TBD Fest a game changer for food at Sacramento music festivals, and beyond

We’re just going to come out and say it:

TBD Fest is better than Bottle Rock Napa Valley.

That’s not intended as a knock to our neighbor to the west. The current organizers have done a commendable job with rescuing Bottle Rock as it was on the brink, and curated a smooth weekend of food, drink and music in just a few months time. Good times were certainly held this past May, and Napa’s wineries and acclaimed restaurants were out in force to feed the masses.

But while a chunk of Bottle Rock’s musical menu was dedicated to salad days from 20 years ago - hello, Spin Doctors and Smash Mouth - TBD Fest’s lineup of music and food reflected a tantalizingly progressive spirit. TBD Fest, held in West Sacramento from Friday through Sunday, was all about highlighting a renaissance of Sacramento’s artistic senses, not just catering to tourists with cash to burn.

This kind of zeal was found in TBD Fest’s food offerings. Filipino food, vegan offerings, Adam Pechal’s watermelon agua fresca, ramen with Peking duck, Hawaiian style kalua pork, and cereal milk ice cream were just a few foods offered over the weekend. Just like Deltron 3030’s winning set of live hip-hop on Sunday night, TBD Fest’s food program seemed to be one of the most raved about elements of the entire festival.

Yes, Bottle Rock had some stellar eats too, such as ribs and wagyu flatbreads from Morimoto Napa. But here’s where TBD Fest takes the win: Some of the best foods of the weekend were free. And these weren’t some skimpy crostinis or meatballs on a toothpick.

One centerpiece of TBD Fest was “The Pit” (pictured above), a kind of culinary performance area with local chefs engaging in a “friendly fire” competition. Their job was to create a dish to be sampled by 350 people, who would then vote for their favorite via social media. So, that fantastic duck ramen by chefs Scott Ostrander and Kurt Spataro, and the savory kalua pork by Mike Thiemann and Matt Masera of Mother? That was free. And the plates offered a satiating helping of food, not just a quick bite.

This set-up may have been too much of a hit for some vendors. Lines of concertgoers snaked around “The Pit” to pick up their free grub, while at the same time, crowds at nearby food booths were nearly non-existent. Some TBD Fest chefs griped privately that “The Pit” was cutting into much needed food sales. We’ll see how this arrangement gets tweaked at next year’s festival.

While the array of TBD Fest foods trumped pretty much anything you’ll find at a concert, we’d also like to see a greater cross-section of chefs next year. My colleague and pal, Blair Anthony Robertson, pointed out on Twitter that TBD Fest’s culinary participants reflected a very midtown-centric POV. For a city that was pegged by Time magazine as “America’s most diverse city,” TBD Fest could play more to this strength and get some flavors south of Broadway. How about food vendors or chefs from Lalo’s, Huong Lan or Vampire Penguin’s icy treats?

TBD Fest still set a fantastic foundation for its food program, and the chefs all did a great job of repping their city and serving inspired, well executed offerings among the dusty conditions. We’re looking forward to the next Bottle Rock as well, but for a music festival that captures the soul and taste of a city, TBD is tough to beat.


* TBD Fest treats local chefs like rock stars

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