Chefs from around the country join local chefs at Grover Smith's touring event, Indie Chefs Week (www.indiechefsweek.com), which comes to Tulane University's Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine March 22-25. Smith talked to Gambit about the event.a
What is Indie Chefs Week?
Smith: We formed in 2013 around the time Twitter started exploding as a medium for independent chefs to promote their own restaurants. There were a couple factors at play. One of them was that we got tired of always seeing the same names in the press as far as "celebrity chefs" go. There was also a fatigue around food and wine fests — and they do have their place. But for most chefs at one of the "dine-around" events, you're given a very limited stipend for food, you're outside, maybe in a tent with a table, serving canapes to a cattle call of guests. You're not really serving something that's representative of what you would serve in your own kitchen. On top of it, you're covering a lot of the expenses — for travel, food and accommodations — doing it for the publicity it's supposed to garner.
In this industry, it's backbreaking work with tight margins. We wanted to create something where you could shine a light or give publicity to some of these chefs who are just as good as any celebrity chef. We also wanted to create an environment where we would pay all the costs, so we pay for the airfare, the accommodations (and) the food cost. We keep it under 80 guests so that it's still representative to what they could make in their restaurants. It's a sit-down (meal) with really good, high-quality, small producer wines and an affordable cost. Thanks to our corporate sponsors, we've been able to make tickets more affordable. We always donate to No Kid Hungry (www.nokidhungry.org) for the state we're in — it's usually around 20 percent of the ticket sales. This year we're doing New Orleans, Houston, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Richmond, Virginia.
How do you choose chefs?
S: We have the people that we know from travel or trying their restaurants or (being) at media events, where we're seeing the quality of their food. There's an informal nomination process, too, where we allow the past participants to nominate people.
How does the event differ from other chef-driven, sit-down dining events?
S: We do 24 chefs every time — 18 chefs from out-of-town and six local chefs. We have three dinners (with wine pairings). The first dinner we have 12 chefs on Thursday and they're cooking one course each. The other 12 chefs cook on Friday, and on Sunday, we have a collaboration dinner where all 24 chefs cook together and we pair them up; it's 12 collaborative courses. We bring the chefs out with their dishes and I introduce them and we talk about the restaurant, where they're from, why they cook what they do, their journey getting there.
We make sure that (the chefs) are doing as little work as possible while they're here, and then we have these other things that go along with the event. On Thursday night, when all the Thursday chefs are cooking, the Friday chefs are off, and they go out on a tour of the city. Those 12 chefs will try a bunch of restaurants in New Orleans, and then we'll all meet up for an after-party at the end of the night. The same thing happens Friday for the Thursday chefs. We set up the itinerary and pay for all the dinner costs. We take the chefs around to see a bunch of purveyors on Saturday, so that's a day off where they get to have a fun time and learn about the local food community and build relationships. On Saturday, we have a party at Paradigm Gardens where we have this giant family meal with all of the chefs plus (hosts) Kristen (Essig) and Mike (Stoltzfus) from Coquette are cooking.