Arroyo Seco Weekend And The Rise Of Festival Food Culture

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Festival Frequency is a monthly look at music festival-related topics that step beyond the shadow of the Ferris wheel, discussing everything from the performances to the inner workings that make this a global phenomenon.

The first music festival I ever went to was, in true suburban fashion, Warped Tour. The year was 2000 and I was 18 years old watching a ton of my favorite bands in the parking lot of the Honda Center in Anaheim, which we still lovingly referred to as The Pond back then. I’ll never forget a few of the sets, including Weezer returning after a hiatus to perform mostly songs from the Blue Album. Green Day delivered a ferocious performance meant to reaffirm their punk roots, while artists like Jurassic 5, MxPx, and Millencolin filled out the afternoon. The show’s headliner, weird enough, was Papa Roach, who were currently riding high on their first (and only) hit song, “Last Resort.” I remember the freedom of being young and with friends in an overwhelming concert experience and I remember realizing music festivals were a place I wanted to revisit as often as possible. What I don’t remember, though, is anything I ate.

In 2000, Coachella was only a year old and music festivals as we know them in America didn’t exist. As I write this, Warped Tour is gearing up for their final run, and if I had to guess it is still powered by the same limp pizza slices and soggy chicken fingers that most of my early concert and festival outings featured. There was a long time where you tried to eat on the way to the festival, both to save money and ensure quality, then saving your cash to get In-N-Out on the way home. Depending on the budget of the event, this is still a common practice.

But over the last decade or so, specifically in America, a tide has been turning. Many of the top-tier event and destination music festivals are realizing that it takes more than music to create lasting memories and fulfilling experiences. Part of this could be the mammoth art structures that populate a festival like Coachella or the communal atmosphere that feels singular in a place like Bonnaroo. And one of the key elements of this has become food.

It’s no coincidence that foodie culture has risen at a similar time, with TV shows like Top Chef, Master Chef, and Chopped becoming cultural touchstones. Coachella has been one of the pack leaders here, going beyond the (delicious) Spicy Pie to offer up an array of local and national culinary leaders. Festivals like Outside Lands in San Francisco are also using their events to showcase the best of local cuisine, turning their food and booze lineups into announcement events unto themselves. In Chicago, Lollapalooza turned to celebrity chef Graham Elliot to curate their offerings, while in San Diego, Kaaboo even has celebrity chefs offering up live culinary demonstrations. Events like these are turning big fests that used to skate by just on their music into places you’d want to visit just to get a bite — even if you didn’t like music.

Arroyo Seco Weekend

At Arroyo Seco Weekend, the Goldenvoice-produced festival embarking on its second annual journey this weekend in Pasadena, things are going to their logical next level. Reading the list of food offerings puts to shame typical music venue food and even provides a giant step beyond the food truck scene that populated many festivals in the early part of this decade. The festival made a splash last year with its chef-driven picnic baskets, and though that idea is not returning in the format it saw last year, its spirit remains alive in this year’s program.

“Our Clubhouse VIP program is something we’re very excited about this year,” said Lizzy Stadler, Culinary Director or Arroyo Seco Weekend, about how the festival is experimenting with the marriage of food and music at this year’s event. “With the Clubhouse pass we’ll offer a fully stocked snack bar, passed appetizers from Chefs Luke & Curtis Stone, Jenny &Heather Engel, Shirley Chang, Jason Neroni, and Steven Fretz. There will be beer and kombucha tastes with Smog City and Cha Cha Kombucha. Wines curated by Domaine LA, cocktails with Jason Eisner of Block Party and coffee by Menotti’s. And, of course, all restaurants will also offer a ‘to go’ type box so we still kept a little bit of that picnic basket element alive.”

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