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Thursday, May 23, 2024

‘Feast’ of friends: New culinary festival celebrates growing community at Riverfront Park

Upward of 100 participants will be highlighting the tastiest bites and sips in Wilmington as part of the inaugural Feast Wilmington held at Riverfront Park this weekend. (Photo by Matt Ray Photography)

WILMINGTON — Culinary festivals aren’t new to Wilmington, but the latest to showcase the best of nearly 100 food and drink establishments in the Port City will take place this weekend.

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Feast Wilmington kicks off Friday and lasts through Sunday at Riverfront Park’s Live Oak Bank Pavilion. Produced by Wilmington Media and Marketing (Wilmington Business Journal, Wilma), it features four events — VIP Kickoff Party, Brunch Elevated, Pier Party, and Craft + Cuisine, the latter held annually by the Cape Fear Craft Beer Alliance. 

According to festival director Jessica Maurer, the idea for Feast began from a conversation with City of Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo and the Downtown Business Alliance.

“Because of our event and marketing footprint, Wilmington Media and Marketing was brought into the conversation, and it was eventually determined that we had the experience and resources to lead the project,” Maurer said. 

The last culinary festival to take place in town was in 2019, when the Wilmington Food and Wine Festival was held at Bellamy Mansion. It has not picked up again since Covid-19. Before that, Taste of Wilmington Food and Wine Festival was launched in 2008, hosted by the StarNews.

While the culinary arts have always been celebrated among locals, in recent years Wilmington has topped lists among premier destinations for beer, burgers and seafood. Maurer said it was the right time to reintroduce a large-scale culinary celebration due to the area’s growth and talent.

“We now have several James Beard Award nominees locally, we’ve seen huge growth in the number and variety of ethnic restaurants and we’re seeing restaurant groups from other cities like Raleigh, Winston-Salem and Washington, DC opening Wilmington locations because of our blossoming restaurant scene,” she said. 

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The addition of Riverfront Park to the downtown landscape provided an ideal location. 

Friday night, the festival launches with a VIP Kickoff Party featuring a dozen chefs, including Bobby Zimmerman of True Blue Butcher and Table. He‘s serving slow-roasted filet of beef, potatoes Dauphinoise, roasted shiitake mushroom and a bordelaise sauce. 

“This is a nod to the classics, true tradition and just keeping it simple yet still delicious,” Zimmerman said. “Potatoes Dauphinoise has been a recent addition to our a la carte offering and we’ve been receiving rave reviews on it, so we want to show it off.” 

Brunch Elevated takes place Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. featuring around 15 restaurants. 

“[It] plays off our region’s favorite meal and lets chefs have some fun with the idea whether they normally serve brunch or not,” Maurer said.

True Blue’s Ellipsis — a South Front District event space featuring ticketed culinary happenings, including NOLA brunches — is one of the participants. It’s serving Quiche Lorraine, andouille sausage, and a praline sticky bun. 

“The culmination of rich, sweet and salty paired with a glass of champagne is unbeatable,” Zimmerman added.

Two events actually take place Saturday:brunch followed up by a Pier Party from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. It will showcase 19 eateries and centers on seafood in the region. 

Downtown’s YoSake and Shuckin Shack are among the participants. YoSake chef Jacob DeBose wanted to participate as food shows and competitions have become a passion. He is serving cucumber avocado rolls topped with poke tuna salad. 

“This is a good representation of what we love to serve at YoSake and what our customers have loved for almost 20 years now,” he said. “The clean flavors of avocado and cucumber complement the rich tuna and soy reduction; we will also be offering a little spice for those interested.”

Shuckin Shack is best known for their oysters, something kitchen manager Zack Watford, who has been with the restaurant since 2022, is excited to showcase.  

Oysters will be featured two ways for guests to choose from at the Pier Party: classic mignonette — vinegar, shallots and pepper — and bruschetta-inspired topping, or served with ponzu sauce with candied jalapenos.

“The classic pairing of the sharp vinegar-based sauce with the brine of the oyster goes with balsamic and tomatoes adding sweetness to cut the tang,” he described. “The ponzu and candied jalapeno are going more off the beaten track … the Asian citrus style sauce blends with the brine, with the bite and sugar of the candied jalapenos to provide some sweet.”

Craft + Cuisine — started in 2017 — has been folded into Feast. Founded by Jeremy Tomlinson of Cape Fear Craft Beer Alliance, the culinary event pairs local breweries with local chefs to create one-of-a-kind offerings. It has traditionally been the finale for Cape Fear Craft Beer Week, this year celebrated March 22 – 31.

