The Mississippi Food and Wine festival debuts June 13-15 in Jackson, upping the state’s game in culinary currency, focusing a spotlight on its considerable restaurant talent and maximizing the potential of all things local and delicious.
Several events span a long weekend, whetting appetites with private chef dinners, the
Mississippi Craft Beer Festival and a Grand Tasting finale.
“One of Jackson’s greatest assets is its food tourism industry,” says Jim Wilkirson, special events coordinator with Fondren Renaissance Foundation. BankPlus is the presenting sponsor of Mississippi Food and Wine, in conjunction with the foundation and Visit Jackson.
The new festival is the brainchild of Wilkirson and Fondren Renaissance Foundation board member Jennifer Emerson, who with husband, chef Derek Emerson, owns or partners in Walker’s Drive-In, Local 463, CAET Seafood/Oysterette and Parlor Market. The thought was, if Jackson didn’t launch such an event, the Gulf Coast or Oxford might beat the capital city to the punch.
The popularity of events such as the Santé South Wine Festival show an audience eager to partake. A food-oriented event that also emphasizes craft cocktails and wine is their aim. “We really wanted to do something that was all-consuming,” Emerson says.
The inaugural Mississippi Food and Wine uses the successful Mississippi Craft Beer Festival, now in its fifth year and scheduled for June 14 on Duling Avenue in Fondren, as its anchor. The beer fest — “a total success out of the gate,” Wilkirson says —annually draws more than 1,000 people to Fondren to sip samples from more than 100 craft beers from more than 30 different breweries. Because beer distributors Capital City Beverages and Southern Beverage continue to add new products and breweries, “It’s been a really fun, ever-changing market for them, and that has been real positive with the public. … That’s what kept it such a success.”
The new festival’s food component caters to tastes both fancy and less so, with private dinners for an indulgent deep dive, and a supreme sampler layout for gastronomic grazing.
Four private chef dinners (two on June 13 are sold out, tickets remain for two on June 14) are limited to 90 people each. Each features a lead local chef with a team of invited peers and a wine broker for multiple courses and wine pairings.
“The dinners are definitely a more personal touch, and the chefs like the collaboration,”
Emerson says. “We really wanted a forum where everyone could come to the table and have a showcase.” Participating chefs include a Great American Seafood King (Alex Eaton of Jackson), a James Beard Foundation Award winner (Vishwesh Bhatt of Oxford) and an Iron Chef (David Bancroft of Auburn), along with talented local and visiting culinary professionals.
The June 15 Grand Tasting, under a tent on Duling Avenue in Fondren, features chefs from the private dinners and wineries and mixologists from the South’s restaurant community. Several specially themed areas put Mississippi’s food resources center stage — Delta BBQ, Ethnic/Farmer’s Market and Seafood, with five to seven chefs apiece on topic. Additional chefs will be featured at single tables, with more tables focusing on wine and spirits.
Response has been strong with a couple of dinners already sold out. Organizers expect some tickets will still be available at the gate at the beer festival and at the Grand Tasting. Organizers hope to add an educational component to the event in years to come, once the festival is established, Wilkirson says.
Mississippi Food and Wine is a fundraiser for the Fondren Renaissance Foundation, with a portion of proceeds going to food-related charities selected by participating chefs. Find ticket links and more details at msfoodandwine.com.
Visit Jackson promoted Mississippi Food and Wine at the recent Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, with Fine & Dandy chef Jesse Houston (lead chef for the June 14 dinner at Brent’s) along to highlight the upcoming launch. Visit Jackson’s Kim Lewis anticipates plenty of local support at Mississippi Food and Wine’s first year, as well as attendees drawn by guest chefs from the region. “Hopefully, as it gets bigger and the word spreads, we’ll have people travel to the city just for that event,” Lewis says.
After years of representing Mississippi at other people’s events in other cities, it’s great to invite admired chefs and friends to a showcase on home turf, says Manship/Aplos chef Alex Eaton (lead chef for the Albert’s at Parlor Market June 14 dinner).
Chef work is a tough life, he says, but the camaraderie at such events pays off far down the road. He describes the scene, behind the scenes, at private chef dinners: “You get a bunch of guys and girls in a small kitchen, most of the time the restaurant can’t close for the event, and you’re seeing all of the same problems every single one of you deals with every day. On top of that, you’re about to feed a bunch of people you don’t know, in a kitchen you’ve never been in, but it all works out because we’ve all been doing this for so long.”
Everybody pitches in everywhere. “It’s kind of like a sport,” Eaton says. “You get this new player on your team and then all of a sudden, he’s throwing a touchdown pass!” Connections are forged, ready to be tapped for future events.
“We just hope that Mississippi shows up and makes this super cool,” says Eaton. “We spend all our time helping other states and other places in other cities — this is just good for Jackson.
“It’s nice to have something worth coming here for.”