Thursday, August 2nd, 2012 at 11:27 pm

Still Not Perfect, But Getting There: Taste of Edmonton 2012

The Taste of Edmonton just racked up its most successful year ever, as defined by ticket sales. There was such a high demand for food that organizers ended up having to utilize their 2011 ticket inventory.

So in the face of stagnant or declining attendance at Capital Ex/K-Days, what made the Taste of Edmonton such an attractive festival in this packed summer calendar? Was it truly the changes and additions to its 2012 incarnation that had such a huge impact? In part, I think the answer is yes.

First Annual Taste Festival Cook-off

Taste of Edmonton introduced several different initiatives in an effort to reach a new, younger demographic this year. One of these initiatives was the on-stage cook-off.

Over two days, bloggers and food enthusiasts put their skills on display in live cooking competitions. Although Taste has hosted cooking demonstrations in the past, the inclusion of amateur chefs was a new element.

Taste of Edmonton 2012

On stage

Mack and I were present for one competition involving three food bloggers, who had an hour to put up their best food truck-inspired entrées. It was an absolute scorcher that afternoon, but Phil, Teresa and Michelle all toughed it out and made it look easy. Hosts Liane and Amanda also kept the crowd entertained, providing relevant commentary and opportunities to win prizes throughout.

The final dishes were judged by three local chefs – David Omar of Zinc, Lindsay Porter of 4th and Vine, and Shane Chartrand of Murietta’s. They tasted, tasted again, and agonized over the scores, as it turned out only a single point separated the winning dish from the other two.

Taste of Edmonton 2012

Judges

In the end, Phil was crowned the victor. But in a surprise announcement, it turned out that all three were victorious in a way – each of the three chefs had agreed to adopt one dish to be featured on their restaurant’s menu.

Taste of Edmonton 2012

The winning dish

Taste of Edmonton 2012

Congrats, Phil!

Though the crowds could have been larger for the cook-off that we attended (and perhaps would have been if the competition had been kept to half an hour), it was a great first time event. It added a community dimension that has been lacking, and is something I hope organizers expand in the future.

Curb Your Hunger

In a way, food trucks were an inevitable addition to Taste of Edmonton. With organizers looking for a way to punch up the food offerings, food trucks were an easy way to do it – they are self-sustaining (and thus would not need to draw on power or water sources), offer consistent and unique products, and are undoubtedly fashionable. So Curb Your Hunger, Taste’s food truck corral, was born.

Taste of Edmonton 2012

Drift in the thick of things

Given our experience with the trucks at What the Truck?! and other events, Mack and I weren’t sure how well the trucks would fare. No doubt their food would be a hit, but could they keep up with the volume demanded by the large crowds and long hours? How would they store that amount of food in the truck? Could they compete price-wise, given some trucks use superior, locally-sourced ingredients? And with organizers taking a significant percentage of ticket sales, would it be worth their while?

Taste of Edmonton 2012

Curry ‘N’ Hurry, one of the newest trucks

Organizers admit that this was a bit of a mixed bag. It probably didn’t help that the trucks weren’t consistently present (some through no fault of their own, having made other commitments prior to signing on to Taste). Their menus were also listed separately from the other restaurants, while some trucks like The Act were probably easily overlooked because they faced away from the rest of the vendors. In addition, some trucks did sell out early to the dismay of some patrons, without kitchen staff to lean on to replenish supplies.

Taste of Edmonton 2012

The Act

Of course, it should be noted that Taste’s embrace of food trucks (and the recent announcement that Eat St. will be filming in our city) means that these darlings of the food scene may finally be considered mainstream. No doubt this provided some Edmontonians with their first exposure to gourmet mobile food, and that’s a good thing.

So – should trucks continue to be a part of Taste? Obviously, this is ultimately up to the trucks if they want to participate (and if the festival is open to having them), but I hope organizers tweak this aspect for next year if Curb Your Hunger returns.

New Menus Items

Food festivals like a Taste of Edmonton are extremely democratic. Patrons eat what they want, and vendors who can cater to that are rewarded with monster sales. For that reason, it’s easy to see why crowd-pleasing dishes like green onion cakes and mini burgers will forever remain on the menu at Taste, and restaurants are unwilling to risk serving something outside of the box. Understandably, organizers are also faced with a dilemma: sure, an exotic menu peppered with innovative dishes would be easier to promote, but would it appeal to the average festivalgoer? Edmontonians are known for their fairly conservative palates.

Still, to attract patrons who are tired of seeing the same dishes return year after year, or to pique the interest of those with more adventurous tastes, organizers heralded a menu boasting 65% new menu items. Some of the most anticipated items came from the food trucks, but some new restaurants like Guru and TZiN stepped up to the plate as well, bringing with them a reputation of quality and higher-end food.

As a whole, Mack and I were satisfied with the food we tried this year. We were very deliberate with our choices, but were much more impressed with the quality of the dishes we at this year when compared with 2011.

The grilled pork dumplings from Urban China were easily my favourite. The skin was nice and crispy, and the three ticket price didn’t hurt either. We also enjoyed the falafel and pork belly sandwich from Drift, but that was no surprise given we’ve had it many times before!

Taste of Edmonton 2012

Pork dumplings from Urban China

Taste of Edmonton 2012

Pork belly sandwich from Drift

Taste of Edmonton 2012

Falafel from Drift

Guru’s samosa had been freshly fried and absolutely packed with tandoori chicken, while the accompanying tamarind sauce cut the heat in one sweet stroke. Moreover, TZiN’s vegetarian dish of panzanella  salad was a nice change of pace, light and refreshing.

Taste of Edmonton 2012

Samosa from Guru

Taste of Edmonton 2012

Panzanella from TZiN

We are admittedly not immune to having old favourites, though – Mack couldn’t leave the grounds without a sample of his favourite crack chicken from The Lingnan!

Taste of Edmonton 2012

Dry spicy chicken from the Lingnan

Given the record ticket sales, I would imagine most who attended Taste had positive food experiences. Hopefully the organizers can build on that momentum for next year.

Still Not Perfect, But Getting There

Although some seem to think this year’s event was near flawless, I disagree. I’ve written in the past about what changes could make the event better, and though organizers have made some great enhancements and improvements this year, I think there is more to be done.

The layout still needs to improve in places, where flow is obstructed due to lines or a lack of room to move.

Taste of Edmonton 2012

No room to move

In addition to Centennial Square, couldn’t 99 Street between the Art Gallery and City Hall be better utilized? Telus had set up a booth there, but really, couldn’t the organizers have utilized the space better and placed food vendors there, instead of a promotional vehicle that was only present for a few days?

Taste of Edmonton 2012

Waste of space

More non-beer tent seating would also be appreciated. It’s hard to get past the Churchill Square visual of Taste essentially being a giant beer garden when so much real estate is allocated to the 18+ zone.

Taste of Edmonton

Churchill Square

Though the reality is that the festival won’t ever be a “taste of the best of Edmonton”, when the draw isn’t just the food, but the atmosphere of it all, it would still be great if one of the summer’s premiere events did continue to attract the crowds that came out this year. It will be interesting to see how the event manifests itself in 2013, especially with Giuseppe Albi retiring. Former Northlands employee Paul Lucas will be taking over Events Edmonton (and Taste of Edmonton along with it), so we will see.