A FEAST FOR FRIENDS: Wilmington Wine and Food Festival returns with more chefs, more food and more libations
This year marks Wilmington Wine and Food Festival’s fifth go ‘round since their inaugural event in 2013. Five years means the festival has seen a lot of food, a lot of booze and of course growth. Their recipe for success includes an ever-growing lineup of events and experts from the culinary and libations industries. They’ve introduced kitchen demos with local chefs on Saturday. They’ve invited Carey Polis from bonappetit.com, Jed Portman from Garden & Gun, and an editor from Our State magazine as judging panelists, alongside other area experts.
After participating last year, they reached out yet again to BBQ expert Matthew Register, of Southern Smoke BBQ in Garland, NC, to return. “We are so thankful Southern Smoke BBQ has so many friends in the Wilmington food community,” Register says. “We want to bring our style and flare of what we do in Garland to Wilmington. . . . We feel our participation in the festival is a great way to expose new folks to Southern Smoke BBQ.”
Register will be participating in two events during the three-day festival this week: the Bourbon & BBQ Derby Cocktail Party on Fri., May 12, and the Corks & Forks grand tasting event on Sat., May 13. The latter is WWFF’s featured event, which showcases some of the best local restaurants and their offerings, paired with over 150 wines from around the world.
While Register gets to showcase his own talents, he also gets a taste (literally and figuratively) of what’s happening in Wilmington kitchens. Even though Southern Smoke BBQ is only an hour away, and ILM has been almost a second home since the early ‘90s, the festival ensures a comprehensive experience of ILM’s culinary scene all under one roof.
“It’s almost like we’ll be cooking right in our very own kitchen,” Register says. “For us, the festival is a way to celebrate what we do for our food community in Wilmington. It has been such a pleasure working with Chrissy [Bonney] and Dana [Brancato] of the Wilmington Food and Wine Festival. We are thankful they have so much faith and trust in what we do.”
Guests can most definitely look forward to some delicious BBQ during Friday’s Bourbon & BBQ Cocktail Party. There are lots of eats being offered throughout the three days at Bellamy Mansion, as well as other satellite event taking place from downtown to Wrightsville Beach.
Festival cofounder and organizer Chrissy Bonney says the secret to their success has been taking the time to grow with purpose and not speed. “Slow-grow attendance, participants and events in a way that prevents logistical issues,” she clarifies. “We put a priority of taking care of our vendors and sponsors, who really are the reason we’re able to do this each year.”
Bonney dishes to encore about the 2017 festival events.
encore (e): You mentioned WWFF has more food, wine and spirits than ever before; who are a couple of returning favorites and new editions?
Chrissy Bonney (CB): It’s great to have restaurants like San Juan, Little Dipper, YoSake, PinPoint, and The Basics consistently support the festival year after year. We had several strong additions last year such with The District, Ceviche, 22 North, and Platypus & Gnome all joining and are very excited to feature new restaurants Savorez, Dram + Morsel, and the recently reopened Taste the Olive Cafe.
e: Per Saturday’s kitchen demo, which chefs will be there and what are folks going to learn?
CB: This year we are able to schedule three cooking demos—thanks to our sponsors JennAir, Ferguson’s, and Hollingsworth Cabinetry, who have provided us with our new on-site test kitchen. Chef Matt Register from Southern Smoke, Chef Bud Taylor from The Bistro at Topsail, and Chef Sam Cahoon from Savorez will each be sharing the inspiration behind one of their favorite dishes. Attendees will receive recipe cards from the demo to take home. Demos will be at 2 p.m., 3 p.m. and 4 p.m.
e: Tell us about bringing Matt Register and his BBQ back this year.
CB: In three short years, Matt has become an icon of Eastern NC, preparing BBQ in the classic tradition of low and slow over oak wood chips. His passion shines through, which has propelled him to the top, appearing on the Today Show and being named in Men’s Journal as one of the top 25 BBQ joints in the country. This love for his trade embodies the culinary ideals we strive to showcase at the Wilmington Wine and Food Festival.
e: How did you connect with your panelists? What varied expertise do they each bring to judge’s table?
CB: We have an application process that evaluates the merits and experience each candidate can bring to the table. We aim to diversify and represent all aspects of the food and wine industry, from food editors and writers, to trained sommeliers, to restaurant owners, shop managers, and even local foodies. We try to include both locals who are familiar with the participants and out-of-town guests we hope enjoy the experience and spread the word about the culinary scene in Wilmington.
e: Which events are you personally looking forward to this year?
CB: I am excited to be offering cooking demos and raising the bar on our cocktail competition this year. We’ve got seven craft distilleries participating in Friday night’s cocktail party. We had a record amount of bartenders enter the first round; the competition was really strong and we had the tough job of narrowing them down to the top five. Each of the bartenders are being paired with a distillery to create the perfect drink for attendees to taste and judge.
e: With more than 40 breweries, wine distributors and distillers, do you personally tap these folks to be a part of the event or do they apply? Is there a process to make sure there’s balance in offerings at the festival?
CB: A little of both—we have wine distributors that have been with us from the start ,and many of these companies will reach out to their suppliers and bring in specific importers or wineries they think will shine. And there has been an emergence of new distributors that have heard good things about the festival and want to get involved. I think the growth of the craft distillery industry in North Carolina has significantly upped the number of smaller spirit companies interested in getting their product in front of this demographic that appreciates a handcrafted cocktail. We’ve been able to nicely round out the list of spirits that will be participating to cover not only bourbon but also vodka, rum and gin, so there is something for everyone. Wilmington has had an awesome boom in breweries and we are lucky to have such an awesome group to represent the area, we’ve also pulled in some North Carolina favorites such as Mother Earth, Unknown and Starpoint Brewery.
e: Per the more than 25 food vendors, do you know what specialties folks can expect?
CB: Attendees are in for quite a treat with a great showing of pork, beef, boar, a few vegetarian options, and lots of seafood. PinPoint, the winner of the best sweet dish two years running, will be serving Matcha Pavlova with strawberries, rhubarb and white chocolate cream. Just to name a few: The District is serving filet beef Wellington with mushroom duxelles; Platypus & Gnome is preparing mojo-marinated slow-cooked wild boar on a ciabatta roll with dijon, Swiss, grilled ham, and house-made pickles; and San Juan Cafe is showcasing spicy Key lime conch salad on a crisp plantain chip.
e: Do you anticipate growing out of Bellamy Mansion as your main festival hub?
CB: The charm of the Bellamy has become such an integral part of the festival that we hope to continue being able to have the festival there. While our main event on Saturday is approaching capacity, we still have managed to organize it in such a way to avoid lines and wait. Friday and Sunday still have plenty of room to grow and remain intimate events.
In a meeting earlier this year with Mayor Saffo, he mentioned he hopes to have most of the city’s festivals eventually move to the riverfront park once complete. While this won’t be complete for several years, we may be able to utilize it for the grand tasting event, while keeping other events at the Bellamy, much like Charleston hosts events throughout prime locations in the city.