How to win a food festival

Hamlet and Ghost

How to win a food festival: candied bacon on a skewer and minty whisky cocktails from Hamlet and Ghost at the 2016 Saratoga Wine and Food Festival

This year I attended the Saratoga Wine and Food Festival as a guest of my friends at Yelp, so was able to skip my usual blogger duties. I took the opportunity to think about how to make the most of an event like this one, after you’ve paid $75 or so for a short window of merriment. Here are a few strategies:

  1. Arrive early. The crowds tend to get thicker as the event goes on, and many of the most popular stations will run out of food. Why chance it? There’s usually a backup at the gate when the event opens, so 15 minutes after is just right.

  2. Head for the back. People tend to gravitate to the first thing they see once they get inside, so those first few stations will be mobbed. Walk right past and head for the rear wall. Remember, when you’re standing in line you’re not eating/drinking (unless you’ve brought something from another station, which doesn’t seem a proper thing to do).

  3. Eat before drinking. The food runs out first. Plus, not a bad idea to coat your stomach before pounding beer/wine/hard liquor.

  4. Have a liquor strategy. You can’t drink everything and don’t want to since quality is likely to vary widely. Decide on a particular drink category and stick to that. This day was hot and muggy, so the choice was easy: iced punches with vodka/bourbon/tequila/whatever. I had exactly one beer and one sip of wine beyond that.

  5. Wear dark clothes. Should have put this first. You are inevitably going to spill something from those awkward plates so be prepared. And if you get through the afternoon without an accident (which I actually did today) give yourself a high five at the end.

  6. Study the program. Should have put this first as well. At this event there was a map of stations so I could be sure I wasn’t missing anything I wanted to try. I also checked the kitchen demo schedule to find a nice time to take a break and watch some entertaining chefs grilling off meats.

  7. Take off your wristband when you get to your car. Presumably you have not over-imbibed. Even so, why advertise the fact you’ve just spent the afternoon at a booze fest?

The restaurants, too, have a strategy for winning a food festival: serve something that is dramatic, with wide appeal, unlikely to be repeated by others, and characteristic of the experience of dining with them. The clear winner for me was Hamlet and Ghost, a retro bar known for its innovative cocktails and small plates. Candied bacon on a skewer with a minty whisky cocktail on the side was just right. This treat was gone within the first hour of the fest—see #1 above.

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