Sometimes the answers we search so hard for lie right under our noses.
Bourbon & Bowties is just that: the answer to the question of how Louisville should begin to create a Louisville food and libations fest. (I say libations because our incredible craft beer and burgeoning wine scene deserve a place alongside Kentucky bourbon.)
Hoping to spur interest in a festival here, Louisville Mayor Greg Fisher created a 34-member Bourbon and Local Food Work Group in December of 2013. Despite a strong desire to create one, the group has yet to agree on a plan, and sources on the committee tell me there’s no change in sight. The problem, one said, is no one can take the lead because all are busy with their own restaurants, distilleries or civic or government duties.
Well, work group members, I say your starting point should be Bourbon & Bowties. Rip it off. Copy its format. Start there and figure out how to scale it up like Lexington has with its Crave Food + Music Festival. In its first year, Crave drew a crowd of 15,000 attendees. Year two saw 30,000 attend, and this August organizers have relocated to a larger venue able to accommodate 50,000.
Score one for Little Brother Lexington.
If you’ve not heard of Bourbon & Bowties, it’s a fundraiser for Kosair Children’s Hospital held each June at Corbett’s: An American Place. Including volunteers, about 1,200 people gather inside and outside the restaurant under tents and on grassy spaces to eat and drink samples provided by 33 of the city’s top chefs and a half-dozen bourbon distilleries. When attendees aren’t eating, drinking and socializing, they take part in silent and live auctions. (For what it’s worth, Bourbon & Bowties has raised more than $1 million since its inception, and organizers believe this year’s event could bring in more than $300,000.)
Great food, great bourbon. What’s not to like?
It is grand entertainment that costs just $125 per ticket: no better splurge in town for the gourmand. So good is this deal that 850 tickets offered online in May sold out in one hour.
Just as importantly, the 33 chefs who cooked for the June 11 event all wanted to be there. Some had to lobby organizer Dean Corbett to be included, because the venue was about maxed out.
“Chefs are always volunteering to help out, but I’ve never seen an event where they’re pushing to get in,” Corbett said. “They want to be here for a lot of reasons.”
The cause is a big part of it, of course, but they also like seeing their peers in a social setting.
“We never get out enough to hang around, so it’s fun to see each other at least in June,” said Peng Looi, chef and co-owner of Asiatique. “It’s a good event. I always want to be here.”
The food has always been fantastic, but it gets better every year, as if the chefs are in a private competition to outdo each other.
“It’s just a chance to do something cool since a lot of people are going to taste your food,” said Michael Crouch, executive chef at Bistro 1860. “I mean, look who else is here.”
Across from his station at the June 11 event was Nick Sullivan, chef de cuisine at 610 Magnolia, and to Crouch’s right was Patrick Roney, chef de cuisine at The Oakroom.
“The top talent is here, and so there’s no better place to eat in Louisville on this one night,” Corbett said.
Or drink, if you’re a bourbon fan. Bourbon on the rocks, neat or in cocktails, you’ll get it. If you want beer or wine, it’s there, too, but bourbon is the beverage star and often presented by the distillers who make it.
Bourbon & Bowties is a classy event, but only faux-fussy. While the official dress code is cocktail attire, the always sultry weather sees people pushing toward casual clothing.
With 40 stations for food and beverage, lines are never long, and one never runs short of options. (Hey, Taste of Derby, this how it should work!) Only Valhalla’s most willful Vikings could taste all on offer here.
It starts at 6:30 p.m. and ends four hours later with about half the crowd still lingering and needing a polite reminder that the party is over. With visitors gone and their stations packed up, the chefs’ afterparty begins.
“We like to eat and drink, too,” said Richard Lewis, a corporate executive chef from Morrison Management Services. “We’ve all known each other for about half our lives, so it’s a good chance to catch up.”
So let’s recap: chefs and mixologists from 33 restaurants and foodservice organizations, multiple distilleries, corporate sponsors, a high-profile charitable beneficiary, 1,200 attendees and tickets gobbled up in one hour. The event has grown each year also, from 300 in the beginning to 1,200 now.
So do the math: volunteers + donors + high consumer interest = great and growing event.
One that’s surely duplicable … if and only if a third-party event firm is hired to run it.
By all accounts, the present stall pattern for such an event will not change if left to the mayor’s Bourbon and Local Food Work Group. We’re 18 months in without an event on the schedule. They’re too busy to take on such a large side project.
Based on the success of its Kentucky Bourbon Affair, the Kentucky Distillers Association is thinking about a larger scale bourbon and restaurant event. But is the KDA the right body to create such an event?
Some say no, but why not?
Then there’s Smiley Pete Publishing, the small Lexington publisher who created Crave and is growing that festival quickly.
I’ve talked to one restaurateur who is actively seeking advice from a third-party event planner on how to create a Louisville festival. I like his moxie, and he’s worked a few food festivals as a guest chef. But whether he can do it remains to be seen.
What I do know is Bourbon & Bowties has produced the core of what happens at bigger culinary events in nearby cities like Charleston, S.C., and Atlanta: great food, great drink, great vibe.
What remains is the educational component that includes beverage tastings and food pairings, cooking demonstrations, storytelling, all the Southern stuff that should be Kentucky centered to make a truly unique event.
And guess who knows how to do that? About two-dozen chefs and mixologists from here who’ve done such demos and pairings at other food festivals.
So between those veteran celebrity chefs, mixologists and what we’ve learned at Bourbon & Bowties, the home team is pretty well trained.
The time has come for the hometown to make the real event happen.