FWF+WFdfwnewsa | December 20, 2023 | 0 | 817 , events , Feature , features , Food , Fort Worth , Fort Worth Food + Wine Festival , Fort Worth Food and Wine Festival , Fort Worth News , life , local , restaurants , Tarrant County , wine
My two favorite giving opportunities in Fort Worth this time of year are The Greatest Gift Catalog Ever and the Fort Worth Food + Wine Festival (FWF+WF). Both allow the giver (in this case, perhaps you) to gift something to someone who doesn’t need another plastic thing that continues to contribute to our trade deficit.
The Greatest Gift Catalog Ever (TGGCE.org) allows the giver (in this case, perhaps you) a streamlined opportunity to donate to one of 16 local charities. Whether your loved one’s heart beats for helping educate a kid, granting a wish, or taking care of stray animals, the list is vetted and ready to go.
Because this is a food column, we’ll focus on the FWF+WF. If you’ve read about a restaurant in this publication, chances are that the chef has participated in this four-day spring culinary extravaganza. And the bonus is that your ticket purchase actually benefits local culinary students.
Celebrating a decade of creating one-of-a-kind culinary experiences for even the most jaded foodie, the festival started when co-chair Russell Kirkpatrick (then part of management at Reata Restaurant) began a community discussion around promoting Fort Worth’s food-and-beverage scene. The proposed event wasn’t the first of its kind: The Texas Food & Wine Alliance had been hosting a get-together in the Texas Hill Country since the 1990s which morphed into the Austin Food and Wine Festival in 2011.
In 2014 with the support of pretty much everyone in the food-and-beverage industry and City Hall, the inaugural FWF+WF launched all across town, from The Worthington to Pier 1 headquarters and from Billy Bob’s Texas to Panther Island.
Earlier this month, I caught up with Kirkpatrick to reminisce about how much has changed and how many things remain as the festival enters its 10th year. From trucks in the dirt at Panther Island and desserts at midnight to cleaver selfies and intimate dinners with the best chefs, all the hoopla serves a dual purpose. In addition to promoting the area’s food-and-beverage scene, the festival is a fundraiser for the FWF+WF Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the training of and educational opportunities for the next generation of chefs, restaurateurs, and other culinary-industry hopefuls. Kirkpatrick, who also serves as chair emeritus of the foundation, said that over the last nine years, FWF+WF supporters raised $325,000 for scholarships and restaurant-employee relief.
For the last six years, the foundation has also honored local chefs, businesses, and culinary innovators with the Walter F. Kaufmann Lifetime Achievement Award. Kauffman was legendary in town, both as the owner of The Swiss House and for his service to many food-related boards, including the Tarrant Area Food Bank. The acknowledgement is a genuine nod to a community food-and-beverage superstar. This year’s award went to Renfro Foods, now operated by the third generation of Renfro grandchildren. Kirkpatrick said that the sixth recipients of this award are ambassadors who “put Fort Worth on the map worldwide and in over 30 countries.”
Doug Renfro runs the 83-year-old company that his grandparents started with cousins Becky Renfro Borbolla and James Renfro. Doug said that their grandfather worked for a grocery distributor in Fort Worth during the Depression and started a business out of his home in the 1940s initially focused on producing syrup — “no maple trees were harmed,” Renfro said. And that turned into making chow chow, “a slow-moving item, specific to the South,” according to Renfro. If you’ve sampled the Southern pickled relish of garden odds and ends, you may know why it wasn’t an immediate success. Mrs. Renfro’s officially became a taco sauce company in the 1970s with four flavors: mild, medium, hot, and green.
With the third generation came some creativity. Renfro said the company that started selling syrup down the street now sells craft-beer salsa, habanero salsa, and even a ghost pepper salsa nation- and worldwide. This summer when I was visiting relatives in a small town at the edge of Skokomish Nation in Washington State, we found Mrs. Renfro’s Nacho Cheese Dip in the local convenience store.
“We get to see what my grandparents didn’t see,” Renfro said. “My grandpa never made it to California, and we sell products in Morocco.”