“After securing our dates for Live Oak Bank Pavilion, we found out Craft + Cuisine was being planned for the same weekend, we knew that it didn’t make sense to have two competing food and drink events on the same weekend, so we approached the Alliance with the idea of bringing Craft + Cuisine into the Feast lineup,” Maurer said, adding the organization representing Cape Fear region breweries has played an integral role in the finale on Sunday.

Tomlinson told PCD the event was always held the last Saturday of the year, not only to complete Cape Fear Craft Beer Week but to kick off North Carolina Beer month in April. But that changed from April to October during the pandemic. And this year with Easter falling on the last Sunday of the month, it presented another barrier.

“We knew we were going to have an issue with chefs,” Tomlinson said, making the decision to move it back a week.  

Upon Wilmington Media and Marketing reaching out about a collaboration, Tomlinson said he agreed it was a natural fit.

“For the Craft Beer Alliance, being part of a larger food festival is going to give us more exposure outside of our local community, which has always been the goal for beer week and Craft + Cuisine,” Tomlinson said.  

In the past, the most people who attended Craft + Cuisine was 500, a number expected to grow this year.

The event features 38 participants, 19 breweries and 19 restaurants, coming together from noon to 3 p.m. on Sunday, March 24. The setup is similar to years past: The organization asks the breweries what restaurants they want to match up with to provide a complementary bite and sip.

“A lot of the time, they want to work with the same people they have worked with in the past or they have become close with different restaurants where they are on tap,” Tomlinson said. 

Some that run both breweries and restaurants and don’t have to pair up, such as Burgaw Brewing, Wrightsville Beach Brewery and its Leland location, Beer and Cider Exchange.

Wilmington’s newest brewery Ponysaurus will participate and provide both a brew and sip. According to spokesperson Sarah Voran, they’re serving meatballs — a blend of beef and pork topped with its signature pizza sauce, cheese, and herbs — with its award-winning Scottish Ale. 

“Our Scottish Ale is a rich, smooth, malt-focused beer with a deep hit of caramel, coffee, and chocolate in both the aroma and flavor,” she said. “The ale cuts through and elevates the flavors of the dish.” 

Returning to the festival is Rebellion, to be paired up with Waterline Brewing. 

“We love the engagement and experience with both the participants and the attendees,” Rebellion owner Wes Westlye said. “It’s an opportunity for us to flex our culinary muscle and do some things a bit differently than we typically do at Rebellion and have a bit of fun while doing it.”

The Front Street restaurant is known for its burgers and wings mostly, but Chef Travis Weiss said they wanted to show the restaurant’s talent elevates all pub fare. 

Rebellion is serving smoked short rib, slathered with roasted garlic aioli and shaved red onion on King’s Hawaiian slider bun. It will be paired with Waterline’s porter that Westlye said was aged in the Rebellion single-barrel select from Maker’s Mark.

“We can smoke meat with the best of them in Wilmington,” Weiss said. “Smoked beef and dark beer are a match made in culinary heaven, we wanted a simple approach that showcased excellent barbecue and beer.” 

Maurer said the goal with each event was to make sure people were given the opportunity to enjoy varied offerings, while including as many businesses in the culinary community as possible. Feast was open to anyone who wanted to participate and there were no fees for the restaurant to participate. 

“Feast is providing them with a $500 credit from US Foods or Cheney Brothers to help offset the food costs,” Maurer said. 

In addition, the organization stocks the chef stations with eating utensils. Chefs bring the food and equipment for service and are required to prepare two to three bites each for upward of 1,000 attendees.

The tickets are all-inclusive of food and drinks. Wilmington’s End of Days Distillery is sponsoring all craft cocktails, to include the Cargo Mule, Gin and Tonic and Hurricane. Brunch will also feature an espresso martini, made with Casa Blanca coffee. Coastal Wines is providing vino.

Music also accompanies each event, with The Midatlantic playing Craft + Cuisine. The kickoff party will be soundtracked by jazz music performed by The Benny Hill Quartet, DJ Professor Dub spinning tunes at Brunch Elevated and local rock outfit The Hatch Brothers performing at the Pier Party. 

Tickets range from $100 to $150 for individual events or $500 for an all-access pass, which includes entry into Friday’s kickoff party.

Partial proceeds from ticket sales, as well as any donations made by attendees are going to area nonprofits. This includes the Food Bank of Wilmington, Cape Fear Craft Beer Alliance and Downtown Business Alliance.

“Our main goal this year is to successfully launch Feast Wilmington so it can be a positive force for our region for many years to come, including for nonprofits and food-related causes,” Maurer said.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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