Twenty odd years ago I started doing the odd food festival, and they tended to be like women's institute fetes on steroids.
Chefs would travel and do demos while locals would sell chutneys and new producers would appear out of the woodwork, which was great: I’d write about them and give them a place on our menus. But it was all very low-key. A few stalls, lots of Real Ale-type guys. If you’d told me in 20 years I’d be choosing between lobster roll, pappardelle with woodland mushrooms or gyoza dumplings, I’d have thought you were taking the piss. But over the years, the British food festival has grown beyond belief.
Foodie conversation now often goes something like this: “Are you going to Smoked & Uncut and Wilderness, or did you do Feastival and Food Rocks instead?” These festivals are on everyone’s radar and they feature music from people like Grace Jones, Madness and the legendary Rodriguez. They get second billing to the chefs, though.
These festivals have become part of life for chefs, and it’s a great way to catch up with a load of like-minded people. It’s good, clean fun for all the family during the day, then you can let the au pair take the kids home and party all night. The combination of food and music works wonders; long gone are the days of greasy burgers or warmed-up hot dogs.
Well-known chefs and restaurants will have an extension of their brand in a tent, while new and interesting start-ups will share their street food offering out of a vintage Citroen van.
I tend to have a presence, too. For years I did a Hix tent at Wilderness, with three sittings of two hundred guests at a time, serving lobster and steak or chicken feasts, with a negroni bar on the side. Cans of lager are out and artisan brewers, wine makers and distillers are in.
My friend Robin of Pig Hotel fame did Smoked & Uncut in each of his four hotels this year, with a Mark Hix & Friends lunch tent serving a music-themed meat feast. I teamed up with the likes of Mitch Tonks, Angela Hartnet and James Golding, serving different cuts of Peter Hannan's Glenarm estate beef and lamb, piled up on wooden boards, whilst Dire Straits’ John Illsley and the Kooks performed.
My own festival, Food Rocks in Lyme Regis, has grown year on year and has the perfect setting, with local food and drink producers lined up along the seafront and chefs from around the country performing on the main stage. A couple years back we had Ian Gillan of Deep Purple performing Smoke on the Water with over 2,000 guitarists joining in, and boats moored off the beach with coloured smoke machines filling the sky, while chefs were cooking sustainable fish from the Lyme Bay marine reserve. What a night!