Reminiscing on the Food Network New York City Wine & Food Festival

I started visiting New York City when I was in my teens. My Mom and I would make it all about musicals and Fifth Avenue and living the life of city dwellers during our mother/daughter weekends to the Big Apple. She had a friend who was “connected” and invited us to town for that first weekend. We sat in the second row, center, for Grand Hotel, starring Dukes of Hazzard heartthrob John Schneider. We ate in “the Village.” We wandered along the busy blocks of Times Square. I remember getting a tour of the friend’s apartment, smaller than any apartment I had ever seen, packed bookshelves and clutter, a picture with Dudley Moore amongst the photo frames on the crimson walls. The city was fascinating to me, full of flashy signs and famous faces, so different from my little Midwest town.

Mom and I ventured back to the metropolis a handful of times after that, taking in a dozen award-winning (and not-so-award-winning) Broadway productions, various sights, spas, and restaurants making their way into our schedules over the years. Until one visit in 2006 that wasn’t so pleasant, leaving me uneasy about a city I had come to adore. When we left that year, I knew it would take something spectacular for me to return.

It was that inaugural Food Network New York City Wine & Food Festival in 2008 that brought me back, just spectacular enough. It was my first event since starting my “food writing” career, and the allure of bright lights, big city was too strong to ignore. I had become intrigued by the restaurant business and wanted to know more about those who held high court within the community. New York City was the natural destination for all things culinary.

It was, of course, a major moment for Daily Blender, the start of a crazy ride through Offal Town, if you will. The NYCWFF embedded itself within my history.

In a few weeks, I’m headed back to New York to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the festival so I’m a bit reflective of where I am, where I’ve been, and where I’m going next. And where the stories began…

A few favorite moments from NYCWFF’s past:

2008 – SWEET with Sandra Lee and Duff Goldman
The list of events for that inaugural festival was much shorter than it is today. My initial schedule only had four or five things on it for the weekend – which seemed like a lot to me at the time – and one event I was most looking forward to was the SWEET shindig. Hosted by Duff and Sandra, I remember walking in the door and being handed a shot of whiskey by a well-dressed whiskey rep. I shot it, not realizing it would inevitably make me a bit queasy for the rest of the evening. My eyes scanned the room, noting the big names gathered within feet of me, drinks in hand, the smell of chocolate wafting through the air. There were multiple rooms full of pastry chefs and people, plates piled with everything from macarons to tiramisu. Tyler Florence stood over there, Bobby Flay passed by over here. I was floored to be in the same room with nearly the entire Food Network lineup. The crowd pushed shoulder to shoulder, and I could only manage a few dessert bites before I decided to make my way to the Macy’s Culinary Council party next on my docket. And then I ran into Billy Joel…

2008 – TimesTalk with Ferran Adria and Anthony Bourdain
I’ve talked at some length about my admiration of Bourdain here on Daily Blender. Not yet immersed in the food scene, he was the only name I initially knew “in the biz”, with Kitchen Confidential pivotal to my desire to pursue writing. During that first year visit to NYCWFF, I attended a TimesTalk with the beautiful and eloquent Nigella Lawson, who spoke about her love of cooking and the subsequent desire to comfort her husband with food during the last days of his battle with cancer. But it was the TimesTalk with Ferran Adria and Bourdain that I was most interested in attending, and when I talked my way into tickets that afternoon, I was absolutely beside myself.

I didn’t, however, know Adria from anything. Imagine being in the room with such a revered culinary mind and not realizing you’re within distance of someone so influential to chefs around the world. It was amazing to learn from the ground up, to see the images from his (new at the time) book, A Day at El Bulli, and hear him talk of the inspirational kitchen of the World’s Best Restaurant. It was my introduction to molecular gastronomy.

When the talk ended, I bounded downstairs as quickly as I could to be first in line… for Bourdain. I made my Mom practice taking pictures before he took his seat, I pushed my home-printed business card across the table as soon as he sat down, declaring that I, too, was a writer. When he autographed my copy of Nasty Bits, I nearly leapt out of the room with glee, walking right past Adria, who in retrospect looked a bit surprised at my snub. I vaguely recognized a well-suited chef waiting nearby in the wings – Jose Andres – but didn’t stop to talk. I had finally met Anthony Bourdain, and that was all I cared about.

2009 – Rolling Sushi with Masaharu Morimoto
The man, the myth, the legend. A fan of the original Iron Chef, I had great respect and admiration for Masaharu Morimoto. In reviewing the list of 2009’s NYCWFF events, learning sushi rolling from a Japanese master was at the top of my list for the weekend. While Morimoto was down for the count – his arm in a sling due to a lion fight, he jokingly explained – his right hand man at the time, Jamison Blankenship, walked the room through the art of sushi rolling while the master chef looked on. Our bellies full of our own hand-rolled sushi, the room made a beeline towards Morimoto post-lunch demo, posing for pics and snagging autographs. The sometimes reserved chef happily penned each person’s name in Japanese on their bamboo sushi rolling mats as souvenirs. My mat went straight to a picture frame when I arrived home, never to roll sushi again.

Sometimes a writer, always a fan.

2010 – TimesTalk with Heston Blumenthal
Heston Blumenthal, another revered chef in his own right, participated in a TimesTalk in 2010. Much like my experience with Adria’s TimesTalk, Blumenthal was fascinating to hear. Talking with the New York Times’s Pete Wells, the British chef discussed his new project at that time, Dinner at the Mandarin Oriental, and explained his thinking behind numerous dishes as images flashed on the screen behind the stage. When asked if he would consider opening a restaurant outside the U.S., Blumenthal seemed just as enraptured with New York as I had become. “I would love a reason to visit New York City more often,” he told the crowd.

2010 – Brunch with Michael Schwartz and Hedy Goldsmith
My last visit, and my last memories of the NYCWFF, were from the last Sunday of the 2010 weekend. I awoke with great glee, excited to see chefs Michael Schwartz and Hedy Goldsmith of Michael’s Genuine Food and Drink at the morning’s brunch after becoming an MGFD diehard fan at the Cayman Cookout earlier that year. The brunch was to die for, dishes and friends to be found in every room of the Norwood. Schwartz delivered the savory goodies while Goldsmith did what she does best, creating riffs on childhood favorites far better executed than the originals. It was the most decadent way to start the day.

This year, my NYCWFF schedule includes a fried chicken extravaganza at Shake & Bake hosted by chef Art Smith, the Roots’ DJ Questlove, and Whoopi Goldberg, the SWEET event (of course!), cocktails at The Lambs Club, and a highlight of Brooklyn’s Backyard with food man Adam Richman. The pièce de résistance will of course be Sunday’s Whimsical Indulgence Brunch with chefs Gabrielle Hamilton and MGFD’s Hedy Goldsmith (celebrating the recent release of her first cookbook). I will, yet again, board my plane home with visions of breakfast pastries dancing in my head.

Stay tuned to Daily Blender post-event for all the coverage from Kat and I during our visit to the fifth anniversary celebration. Who knows what will happen this year…


~Jennifer Heigl

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