Ampersands are so not on the menu for this year’s Charleston Wine + Food Festival. Not many “ands” in the program descriptions either. Instead, every compound subject in the festival’s program copy gets joined by that clean-cut “+.” Streamlined, graphic, slightly hip, decidedly on-brand. It’s a clever little twist, or crisscross rather, like the perfect garnish on a well-sauced plate.
And speaking of sauced, that plus sign might equally signal that there’s more to this year’s festival than indulgent drinking and dining. The festival’s ubiquitous plus sign might, in fact, be more than graphic gimmick, symbolic of a now-mature 14-year old festival that has not only found a winning program recipe dishing up some 125+ ticketed events, but is interested in enticing appetites beyond gustatory ones.
This year, festival guests have options to dig in to yoga; sip some meditation; gorge on hip-hop; savor heated storytelling (check out Burned). Plus there’s a fun nod to International Women’s Day (Fri. March 8) with a “Boss Lady” tea (oxymoron? Boss Lady bourbon swigging sounds good to me, leaves that warm, heady power on the palate).
The 2019 program lineup is nothing if not bold — consider Le Club 843 event, which promises to somehow transform the Wreck of the Richard and Charlene on Shem Creek into a “swanky seaside getaway.” For $395 a pop.
The program is also diverse, decadent, and welcoming to those for whom pricey signature dinners are neither in the budget nor on the diet. Sure there’s more than enough eating, wine tasting, beer gardening, and Champagne sabering to be had, but there’s also a balance. Indeed, the plus sign is nothing if not a graphic evocation of equilibrium.
So why dilute a foodie focus with ancillary programming? With an economic impact last year of $15.3 million, it’s not as if the five-day festival was languishing and needed some ujjayi breaths and downward facing dogs to recalibrate. Nor with the relentless growth in Charleston’s restaurant and bar scene is there any need to scrounge up talent and program filler.
“The decision to offer health + wellness events on our schedule as a Wine + Food festival was multifaceted,” writes Gillian Zettler, Executive Director for Charleston Wine + Food, who, it seems, thinks and speaks in pluses. “We took inspiration from our local community. Places like Huriyali, Basic Kitchen, Butcher & Bee, The Park Cafe, Parcel 32, The Harbinger Café, and countless others that are offering food + drink that is delicious and nourishes your body. When I look at the way I eat and at the menus our Charleston Wine + Food team is drawn to, health-conscious options are at the forefront.”
A wine and food festival need not be about excess, Zettler believes. “Overindulgence is not the way to experience delicious food or drink.” That doesn’t mean there won’t still be ample gluttonous opportunties at, for example, the bountiful Culinary Village or the oyster bonanza Shucked — this year hosted at The Bend — but there are plenty of less chaotic, less-grabby program offerings where mindfulness is the main entrée. Where making connections between body and bites, between the chef’s story and the diner’s choices, between people, provenance, place, and plate, is the focus. Think slow festival, if you will, in the vein of the Slow Food movement.
“Our team worked to create experiences that show our guests that they can have a healthy relationship with food, and that flavor does not have to be sacrificed,” Zettler adds.
The icing on the (gluten-free) cake is that doing so allows Zettler et al to expand on the festival’s mantra of being “a catalyst for connections.” By showcasing some of Charleston’s “amazing luminaries in the wellness space,” referring to the Holy City’s fit-and-famous like Kathryn Budig and others, Wine + Food is connecting visitors who may pigeonhole Charleston as a James Beard mecca to a whole other wealth of talent, those championing the active, healthy living aspects of our old town. Talent that in addition to Budig includes Sarah Frick of The Works, Jenny Broe of Dance Lab, and Jennie Brooks of Longevity Fitness, as well as restaurateurs like Jennifer Ferrebee of Verde who are leaders in the healthy eating sector but wouldn’t typically earn a spotlight in a fancy wine and food showcase.
According to Budig, the Charleston-based, internationally known influencer/guru/media darling who stretches that bendy, stretchy self of hers across many platforms — from cookbooks to online yoga classes to her podcast Free Cookies — Charleston Wine + Food is the perfect setting to inject some mindfulness. “The festival is amazing, my favorite event of the year, but it can be overwhelming. I think it’s rather brilliant to sprinkle in wellness events amidst such a heavy, busy festival,” says Budig, who gives a big high-five to Zettler (who is an indoor cycling instructor at a local studio when she’s not executive directing) whom she calls “a wellness warrior and creative genius.”
The events that focus more on physical and spiritual appetites are intended to complement and enhance the food experiences, suggest both Budig and Zettler. “Not to say one aspect is good and the other bad,” says Budig. “It’s about finding a way to repair your system for a few moments during what can be a whirlwind of deliciousness and indulgence.”
Budig will headline the popular Namaste Bubbly, which four years ago debuted as the sole wellness-oriented morsel in the Wine + Food buffet (there are now seven ticketed wellness events — see sidebar) but has been a hit each year. “For me it’s the ultimate reset button. It helps get your head out of the meringue cloud and back into the experience,” says Budig, who loves good food and eating/drinking her way through the festival, “but sometimes I feel like I woke up upside down in my bed.” At this year’s Namaste Bubbly, staged in the bright and airy Cedar Room, Budig’s plan is for participants to slow down, sweat, and cleanse — “It’s all that, followed by bubbles, which to me is synonymous with joyfulness, celebration, and zest. We’ll celebrate the playfulness, whether with kombucha or bubbly. It’s all about listening to your body!”
