Inside The New York Times's first, epic food festival, where we saw up close what it's really like to be a professional foodie

Rachel Askinasi/InsiderThere was so much to eat and explore.
  • The New York Times held its first Food Festival on October 5 and 6.
  • The event was made up of three main features:

    • The Park – a collection of restaurants from around New York City and a Cooking Stage featuring demonstrations.
    • The Talks – a series of discussions between The Times staff and industry professionals.
    • The Nights – ticketed dinner events at restaurants all over New York City.
  • We talked with Sam Sifton, food editor at The Times and one of the Food Festival curators, and Melissa Clark, staff reporter and food columnist at The Times, to understand what it took to get this food-filled weekend off the ground and where they see it going in the future.
  • Sifton told Insider that the festival took just about a year to create and was designed to bring NYT Cooking to life, offering its audience an “IRL experience with the work that we do.”
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

There are loads of food festivals happening all year-round all over the country. But on the first weekend of October 2019, The New York Times hosted its very first one.

Rachel Askinasi/InsiderIt was a perfect fall day, to boot!

Source: Insider

The New York Times Food Festival took over Manhattan’s Bryant Park …

Google MapsBryant Park is a five-minute walk east of The New York Times newsroom and a five-minute walk west of Grand Central Station.

… featuring tents filled with what The Times editors and reporters think are some of New York City’s best food offerings.

Rachel Askinasi/InsiderA view from inside The Park.

Sam Sifton, food editor at The Times, told Insider that the point of the festival was to show visitors what it’s like to do “one of the great jobs” — being a food writer at the legendary paper.

Joseph Augstein for The New York TimesAlison Roman, cooking columnist at The New York Times.

To do that, they broke up the experience into three parts: The Park …

Rachel Askinasi/InsiderThere was a lot going on inside Bryant Park.

… The Talks …

Mike Cohen for The New York TimesInteresting and intimate discussion happened inside The Times Centre.

… and The Nights.

Mike Cohen for The New York TimesTicketed dinner events were happening from September 27 to October 10.

The Park was split up into a ticketed area and one that was open to the public. Passers-by who either stumbled upon the festival or missed their chance to buy tickets for the sold-out lawn were able to enjoy the DJ …

Rachel Askinasi/InsiderThe music had an underlying presence throughout The Park.

… buy some of the curated food like pizza from Roberta’s …

Mike Cohen for The New York TimesYum!

… video chat with NYT journalists around the world …

Rachel Askinasi/InsiderPeople passing through could step into a phone booth and chat with whichever NYT journalist was on-call at the time.

… and more.

Rachel Askinasi/InsiderVisitors were able to purchase kitchen goods like jams and such from the Marketplace.

Guests who purchased a ticket, which sold for $US25 per day, were able to roam around the grounds enjoying drinks from the main bar in the centre of the space …

Rachel Askinasi/InsiderThe Park was sold-out for both days.

… choose to purchase food from even more restaurants …

Rachel Askinasi/InsiderChefs came up with dishes specially made for the NYT Food Festival.

… sit in on workshops held by chefs and other food industry experts …

Vladimir Weinstein for The New York TimesHeber Clawson teaches an audience how to decorate Instagram-worthy cakes.

… and watch live cooking demonstrations at the Cooking Stage by food writers and cooks alike.

Vladimir Weinstein for The New York TimesNYT food reporter, Priya Krishna (right), cooked and chatted with Madhur Jaffrey (left), cookbook writer and expert on Indian food.

Melissa Clark, food columnist for NYT, told Insider that the Cooking Stage was a crucial part of the festival.

Rachel Askinasi/InsiderThey had a schedule of demonstrations running across both Saturday and Sunday.

“That was really important: To have people cooking,” she said. “We needed the demos. We absolutely needed them.”

Rachel Askinasi/InsiderClark gave a demonstration herself on Sunday where she taught us all about ‘the parm treatment’ — she made a cauliflower parmesan dish that smelled amazing.

