Ned Elliott isn’t hosting another food and wine festival. There will be no chefs under pop-up tents, no lines of guests, no tiny bites on tiny plates or mini cocktails in plastic cups at Indie Chefs Week. Guests can expect to eat food off real plates and drink fine wine in actual glassware while taking in a culinary collage of some of the country’s most underrated talent. The founder of Foreign & Domestic in Austin, Elliott is working with Grover Smith, former general manager of the Pass & Provisions, to throw the event in Houston for the first time.
Smith calls it an “anti-food and wine fest.”
For three nights, January 5-7, more than twenty chefs will gather in a Midtown restaurant to collaborate on three dinners. Five locals, including Jillian Bartolome of Aqui and Justin Yu of Theodore Rex and Better Luck Tomorrow, will cook alongside innovators hailing from New York to California and plenty of places in between.
Eleven cooks will fill the kitchen on Friday and Saturday nights. Each course served will be the unique design of a participating chef, who will lead the others through the preparation process. Once the food is plated, the mastermind will accompany her or his dish into the dining area to introduce the food and chat with guests.
Sunday’s dinner will be the grand finale, where all 23 cooks will partner up to produce an 11-course meal. Every night is sure to entertain foodies, but at this particular event the menu is as much, if not more, about the creators.
“Frankly, what we kind of say is that it’s the only event that’s for the chefs. In other words it’s not really for the guests, and a byproduct of it is that the guests have a great experience,” says Smith.
Indie Chefs Week offers a blank canvas for culinary artists who are often constrained to create within the confines of a standing menu, or who lack the time or money to spend a few days playing with food outside of their home base kitchen. The money generated by ticket sales goes to financing the cost of chefs’ transportation, housing and supplies that make food extravaganzas accessible.
Elliott asks participants to bring only their passion.
“I wanna see what really lights your fire,” he says. “What really lights a hair in your ass. What do you really love to cook?”
Campari-grapefruit granita with orange blossom namelaka is Bartolome’s answer to Elliott’s call. This will be her second time at Indie Chefs Week. Friday night she will lead ten other chefs throughout the process of assembling her fruit-forward dessert.
Bartolome describes the convivial vibe at Indie Chefs Week as “kind of like summer camp” where participants enjoy a few days hanging out with likeminded people while learning a thing or two in the meanwhile. “First and foremost, it’s just — it’s really fun,” she says.
With ten years of experience in the industry, the 32-year-old says she’s excited to share her creations with new people in such a novel space. “Being able to express myself outside of the restaurant and to a wider audience is really cool. [It’s] really a great opportunity.”
Like many others asked to Indie Chefs Week, Bartolome received an invite from Elliott after he saw her work on Instagram. It came as a bit of a surprise to someone who spends more time curating her menus than her social media profiles.
Sporting big glasses and an earnest expression, she explains, “I don’t put myself out there as my own personal brand. I just make my food… and that’s an extension of myself.”
Yet it was through social media that Elliott got the idea to start Indie Chefs Week almost five years ago. Talented chefs from across the country kept popping up on his Twitter feed but he noticed their names missing from the rosters of prominent food festivals or articles in glossy magazines. He asked himself, “How are there not other voices?”
Tired of what he described as “the same cast of characters,” Elliott decided to host a jubilee celebrating and showcasing the work of underrepresented professionals. “The whole point is to shine a light on people who don’t have a PR rep or who isn’t a quote unquote celebrity chef,” says co-organizer Smith.
Indie Chefs Week debuted in 2013, hitting the food world with a counterculture event that shattered the homogeneous representation of a heterogeneous industry. Whereas most food and wine festivals are dominated by white men, women chefs make up 35 percent of the upcoming Indie Chefs Week roster. By contrast, fewer than a quarter of the scheduled chefs for the 2018 Food & Wine Classic are women, and a scant 12 percent of chefs on the docket for the 2018 Austin Food and Wine Festival are women.
Elliott says he makes a conscious effort to create a space for underrepresented chefs, but he avoids using “click-baity” terms like inclusive to describe his motives. “The word inclusivity is like — I’m black and Puerto Rican so I have no clue what that even means. I just want to have the best chefs possible. I want to have women and minorities represented.”
Both Elliott and Smith stress that Indie Chefs Week is about building community: It is a collaboration, not a competition. “One of the kind of requirements is to have a super laid back attitude and make sure you kind of check your ego at the door,” says Smith of the expectations for participants.
That environment is what makes Indie Chefs Week such a lively experience for chefs and guests. “The excitement and positivity — that chill vibe from the kitchen plays over into the rest of the atmosphere,” Bartolome explains, and that makes for an evening that is intimate and entertaining.
The fruits of the collaborative labor reach far beyond the walls of the Indie Chefs Week kitchen or dining room. Chefs build relationships that stand to benefit other industry professionals and diners across the country. Guests at Brenner Pass in Richmond, VA got a taste of Cincinnati and San Francisco after Executive Chef Brittanny Anderson attended Indie Chefs Week in May 2017, when it was hosted in New York City. There the Virginian met Ryan Santos, of Please in Ohio, and Yoni Levy, of Outerlands in California, who have since come to cook with her in Richmond.
Anderson says the connections she made gave both her guests and her cooks the chance to try new things without having to travel. “It’s just an opportunity we don’t get that often,” she says.
Those who attend Indie Chefs Week this weekend will have the chance to chow down on some of Anderson’s creations, as well as those from Bartolome and a host of other kitchen magicians. Tickets are available online and wine is included.