Budig is also on the docket for RetrEAT at the Schoolhouse, a three-hour smorgasborg that will be a mix of interactive sessions — everything from guided meditation, blending essential oils, exploring Ayurvedic nutrition and taste sensations led by international Ayurvedic health counselor Caryn O’Hara and Basic Kitchen chef Nick Wilber — and hearing from experts on the Wellness Stage. Folks can explore and sample feel-goodies from wellness vendors as well. Budig will interview her friend, chef and cyclist Seamus Mullin of Tertulia and El Colmado in New York and author of Hero Food: How Cooking With Delicious Things Can Make Us Feel Better and Real Food Heals.
“Seamus is the ultimate Cinderella story, someone who had a wake-up call after two serious health issues, and then completely reinvented himself 360-degrees as a chef and person,” she says. “It’s always nice to hear from someone who speaks from truth and experience, and is not just echoing some trend.”
Our relationship with food
According to holistic life coach Elli Richter, food is so much more than what you put in your mouth. “There are some 72 different ways that people digest life,” she says. “I’m convinced that the state you are in when eating food is as important as the food you eat. If you feel shameful about eating something, then you just raised the likelihood of indigestion.”
During her guided meditation at RetrEAT, Richter hopes to help participants bring good energy to their food. “My big aim is to explore the pleasure and intimacy in the experience of food, to tune in to all the senses involved, so eating becomes like a symphony of pleasure,” says Richter, who will also lead a cacao ritual (raw cacao is a powerful heart opener) at the Burned program. “To me it’s about being present over being perfect.
Dancer Jenny Broe appreciates that the Wine + Food team were open to including a broad range of fitness and wellness experiences. “They wanted to break it open more widely to different movement styles, and found me and my philosophy, which is all about celebrating the joys of life, including wine and food. Our vibe worked.” That vibe will be reverberating beneath the Gibbes’ rotunda, when Broe leads Feed your Spirit, a hip-hop inspired morning session. “You’re going to feel like a Greek goddess just standing in that incredible space,” says Broe, who dubs herself “Chief Mad Scientist” at Dance Lab. As with all the “Feed Your…” programs, food and spirits will top off the morning, with a nod to lighter, healthy fare. So yes, that means even after your “Feed Your body” morning sweat therapy pilates session, should you be lucky enough to make it to Jennie Brooks’ signature blending of strength training, low impact cardio, and pilates on the Dewberry rooftop, you can re-hydrate with wine.
“Drinking is always an issue associated with any kind of festival, especially a wine and food event. But it’s not the festival that creates the problem. It’s the individuals. There will simply always be people who are prone to not be able to control themselves,” says Mickey Bakst, who knows first-hand what he’s talking about. Bakst is the general manager of Charleston Grill and a godfather of sorts in Charleston’s F&B scene. He’s also an alcoholic who has been sober for more than 36 years now.
The beauty of Bakst is that when he sees a need and an opportunity, he picks up the phone and puts wheels in motion — witness Charleston Chefs Feed the Need which he started in 2009, and Teach the Need, launched in 2014 to give at-risk teens the skills to work in Charleston restaurants. And when his colleague and friend, chef Ben Murray, committed suicide after struggling with alcoholism, Bakst joined forces with Indigo Road Restaurant Group’s Steve Palmer, basically staging an industry-wide intervention. Ben’s Friends is a safe and constructive support group designed for food and bev workers who struggle with substance abuse and addiction.
“There’s nothing I love more than being able to pair a fine meal with the perfect wine,” says Bakst. But, he adds, there’s a big difference between enjoying wine or spirits as a complement to a meal and going overboard. “To me, the concept that fun has to be accompanied with alcohol or drugs is such a boring thought,” says Bakst, who is pleased that Wine + Food offers some non-alcohol focused events as well as the wellness series.
“There’s no truth to the concept that you need to drink to have fun,” he adds. “What fun is there if you don’t remember what you did, or if you wake up with a throbbing head and a dry mouth feeling ashamed?” Rather, Bakst adds, “the fun is in the event itself, in the interaction with the people around you, with the wonderful smells and tastes.”
And should you find yourself at a festival event getting out of control, or with friends who do, or “if you or they are waking up miserable, ashamed, or forgetting what you did, there are countless people who are sober and countless organizations, including Ben’s Friends, out there to help,” Bakst says.
For Zettler, this year’s expansion of wellness programs through the “Feed Your…” series and the RetrEAT is just another way for Wine + Food to make meaningful connections. By combining exercise and healthy, mindful food + beverage pairings, these events “celebrate our bodies and our gratitude for being able to move them,” explains Zettler.
These ancillary programs are far from a form punishment — rather, Wine + Food’s ever-growing wellness lineup is in place to guide participants to a healthier relationship with their bodies, and what they put in them.
“People put so much heart and soul and passion into this festival. It’s a total no brainer to integrate mindfulness into it,” says Richter. “I think people are hungry for it. For balance and an experience of connection and aliveness.” Champagne sabering included.
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