You won’t see their names printed in the guide, they aren’t fielding interview questions in front of the TV camera, and some of them aren’t even old enough to drink the wine poured in the grand tasting tent, but this weekend’s Austin Food & Wine Festival couldn’t happen without the student volunteers from the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts.
“We want to get these students engaged,” says Steven Loiacono, a chef instructor in Le Cordon Bleu’s catering and banquet division. Loiacono helps coordinate the almost 200 students who are volunteering to help do everything from prepare large quantities of food to serve at some of the big tasting events to assisting chefs on stage during packed demonstrations at the festival’s new venue, Butler Park. (See sidebar with details about this year’s festival.)
“It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s a gratifying feeling when you see all the people there,” he says.
The culinary school near the Domain, which was formerly the Texas Culinary Academy, started gearing up for the festival in January, when Le Cordon Bleu instructors met with the culinary team from C3 Presents, which produces the Austin Food & Wine Festival. (For many years, Le Cordon Bleu staff and students helped put on the Hill Country Wine & Food Festival, which ended in 2011 as Food & Wine magazine and C3 launched the current food and wine festival in 2012.)
Students are not required to participate, but Aimee Olson, executive chef at Le Cordon Bleu, says that many see the opportunity to put the culinary lessons they’ve been learning in the kitchen classroom to use.
The students’ biggest reward, Olson says, is networking with and cooking side-by-side with respected chefs who might one day be their bosses. “We do it for our students so they can get connections, so they can have that opportunity,” she says.
A handful of students who volunteered last year ended up getting externships at some of the chefs’ restaurants. Olson already has been working with San Diego chef Brian Malarkey, who will open his first Austin restaurant later this year and is looking to fill his kitchen with talented cooks.
As a teenager growing up in San Diego, Katie Cooley had seen Andrew Zimmern’s television show, “Bizarre Eats,” but she never imagined she’d get the chance to cook with him when she moved to Austin to attend culinary school.
Cooley was smiling from ear to ear after helping him with a demo during last year’s festival and trying a handful of offal with the TV personality known for eating anything. “I didn’t like foie gras, but I did like the sweetbread,” she said.
By the end of the weekend, she’d worked with Zimmern, Florida chef Michelle Bernstein and famed Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto and had the signatures on her white chef jacket to prove it.
Teighlor Hatter, a Killeen native who last year was a 23-year-old pastry student, was happy to get a few signatures, but she wasn’t in it for the ink. “I just kind of wanted to see everyone’s different styles of food, how they work with food and how they are with people,” says Hatter, who ended up getting a job as a pastry chef at Jack Allen’s Kitchen in Round Rock after graduating last fall. “I got to do that.”
Although the students do get some time during the day to mill around the festival and participate in some of the tastings and classes, they’re often arriving hours before the gates open to start prepping food, then assisting the celebrity chefs during the actual demonstrations before heading to Republic Square Park to do whatever is needed for the large-scale tasting events in the evening.
Because many of the chefs who participate in Saturday night’s Rock Your Taco event come from out of town, Le Cordon Bleu students and instructors including Loiacono handle much of the prep work in the days that lead up to the event.
The raw ingredients get delivered to the North Austin campus a few days ahead, and then the Le Cordon Bleu students and instructors prepare the chef’s recipes and bring the food downtown on the day of the event.
Unlike the demonstrations during the daytime part of the festival, during which the chefs prepare only a few portions of a dish, the evening tasting events require enough portions for each and every badgeholder to try, which means even more student volunteers are needed to help assemble and serve the food.
Students have to be prepared for anything. Eric Daniel, who moved to Chicago after graduating from Le Cordon Bleu last year to run a number of personal chef and private cooking concepts, recalls having to make an emergency trip to Whole Foods Market to buy canned oysters, seafood stock and kale for one of the demonstrations.
He’d never been happier to run an errand for someone else, but the gratitude went both ways. “They treated us so well,” Daniel says. “The chefs and organizers kept telling us how important we were and how valuable we were.”
Daniel got to work with Morimoto last year, an assignment that he still gets excited talking about today. “I’m not a big freak on celebrity chefs,” Daniel says, “but it was the best experience you can have with one. You hear about them being slime balls … but (Morimoto) stuck around and signed every single culinary student’s jacket who wanted it.”
Daniel says that even as an older student — he was 37 at the time — the experience left an impact on him. “I can’t even imagine on someone who is younger and a little more impressionable.”
Students like Daniel aren’t the only people volunteering their time to work this hard. The 10 or so instructors, including Olson and Loiacono, don’t make any extra money to work the festival weekend, either.
“Is it a lot of work? Yes,” Loiacono says. “Is it something I look forward to? Absolutely.”
Food & wine weekend
Even if you can’t make it to the festival, there are plenty of food and wine events this weekend to keep you busy.
The largest food event outside the official Food & Wine festival is Live Fire!, a tasting event hosted by the Austin Food & Wine Alliance at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Salt Lick Pavilion. More than 15 chefs, including four James Beard nominees, will use live fire to prepare food for guests, who can also choose from more than 30 wine, beer and spirit options. Redd Volkaert will perform. Tickets ($75, with proceeds going to the culinary grants that the alliance gives out every year) and information, including which chefs are serving what dishes, are at austinfoodwinealliance.org.
On Friday, the W Hotel, 200 Lavaca St., will host an interview lounge with the website FoodRepublic.com that will feature live interviews with celebrity chefs from the Austin Food & Wine Festival and comedians in Austin for the Moontower Comedy Festival. Subjects include Andrew Zimmern, Marcus Samuelsson, Graham Elliot, Michael Ian Black, Christina Tosi and Paul Qui. The interviews, which start at 11 a.m. and run through 5:30 p.m., are open to the public as space permits.
Trace in the W Hotel is hosting a Paris-inspired event called Sel Et Gras from 9 p.m. to midnight Saturday at the restaurant at 200 Lavaca St. New executive chef Lawrence Kocurek, pastry chef Janina O’Leary and New York pastry chef Pichet Ong, who is a mentor of O’Leary’s, will serve a menu that features French bistro favorites such as escargot, charcuterie, foie gras mousse doughnuts, quail eggs, caviar, frogs legs with garlic and parsley, beef tartare, salmon tartare cornettes and sweets including éclairs, macaroons, tartes assorties and gateaux. Tickets cost $75, including beer, wine and cocktails from W Hotel libationist Joyce Garrison. Reservations can be made by calling Trace at (512) 542-3626.
Closing out the weekend will be a crawfish boil fundraiser from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday at Lenoir, 1807 S. First St. This is the first event from the newly formed Austin Food for Life, a nonprofit from local food and beverage powerhouses Karla Loeb and Brian Stubbs that is dedicated to helping food industry professionals access affordable health care solutions. The crawfish boil will raise money for a former Lenoir employee whose 15-month-old daughter has a rare form of bone cancer. Tickets cost $25 and can be purchased online at lenoirrestaurant.com or at the door.