Provided by Charleston Wine + Food

Time to Act

For 14 years, the first week of March has been dedicated to the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, a culinary extravaganza that, just last year, brought more than 28,000 people and nearly $20 million to Charleston. But, that won’t be the case this week, following W+F’s pandemic-prompted August 2020 decision to cancel the five-day event. 

After taking a firm stance on the removal of the John C. Calhoun statue in Marion Square, the home of W+F’s popular culinary village in recent years, and joining nationwide calls for more diversity, equity and inclusion, W+F organizers are looking to act on a July 2020 public statement explaining it would audit its hiring process, reevaluate festival venues and diversify talent — all while navigating the uncertainty associated with the ongoing pandemic.  

“I’d say that the first few months of the shutdown, like a lot of live event organizations, everyone was in this mode of, ‘Do we push dates? Do we cancel? Do we reschedule?’” said W+F executive director Gillian Zettler. “The risk seemed a lot higher to try to plan a festival that you would then eventually cancel, rather than just choosing to cancel and using that time in a more intentional way.”  

Wine + Food executive director Gillian. Zettler was selected from a group of approximately 500 applicants in 2014 | Photograph by Ruta Smith

The decision came one month after the festival posted a statement on its social media platforms calling for the removal of the John C. Calhoun statue in Marion Square and announcing it would stop the use of plantations as future venues. W+F followed up its initial statement, which was criticized by some activists, with more details on the festival’s plans to diversify its board and staff, ensure programming is reflective of the venue where it takes place and lower barriers to entry for minority talent. 

“I think some people were farther ahead than the festival was in the journey of, ‘What have we been doing? What should we be doing? What can we be doing?’” Zettler said. “But, I do feel proud of the fact that our organization had been having those conversations before that moment.” 

Zettler said those conversations will result in new hires ahead of the 2022 festival, scheduled to take place March 2-6. 

 “You don’t have to be inside the organization to see the composition of our staff — it’s white women,” said Zettler, adding that the festival hired a “diversity, equity and inclusion consultant” to help make its hiring process “more intentional.” 

W+F board member Margaret Furniss, who founded Caviar & Bananas, said the board is “very pleased with the progress the festival has made and where it’s going.” 

“As far as the approach to hiring, that’s something that really has come from Gillian and has been around way before 2020. She’s always been of the mindset that we need to evolve,” Furniss said. “I think we’ve set a framework with our goals, and it’s up to the festival team to activate.” 

While Charleston residents and visitors await the return of the in-person festival in 2022, W+F has virtual events scheduled for this month, Zettler said. 

“In the week that would have been festival week, we’re going to produce a virtual Waffle House Smackdown with our friends from Williams Sonoma,” said Zettler, describing the event that brings W+F chefs to train and compete for breakfast supremacy at a local Waffle House. This year’s virtual event pits chef Mason Hereford of New Orleans Turkey and the Wolf against Claudette Zepeda of forthcoming Vaga Restaurant in Encinitas, Calif. 

“There’s new layers of logistics to figure out how chefs train at a Waffle House, given the current circumstances, and how you try to get that same spirit of competitiveness and silliness all wrapped up into a virtual experience,” she said. 

Following the Smackdown, W+F will produce more events this month, most of which will be virtual. That means virtual cooking classes, panels, “hybrid dinners” and even a car giveaway, Zettler said. 

“We know we can’t try to recreate Charleston Wine + Food — that doesn’t feel authentic to us. But, we now get to offer something to people who have not been able to experience the festival, and I don’t think that’s something that will go away with time either.” 

A year away from festival production is providing W+F the opportunity to seek outside commentary on how it can improve ahead of next year’s event, Zettler said. 

“We are in the beginning stages of some community listening sessions. We’ve got a third party that is able to draw in a lot of talent to provide feedback anonymously about ways they think the festival can grow and evolve,” she said. “I want to try to get us out of our own way a little bit instead of coming from a place as an organization of assuming that we know what will be helpful. I’m excited to see what that feedback looks like.” 

Celebrity chefs like Maneet Chauhan (center) are among the cooks who have participated in Charleston Wine + Food Festival | Photograph by Stacey Howell

Students from two College of Charleston courses will have the chance to contribute to the conversation. The Department of Communications’ senior capstone class will study ways the festival can improve hiring practices and navigate the pandemic, while also researching what other organizations “have done to go beyond just making statements,” Zettler said.  

A Department of Hospitality and Tourism course, taught by Zettler, will evaluate potential venues, and the end-of-term project will be focused on the location of the 2022 culinary village. 

Food festivals have been scrutinized in recent years for not compensating chefs for participation. In 2019, Post and Courier food critic Hanna Raskin, writing for The Los Angeles Times, said, “Years ago, chefs agree, the promise of drinking with friends and sharing their latest dishes with adoring eaters was reason enough to pony up money for a festival spot that would set them back financially. Now, chefs mostly want to feel appreciated.”

Moving forward, Zettler wants to ensure the festival is “providing the assets that matter the most” to participating chefs, especially post-pandemic. 

“Everybody knows at this point that there have been conversations surrounding participation in live events — participation in food festivals in particular,” Zettler said. “One of the conversations that we’ve been having in this break time is: How do we really support that community in ways that are meaningful for them?” 

“From my perspective, being based out of Charleston and having our restaurant downtown was super helpful (in 2020),” said 5Church and Tempest executive chef/partner Jamie Lynch, who participated in four W+F events last year. Tempest culinary director Adam Hodgeson, who at the time helmed the kitchen at 5Church, participated in three of his own, Lynch said. 

“If we weren’t based off Market Street, there’s no way we would have been successful doing that many events in that short of a time. But working with the organizers, they were great about getting us all the information and made it a lot easier. It was hectic but a lot of fun. Wine + Food for me is a great way to bring people into Charleston and really showcase what the culinary scene is like when it’s at its peak.”  

In conjunction with the city’s restaurant advisory committee and College of Charleston’s tourism office, W+F is researching the state of Charleston’s restaurant industry, information organizers believe will enhance the chef experience in 2022. 

New W+F board member Carrie Morey has been a part of Charleston’s food and beverage community since founding Callie’s Charleston Biscuits in 2005, the same year W+F hosted the inaugural festival. Morey has witnessed the festival’s evolution after participating each year since its inception — she said it’s “moving in the right direction.” 

“I feel like when it was in its first five years, it was different, but I don’t think it was better then than it is now. I do have friendships and relationships with the chefs in town, and to be honest, I’ve never heard any complaints about the festival,” Morey said. “It’s really magical how the festival brings food people together — it’s fun to connect, collaborate and celebrate what we’re doing.”

Carrie Morey of Callie’s Hot Little Biscuits | Provided

Specific plans, venue locations and participating chefs have not yet been determined, but Zettler said she and the festival board are determined to make sure they are “honoring history in the process of the places that we pick and that it makes sense with our mission, vision and values.” 

“When you’re looking at who’s planning events, it’s really important that authentic voices are a part of creating the foundation to all those stories,” she said. “In 2022, that will be reflected in the type of programming we create. I’m looking forward to pulling lots of people into the programming process and letting people be proud that their ideas and connections are reflected in the schedule that we present in 2022.” 

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