Nothing lasts for three decades without adapting to the times, so it makes sense that the Scottsdale Culinary Festival has evolved over the years. But with national chains like Chipotle and Buffalo Wild Wings — popular, sure, but far removed from what’s traditionally considered “culinary” — among the list of participating restaurants this year, has the festival changed too much?
“We started off as a four-star and five-star culinary festival,” said Mike Moses, president of the Scottsdale League for the Arts, the nonprofit volunteer organization that produces the festival. “That was 30 years ago. It was quite a bit smaller.”
This year, 13 events make up the Scottsdale Culinary Festival, including the main event — the Great Arizona Picnic, a two-day taste-athon set to three stages of live music. The 40 restaurants serving up samples include many “fast casual” places like Port of Subs, Samurai Sam’s and the aforementioned Chipotle.
Moses says that taking the Great Arizona Picnic in this direction was a conscious decision.
“We’ve taken the four- and five-star chefs to the special dinners that we do,” says Moses, referring to events like the Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame Awards Dinner and Best of the Fest. “We were spreading the chefs quite thin with all the events that we have.”
Moses stresses that since the Great Arizona Picnic is indeed intended to be a “picnic,” the fast-food restaurants make sense in that environment (though Buffalo Wild Wings is also participating in the $55 Eat, Drink and Be Pretty dinner Friday).
“It is what we call it — a picnic. That’s how we’ve got restaurants like Chipotle. But we still do have the presence of some of the resorts that come in,” says Moses. The Ak-Chin Casino Resort and American Culinary Federation Resort and Country Club Chef’s Association are participating. “I would just call it 'eclectic culinary.’ ”
Perhaps, then, the Great Arizona Picnic is actually a microcosm of a larger culinary trend. Rachael Ray built her media empire on the strength of “30 Minute Meals” — food that was tasty, but more importantly, simple and easy to prepare. Food Network chef Robin Miller, who is participating Saturday at the festival’s Cooks & Corks event, has a similar approach with her “Quick Fix Meals.”
“If you looked at culinary in the ’50s and the ’60s, it was very high-end,” says Moses. “If you go on the Food Network, you’ll see the top hot dog places in the nation. They consider that culinary.”
But the presence of the Chipotles of the world doesn’t just signify a change in the type of food. It also represents the preponderance of national and regional restaurants at the Great Arizona Picnic, along with Abuelo’s, Claim Jumper, The Melting Pot, Garduno’s, Maggiano’s Little Italy and others.
“We’re not pushing them out at all. We’re a local event,” says Moses of local eateries. “They’re still our base as far as our restaurants.”
Local businesses present at the Great Arizona Picnic include Spinato’s Pizza, Arizona Bread Co., Drift, Stingray and Geisha a Go Go (the latter three operated by the same team of owners).
Moses says the switch to a national focus is also intentional, especially when it comes to bringing in chefs for the Cooks & Corks event.
“In the last five years, it’s really been our intent to bring national chefs in as well, because the Food Network has gotten so popular,” he says.
This year’s Cooks & Corks features Miller along with personalities from Bravo’s “Top Chef” and Fox’s “Hell’s Kitchen.”
Scottsdale Culinary Festival events
Cooks & Corks: (Noon to 4:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, 7380 E. Second St., $75, includes admission to Great Arizona Picnic) — Consider this a two-day culinary crash course, and your professors are straight from TV cooking shows. You can check out food demonstrations from chefs such as Dale Levitski from season three of “Top Chef,” Robin Miller from the Food Network and Jon-Paul Hutchins of the Scottsdale Culinary Institute (Hutchins is scheduled for Sunday only), and brush up on wine with Food & Wine magazine’s
Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame Awards Dinner: (6:30 p.m. Thursday, Wrigley Mansion, 2501 E. Telawa Trail, Phoenix, $150, includes wine reception and dinner) — A “red carpet Oscar-style award show experience” is promised, but instead of best picture and best actor they’ve got categories like Culinary Chef Extraordinaire, Culinary Media Master and Culinary Ambassador. Scottsdale Community College President Arthur DeCabooter will receive a lifetime achievement award.
On the Rocks: (7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday, Suede Lounge, 7333 E. Indian Plaza, Scottsdale, $40) — If you’ve never thought learning could be fun, perhaps you haven’t thought about educating yourself on the subject of exotic cocktails while sampling them. As provided by Las Vegas mixologist Michael MacDonnell.
Eat, Drink & Be Pretty Party: (7 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, 7380 E. Second St., $55 in advance, $65 at the door) — Scottsdale club scene, meet food. Two dozen restaurants (including Carrabba’s, Malee’s Thai Bistro and Sauce) team up to for a night of food, fashion, dancing and live entertainment as provided by ’80s cover band Rock Lobster. The night’s attire is “sophisticated chic,” whatever that means.
Bubbles and Bliss: (7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, 7374 E. Second St., $45) — There are few things quite so highfalutin as champagne and visual art, and this event combines them. California winery Chandon provides the former, and painter and sculptor Ludvig brings the latter.
Wine Country Brunch: (11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday, Scottsdale Resort and Conference Center, 7700 E. McCormick Parkway, $60) — As the name implies, it’s a brunch, and there will be tastings from select wineries. What’s not so obvious from the event’s title is that there’s also a silent auction.
Best of the Fest: (6:30 p.m. Sunday, Hyatt Regency Scottsdale at Gainey Ranch, 7500 E. Doubletree Ranch Road, $175) — Eleven chefs from restaurants and resorts across the Valley (Barcelona, Four Seasons, Hotel Valley Ho, to name a few) band together for one common goal — this festival-capping five-course meal.
Great Arizona Picnic events
Great Arizona Picnic: (Noon to 10 p.m. Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday, Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, $10 admission fee, $1 per tasting coupon) — Food samples and three stages of live music.
Challenge to the Chefs: (1 p.m. Sunday, included in Great Arizona Picnic admission) — Four chefs are charged with making an appetizer and entree within a time limit that integrate a “mystery basket” of ingredients. The results are then judged by a celebrity panel. Any resemblance between this and a certain popular Food Network TV series of Japanese origin are likely intentional.
Southwest Festival of Beers: (Noon to 7 p.m. Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday, $5 per person in addition to Great Arizona Picnic admission, includes souvenir mug) — A beer garden with more than 200 specialty beers.
Saturday Grilling Demonstrations: (12:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday, included in Great Arizona Picnic admission) — Three chefs show off their grill skills, including Carrabba’s Italian Grill co-founder Damian Mandola.
Absolut Bistro: (Noon to 10 p.m. Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday, $5 per person in addition to Great Arizona Picnic admission) — Absolut products will be available for sampling.
Garduños Margarita Village: (Noon to 10 p.m. Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday, $5 per person in addition to Great Arizona Picnic admission) — Margaritas, and lots of them.