Every year since 2013, the festival has brought hundreds of Fort Worth chefs, students, and food-and-beverage experts and thousands of foodies together, and each successive year, the FWF+WF has continuously expanded in stretch and scope –– except for the COVID closures of 2020, when the foundation spotlighted relief efforts for local restaurants and their employees.
In the festival’s first year, I volunteered at the family-friendly food truck event at Panther Island. Kirkpatrick reminded me that the initial excursion was called “Meals on Wheels” and that Panther Island was the only place that food trucks could roll into. Since then, the FWF+WF has consolidated the majority of events into Heart of the Ranch at Clearfork and has adopted an over-21 policy.
Burgers, Brews + Blues, Kirkpatrick said, “is the only event that has stayed the same, in the same location, from Year 1 to now.”
The FWF+WF began expanding outside the confines of the designated weekend within the first few years, with events during the fall (Shooting with the Chefs, which pairs outdoorsy skeet shooting with local chefs’ small plates) to last year’s collaborative Noche Del Sol dinner with Chefs Juan Rodriguez (Magdalena’s) and Tiffany Derry (Dallas’ Roots Southern Table and a perennial cooking contest favorite). Kirkpatrick said that spreading out helps the organizers deal with “all the moving pieces on top of the already busy festival weekend.”
Managing those pieces isn’t easy. Sometimes volunteers are clearing one event while other volunteers are setting up another, everyone practically on top of one another. To manage some of the historical favorite events, compromise was needed. Night Market, a beloved evening event with mixologists and light bites, was formerly held the Thursday before the festival at TX Whiskey Ranch. This year, Night Market kicked off the festival last month at The Shack at Panther Island.
To control the chaos of an ever-increasing number of events, as well as augment scholarship funds from the FWF+WF, the foundation also produces more intimate opportunities in which attendees can theoretically enjoy a little extra facetime with the chefs involved.
“We wanted to keep the concept of the sit-down dinners for people who don’t want to walk around in the dirt at Heart of the Ranch,” Kirkpatrick said.
One of several highly anticipated, higher-priced, fancier soirees this year is Beyond Borders: A Culinary Journey at TX Whiskey Ranch. In collaboration with Texas Monthly, three James Beard-recognized chefs — Don Artemio’s Rodrigo Cárdenas, Austin restaurateur Michael Fojtasek, and Tom Perini of Perini Ranch — will produce “an unforgettable evening of cross-cultural gastronomy” in January.
Tickets are also on sale for The Reserve Wine Tasting at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in March. The repeat evening is anchored by what Kirkpatrick calls “stuff that can’t be poured at a festival” paired with light passed appetizers from Café Modern’s Chef Jett Mora.
One criticism of the festival is that the cost in time, food, and personnel is prohibitive for smaller restaurants. Since 2021, a $500 stipend has been meant to offset some of that expense. Kirkpatrick also points to partnerships with culinary schools “to get the booths a few extra hands” so that indie eateries can have a presence at the weekend festivities without having to encumber entire staffs.
“It’s an attempt to help those who aren’t the Jon Bonnells, who don’t have the resources, and would possibly have to close to attend,” Kirkpatrick said. “It is a big ask for restaurants to participate. Anything we can do, we will.”
Another criticism is that the least expensive events are still $85 a ticket (Tacos + Tequila on a Thursday night and Rise + Dine on a Saturday morning). If you want to get involved but don’t have the dough for you and your partner, the festival actively courts volunteers to make all these events run. Last year, it took more than 200 volunteers about 2,200 hours to do so. As a thank you for volunteering for a 6-8-hour shift, you’ll be offered a ticket to another event. Volunteer slots open in February, and everyone must be over 21. Visit FWFWF.org/get-involved/volunteer.
Whether you gift the tickets to a loved one or use them yourself (putting on your eating pants counts as therapy, right?), tickets for the Friday and Saturday night shindigs tend to sell out quickly. Core events for the 10th Annual FWF+WF include Tacos + Tequila April 4; The Main Event April 5; Rise + Dine and Burgers, Brews + Blues April 6; and Ring of Fire: A Next-Level Cookout April 7. All events will be at Heart of the Ranch in Clearfork. Then you can feel virtuous about supporting the local food-and-beverage scene and the next generation of young’uns who want to sustain it.