Broyles: South by Southwest’s SouthBites is bigger, but is it better?


More chefs than ever will participate in this year’s South by Southwest Interactive Conference and Festival, which has the largest SouthBites lineup yet.

SouthBites, which started in 2013 as a Paul Qui-curated pop-up trailer park, eventually added food programming, and over the past few months, they’ve been sharing this year’s lineup.

The headlining names — Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern — are repeats from 2012 and 2015, respectively, but they’ll be joined by SXSW first-timers Jose Andres, Ludo Lefebvre and Danny Meyer.

As I pored over the website to put together a schedule of the speakers and panels — you can find the full list at food.blog.austin360.com — I found some repeat programming. That is to be expected to some extent at these festivals, but perhaps not quite so much. There’s a real lack of diversity, in general, among the panelists, in gender, race and, in the case of all those restaurant-related folks, profession.

While the fertile ground in the past has included smart cooking devices, food apps and online services, the sharing economy and the cookbook/magazine/Web publishing world, this year it’s more focused on the restaurant industry, including panels about tipping at restaurants and about the fast food industry.

There are multiple panels on how food traditions are influencing what’s being served at restaurants, and another on why public market-style food halls are making a comeback. We get to hear from chefs — both well-known and not — from nearly a dozen states, including more from San Antonio than Austin, thanks to a partnership deal between SXSW and Choose San Antonio, a nonprofit working with the Alamo City.

Bourdain as a headliner is certainly a draw for big crowds, but I’m curious to see what he’ll say that’s different from his boozy keynote in 2012. The fact that, as a Roads & Kingdoms backer, he’s being interviewed by one of the co-founders of that site to talk about how new publishing models feels like a slippery slope of self-congratulations.

I had a puzzled look on my face when I read about a chef-heavy panel on why cooks should pay their dues in a physical kitchen, wondering what that has to do with tech culture, especially when there’s a much more relevant — and tech-focused — conversation to be had about the changing nature of culinary education now that culinary schools are in trouble. Maybe that news will come up, but the panel description doesn’t hint at it. The only panel about food delivery, arguably the most-talked-about food evolution of the past few years, isn’t technically in SouthBites and features one food company (Favor), an alcohol delivery company (Drizly) and two other nonfood delivery apps.

There’s also a puzzling panel about whether food bloggers belong at the proverbial table, too novice a question for the current blogging culture, which has seen a boom in cookbook deals, an increase in sponsored posts and a major shift toward Instagram.

I like seeing some subjects on the lineup that are usually reserved for SXSW Eco, such as food waste and scarcity, bycatch, lab meat and the food supply chain, as well as the panels on how chefs can use their platforms to create more equity in the industry and another with Whole Foods and Instacart that will hopefully reveal some insights into the booming grocery-delivery space. I’m very excited to hear African-American foodways historian Michael Twitty talk with Eater editor Helen Rosner and NYC chef Alex Stupak about cultural appropriation in restaurants.

I don’t see Monsanto’s influence on SouthBites as I have at recent SXSW Eco conferences, but I’m eager to see if the food-myth panel with Yvette d’Entremont, aka SciBabe, and another called In Defense of Big Food churn up as much discussion as I hope they will.

Travel Channel host Zimmern and Josh Tetrick, who was in the news last year with his company’s eggless mayo, will certainly have a lively discussion, but they were paired together in a prominent session last year.

More only matters if it’s at the least fresh and hopefully better. And with fewer big brands executing expensive marketing activations, — which in recent years have included 3-D Oreo printers, a food truck with IBM’s Watson question-answering computer and a barbecue school with GE — the content of the programming at one of the world’s largest and most-influential conferences matters more than ever.



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