At most music festivals, the food is something unremarkable you scarf down in between acts. At Outside Lands in San Francisco, it's all part of the experience -- and the spectacle.
In addition to the frankly staggering number of food and beverage stalls on offer for festival-goers, the shady wooded glen known as McClaren Pass became the home of the "GastroMagic" stage for the second year running. It promised "fantastical entertainment in the way of star personalities, food, cocktails, comedy, improv, music, and of course, sorcery” -- and it (mostly) delivered.
1. "Ass and Beignets"
Let’s get one thing out of the way: no matter how entertaining GastroMagic’s line-up was in general, it was all about Big Freedia. The New Orleans-based musician and MC’s ‘Beignets and Bounce Brunch’ on Saturday catered by Brenda’s French Soul Food was the undisputed hit of GastroMagic for a second year running. A clue to how popular this event would be arrived early when a couple of passers-by spotted her arriving backstage and began yelling "WE LOVE YOU BIG FREEDIA!" but even so, nothing quite prepared me for the sight of this shady glen in Golden Gate Park teeming with literally hundreds of festival-goers screaming as she brought her particular "Bounce" brand of dancehall to the stage. With a bass depth you could feel in your teeth, Big Freedia led the cheers as her team of four incredibly energetic dancers bounced and twerked, before encouraging a steady stream of thrilled audience members to come up onstage and do the same.
The draw, nominally, were the delicious beignets being prepped by the team from Brenda's in the background and handed out to successful twerkers, but honestly: I suspect that even if these folks were being rewarded instead with a slap to the face, they'd have been just as eager to get up there and twerk for all they were worth. "All I want to see is ASS AND BEIGNETS," intoned Big Freedia, and when she herself began to twerk, the reaction from the crowd could have blown the leaves from the eucalyptus trees above. Unexpected delight: seeing the amateur twerkers disembarking the stage covered with a dusting of powdered sugar from the beignets they were gifted with -- on their lips, on their faces, in their hair. Unexpected delight #2: someone in the audience being lifted high up to "crowd-twerk." That's dedication.
2. Rock n' (Sushi) Roll
As an unrepentant karaoke aficionado I was super-excited for Friday afternoon's Morimoto Karaoke, which promised sushi stylings from the Iron Chef himself Masaharu Morimoto, while revealing "his hidden talent." In short, yes: I'd naturally expected him to be demonstrating the art of sushi construction WHILE singing Total Eclipse of the Heart (or similar.) So forgive me for being a little disappointed when the event turned out to be a straight sushi lesson from Morimoto to an assembly of newbies, finished off with what must have been thirty seconds of Chef singing in Japanese.
Despite not being the Bonnie Tyler/Kenny Loggins homage I had hoped for, and the raised stage making it tricky to see what was actually being demonstrated sushi-wise, the event was a fun, light-hearted joy to watch, mainly because Chef Morimoto appeared to be having a ball, ordering his neophytes around the stage, and lobbing sashimi pieces into the audience (and at one stage, into his colleague's mouth like they were dolphins at Sea World waiting to be fed.) Personal highlight: Chef critiquing his adoring audience's perceived lack of sushi knowledge by yelling "You don't know f***ing anything!" then adding sweetly: "Sorry my French."
3. Do it for the Dough
Who doesn't love a few pizza dough theatrics, especially from a World Pizza Cup Champion? Sunday's "Dough Throwdown" saw Chef Tony Gemignani -- he of North Beach pizza pie institution Tony's -- offer up a short but sweet show that was basically culinary Cirque du Soleil in best, most crowd-pleasing sense, set to pounding background beats by DJ MoPo. Wildly twirling and spinning dinner plate-sized discs of springy dough, Gemignani then progressed to rolling them along his shoulders, landing them on his back and -- finally -- just lobbing them into the adoring audience.
Members of the crowd were invited up onto the stage to try their hand themselves with varying levels of success but ultimately this wasn't a practical pizza-spinning lesson -- more an intense dose of pure circus spectacle. (Which is sort of a shame; I've always wanted to know the secret of this skill, especially from a World Pizza Champion.) Dancers dressed like storybook Italian chefs bopped into the crowd with massive trays of gratefully-received Tony's pizza, and then hit the stage itself when Chef Tony bid us farewell for an endearingly enthusiastic -- if somewhat improvised -- dance show dressed in their chef's hats. It was off-the-wall, a little bit ramshackle but tons of fun -- GastroMagic in a nutshell, really. Plus I got to hear the song "Do The Dirty Pizza" for the first time.
4. Talkin' Trash
On Friday the Bay Area’s ecology titans and farmers’ market champions CUESA (that’s the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) hosted a ‘Trash Talk Cook-Off’ that pitted Evan Bloom and Leo Beckerman of Wise Sons against Telmo Faria formerly of Tacolicious and Chino, future owner of Uma Casa, and Anna Derivi-Castellanos and Lenore Estrada of The Three Babes Bakeshop. (Host: "What happened to the third Babe?" Lenore: "Uh, she realized this [running a business] was a ton of work.") Their mission was to demonstrate live how food that might otherwise be tossed – offcuts of bread, spare shearlings of pastrami – can be employed in your cooking, while laying some disparaging quips on their fellow chefs.
A running theme of these GastroMagic events was the way in which any live onstage cooking or demo ultimately played second fiddle to the charismatic personalities involved, and this event was no exception as the three parties indulged in affectionate trash talk as they cooked their, uh, trash. Favorite insights included Faria’s description of the "family meal” often offered to the staff by restaurants: "It's this great thing where you take everything that's about to go bad and put it over rice."
4. Goonies (and Truffles) Never Die
Bizarre combinations and concepts are the name of the game at GastroMagic, but even by Outside Lands this next one was a doozy: The ‘Truffle Shuffle’ extravaganza. A loving homage to the less-than-graceful dance performed by cinematic icon Chunk in nostalgic kids’ classic The Goonies (1985), this event invited Chef Adam Sobel of San Francisco’s MINA Test Kitchen collective onstage to demonstrate how to make his Truffle Ribeye Cheesesteak, a.k.a “a badass Philly cheese steak.” (“This is great stoner food” he added, shamelessly playing to the crowd.) These black truffles, Sobel informed us, were imported from Australia at a cost $600 per lb: "So this truffle shuffle is worth it." Next thing we knew, Bay Area dance instructor Julia Hubara was onstage dressed in Chunk’s “forest-green Hawaiian shirt and unflattering jeans” combo to demonstrate the Truffle Shuffle moves and encourage the audience to get onstage and belly-roll themselves for their reward of actual truffles. Things quickly escalated -- or deteriorated, depending on your point of view -- and suddenly Chef Chris Cosentino was leaping up from backstage and on his knees, having $600/lb truffles shaved into his mouth.
The barely-disguised anarchic lunacy of it all, coupled with the infectious tunes for shuffling made this one of GastroMagic's highlights, although one couldn’t help wince at the sight of somebody dejectedly sweeping up those eye-wateringly expensive truffle shavings afterwards into what had to be the most expensive trash bag of Outside Lands. Here’s hoping CUESA found a home for them.