Clark continued: “I mean I think it’s really inspirational for people. People see celebrity demos, but to see reporter demos, it’s slightly different — we’re less polished. And also to have the reporters talk to chefs who come in and do the demos as well, it just opens up, then we can go deeper. We’re The New York Times, we’re supposed to go deeper!”

Vladimir Weinstein for The New York TimesChef Thomas Keller of TAK Room (left) and Melissa Clark (centre).

Restaurants served up off-the-menu dishes like buttermilk fried chicken liver and gizzards with smoked ranch dressing from Beatrice Inn …

Rachel Askinasi/InsiderIt was called ‘Odd Bits’ on the menu.

… and spam corn dogs from Insa.

Rachel Askinasi/InsiderThe sauces and garnish on this dish were great.

There were vendors selling craft cocktails …

Rachel Askinasi/InsiderVisitors were doubling up on drinks.

… and plenty of bubbly and wine as well.

Rachel Askinasi/InsiderThe variety of drinks was also vast.

The festivalgoers we spoke with were excited about all the foods they have never had a chance to try before.

Rachel Askinasi/InsiderThis was a lobster meat sausage wrapped in puff pastry and called ‘Lobster in a Blanket.’

One of the festival producers was enjoying a bowl of noodles on her short break and mentioned that a favourite of the reporters and chefs was the chickpea pancake and lamb dish from Frenchette. So, of course, we had to try it out.

Rachel Askinasi/InsiderFrenchette’s Socca Niçois.

After tasting only a handful of the dishes on offer — there were so many to choose from — we agreed that it was the favourite.

Rachel Askinasi/InsiderThe flavours and textures were incredible.

One festival attendee, Jacqueline Cook, said The Times did a good job with the festival. She said she liked the workshops and that there was a lot of great food to choose from.

Rachel Askinasi/InsiderShe was enjoying this sweet potato funnel cake when we spoke.

There was a wide variety of foods on offer throughout the three sections of the park. “There’s a lot of fusion-type food,” she told Insider, but she said she would have wanted more single-culture dishes as well.

Rachel Askinasi/InsiderThere were more tents outside the ticketed park in the Best of Smorgasburg section.

The Park — the ticketed portion — featured chefs like Sirichai Sreparplarn, a northern Thai cook from Bangkok, Michelle Puyane, a China-born cook, and Chintan Pandya, a native of Mumbai who was showcasing his Indian food, just to name a few.

Mike Cohen for The New York TimesFood from Atoboy — developed by Junghyun Park of South Korea.

Source: The New York Times

The next part of the festival was The Talks. Those took place at The Times Centre — an event space inside The New York Times building.

Mike Cohen for The New York TimesChefs, TV personalities, reporters, and cooks talked about the way the world is impacted by food.

The Talks allowed audience members to sit in on a reporter’s interview process, Sifton said. Each discussion was led by a Times reporter or editor who was interviewing their subject on stage.

Mike Cohen for The New York TimesGinia Bellafante, Big City columnist for The Times.

The New York Times hosts Times Talks throughout the year on various subjects, but this was like a marathon of food-infused discussion — one industry icon after another came out on the stage and each talk was tailored to their expertise.

Mike Cohen for The New York TimesMelissa Clark (left) interviewed chef Massimo Bottura (centre) and food writer Ruth Reichl (right).

In the lower-level atrium, festival sponsors had stations set up for viewers to peruse in-between talks. There was a selection of alcohol and snacks for sale …

Rachel Askinasi/InsiderFood and drink was for sale below the lobby of The Times Centre.

… and there were also free samples.

Rachel Askinasi/InsiderThere were people lined up for free trail mix provided by a festival sponsor.

There was also free ice cream from the Brooklyn-born Ample Hills Creamery.

Rachel Askinasi/InsiderThey even had a special NYT flavour called The Flavour of Record.

The Nights portion of the festival was a lot less accessible than the other two thirds. Tickets ranged from $US80 to $US480 for this portion of the event.

Courtesy of The New York TimesA ticket for the dinner at Misi in Brooklyn ran willing customers $US425.

