Food and Wine Festival.
As a restaurateur and chef, I get asked to do a bunch of events. Usually they are one-night affairs where the restaurants cover the bill for the catering of a huge party to benefit a charity. We prep, we serve, we clean up and we leave. Sometimes we get a free t-shirt or our names in a program, but for the most part, we are there to provide food for the masses so that the charity can raise money without a food budget. These events are good publicity, but they are also hard work and expensive for the business. Natchez does it different. For starters, they cover your food cost. But even better is the fact that the event lasts a whole weekend and they put you up in a hotel and take care of you like celebrities. There’s a chef’s after-party on Friday night where the chefs eat and drink for free and there’s no shortage of hospitality from the locals who are quick to pick up your tab for a drink or two. The chefs have plenty of time to hang out together and talk shop (or not talk shop). The restaurants represented come from around the region and stretch from New Orleans to Memphis and all points in-between. I’ve formed friendships at this event with chefs from around the southeast and when I travel, I make an effort to stop in and eat with these guys and girls when I can.
Stuart and I arrived Friday with plenty of time to prep for the “Tastings on the River” event. Since Connor Mize in the La Finestra had pre-made and stuffed 500 mini-sausages, our prep really just amounted to browning the sausage, cooking the peppers & onions and reducing the Balsamic vinegar. As the opening of the event drew near we made one last trip to see our friends at Lazy Magnolia Brewing and got ready for the crush. One hour and fifteen minutes later, we were out of sausage.
The only good thing about blasting through all of your food is that you get to close up shop and see what everyone else is doing. The guys at MoPho did a fried oyster that would have been my vote for best of show. Derek at Walker’s did a shrimp toast that was a melt-in-your mouth fantastic butter bomb. It’s always a pleasure to see the folks from St. James Cheese Company and this year was no different.
After the event a bunch of us went to the “Chef’s After-party” where the drinks are free and food is really just there to soak up the hooch. As nigh wore on, we ended up at the Under the Hill Saloon where the guys from Pickett Farms bought all the drinks and even gave us a ride home. Back at the hotel Stuart and I hit up the vending machines and had a late night chipocalypse.
Saturday started with a pretty bad case of what was professionally diagnosed as “Natchez Flu.”
To minimize the symptoms we had lunch at the Cotton Alley Cafe. I wasn’t sure that a burger and a bloody would quite cut it so I went big and had a strip-steak for lunch. It worked. We powered through the afternoon and cooked our Saturday dinner with Alex Harrell from Sylvain, KellyMcCann from Galatoires, and Jeremy Conner of Village Cafe. The dishes were stunningly beautiful and didn’t suffer a bit from the fact that we had to work out of two office kitchens.
After the carnage of the night before, I took the night off from the local taverns and left that to Stuart. It was a good move. The next morning’s brunch was going to come early.
The brunch at the Carriage House is always my favorite part of the weekend. You have a virtual army of chefs working through hangovers and cramped quarters to put out a fantastic brunch buffet for 200+ hungry people. Each year I make the same dish, Ham and Egg Cups with Sauteed Mushrooms and Sun-Dried Tomato Hollandaise. Luckily, Chef Bingo had his crew slice and saute my mushrooms so my prep time was reduced dramatically. Despite sharing the back-line with three other cooks, we managed to get everything out on time (even though for the second year in a row I had to make my Hollandaise over the steam table since the burners were all in use). We served the masses. I gave the “Whiskey Speech.” We had the best bloodies in Natchez and vowed to do it all over again in 2015.
Thank you Natchez! See you next year!