Diets be damned. The gut-busting adventure that is the Food + Wine Festival officially kicked off last night, and if you’re worried about your waistline, you should just stay home. We headed out to Embassy Suites Historic Charleston for the VIP/Sponsor Recognition Party to kick things off. Guests — including plenty of chefs in their uniforms — gathered in the huge atrium for the informal cocktail hour.
When the clock struck seven, most headed over to the main tent in Marion Square for the sold-out opening night party: a Salute to Charleston Chefs. Guests grabbed a glass and walked into the big, smoky tent, which was surrounded on all sides by the city’s star chefs: Frank Lee, Brett McKee, Mike Lata, Kevin Johnson, Michelle Weaver, Sean Brock, Fred Neuville, and so on. It was enough to make a young foodie feel a little starstruck. People lined up for the small plates offered from each table, and the chefs made sure the quality didn’t suffer, despite the huge output. Our favorites? Kevin Johnson’s (above) crispy triggerfish with bacon gnocchi, Nathan Thurston’s Prime ribeye with fresh arugala salad (just picked from the field that morning), and Michelle Weaver’s pickled shrimp with rice grit tabbouleh. Bobby Flay even showed up, shmoozing and high-fiving local chefs. Needless to say, after about an hour of this gluttony, our bellies were stuffed.
But there’s no relief at F+W. When the party was over, we headed to the after-party at Trattoria Lucca. The intimate gathering was mainly populated with chefs celebrating a first successful day. Chef Ken Vedrinksi churned out dish after dish of Italian delights for the Sunday-style supper. We sat with Chef Kevin Rathbun of Rathbun’s in Atlanta (right), who couldn’t wait to discover how the city’s culinary scene has developed since his last major visit 12 years ago. We also spotted Alexandra Guarnaschelli of Butter in New York — we recognized her from her appearances on Food Network Challenges. We’re sure there were others there we should have recognized — we’ll have to study our program book before the next event. We left at about midnight to go home and put on drawstring sweatpants, but most folks were still going strong. Those chefs sure know how to party. —Erica Jackson