Source: The New York Times

In describing the idea behind The Nights, Sifton told Insider that he thought, “What if we harvested Pete Wells’ brain? What would that look like?” Wells is the chief restaurant critic for The Times.

Mike Cohen for The New York TimesPictured above is a dinner at Misi in Brooklyn.

Sifton said they first thought Wells would simply come up with the 10 best restaurants in New York City and that would be it. But time was a factor, and one year wasn’t long enough to plan out a large meal at Manhattan’s most elite eateries.

Mike Cohen for The New York TimesGuests paid $US200 per ticket for a 20-course omakase dinner.

Source: The New York Times

Then they got another idea: “I thought, ‘I’ll just ask him where he would spend his own money, and that will yield a really cool list of restaurants,’ which it did.” The plan grew from there.

Mike Cohen for The New York TimesTickets for dinner at Mama’s Too cost $US100.

Sifton-and-team got the chefs of Wells’ restaurant picks like Sushi Nakazawa, Mama’s Too, Jeju Noodle Bar, and I Sodi, to come up with “a perfect meal.”

Mike CohenSushi chefs at Sushi Nakazawa.

Source: The New York Times

In general as visitors, we thought the festival was enjoyable and informative. The food was interesting and different — things we wouldn’t be able to find elsewhere …

Rachel Askinasi/InsiderWe visited The Park and The Talks, not The Nights.

… and the Cooking Stage was also a pretty big highlight.

Vladimir Weinstein for The New York TimesAngie Mar (left), chef and owner of the Beatrice Inn, taught Sifton (right) how to make venison Wellington in front of a live audience.

If you’re a fan of panel discussions, you’d be enthralled by the lineup of speakers and the experience of sitting in on The Talks.

Mike Cohen for The New York TimesCreator Action Bronson (centre) and Jon Caramanica (right), pop music critic for the times, talked with Sifton (left).

The schedules and timing of The Talks, the demonstrations happening on the Cooking Stage, and the general operating hours of the park made it difficult to experience everything — especially since the two locations were a bit spread out.

Rachel Askinasi/InsiderThey weren’t far, but with only 40 minutes between talks, it was hard to fit in an extra bite in The Park.

Insider went to both days of the festival, and we wound up walking back and forth from The Times Centre on 8th Avenue and Bryant Park on 6th Avenue multiple times per day — at least it was a beautiful weekend.

Rachel Askinasi/InsiderThe view of The Park as seen from 41st Street between 6th and 7th Avenue.

Clark told Insider that next year, she would love to see some more integration of food at The Talks, and some more narrative at The Nights — hoping to “as Sam was saying, ‘tell a story'” in an even more connected way.

Vladimir Weinstein for The New York TimesShe said she’s not sure what that would look like, exactly, but it’s an idea to keep in mind.

For people who are enamoured with and immersed in the world of food writing, the idea of creating a festival “to introduce our readers to what we cover as we cover it” becomes extremely apparent and intentional — once you read or hear that was the thought.

Vladimir Weinstein for The New York TimesWe were loving it.

Source: The New York Times

But for people who just came for the food, like Carol Malkin of Hoboken, New Jersey, it’s mostly about the eats. “What the festival really does is expose New Yorkers to restaurants and foods that they may not have ever experienced,” she said. “I mean, do we really care what a food critic does in his everyday life?”

Rachel Askinasi/InsiderCarol Malkin, a festival goer and self-proclaimed food-lover, pictured above.

Well, not everyone does. But as Malkin also said, The Times did a great job delivering on the food festival promise of making seemingly elusive foods more accessible. So even if you’re not there for the message, you can still enjoy the festival — which we think is the sign of a job well done.

Rachel Askinasi/InsiderVisitors can pick and choose which parts of the festival they want to soak up, without feeling like they’re missing a piece of information.

After all, Sifton said, “NYT Cooking showed us something that was pretty exciting, which is that there’s an appetite for our food journalism and an appetite that goes beyond the core offering of the page.” And The New York Times Food Festival fulfilled that craving for more.

Rachel Askinasi/InsiderThe festival had brought NYT Cooking to life.

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