Music-festival dining doesn’t get much more civilized than this. On Sunday night, as the rain drizzled down on Stanley Park for the final stretch of the inaugural Skookum Festival, I snuggled under a fuzzy blanket in a candlelit tent, drinking 2013 Mission Hill Quatrain while being serenaded by Buffy Sainte-Marie, who was performing on the nearby Forest stage.
This was definitely up on the VIP level of luxury, where I wanted to be after three days of endless food queues (many 45 minutes to an hour long), $18 glasses of premium wine diluted by torrential teardrops from heaven and a relentless dampness that chilled to the bone.
The exquisite long-table dinner was prepared by two of Vancouver best chefs, J.C. Poirier (St. Lawrence) and Joël Watanabe (Kissa Tanto). The $245-a-ticket spread, while expensive, was impressive. There were profiteroles filled with velvety folds of foie-gras mousse; royal aioli platters heaped with steamed shellfish, tender vegetables and cured pork; dry-aged ribeye with zesty horseradish salsa verde and voluptuous sauce bordelaise; tall stacks of buttery potato galette layered as thin as mille crêpe cakes; and gasp-inducing sockeye lightly poached to perfection in court bouillon.
Oh, you want to hear more about the music. Sorry, wrong department. Sure, I caught some great performances. But haven’t you heard? Music festivals are all about the food these days.
The gastro-music trend started a few years when Coachella improved its food game with celebrity chefs, full-service pop-up restaurants and rare-bottle wine tastings, but has now spread far and wide, especially on the West Coast, as major destination festivals such as Kaaboo (San Diego), Arroyo Seco (Pasadena) and Outside Lands (San Francisco) realize that it takes more than music, weak beer and limp pizza to create lasting memories out of a weekend experience that costs upward of $250. (A Skookum three-day pass was $319, plus service charges and fees.)
The Skookum Festival showcased just as many food vendors (52) as musical acts (53), alongside a vast array of free activities and accoutrements – fire pits, hammocks, art installations, hair styling, face painting and a basketball court.
There were dozens of food trucks and mobile vendors scattered across the festival, which sprawled from the Stanley Park totem poles to Avison Way. The best to-go dish I ate was a bowl of creamy New England clam chowder from Crab Park Chowdery, which was fragrant with fennel seed and chock full of bacon.
But it obviously wasn’t enough food, especially on Saturday, when capacity peaked at 18,500 and many of the lineups were 150-people deep. After waiting 45 minutes in one line that barely budged, festival-goers Elissa Nielsen and Rae Wright started thinking strategically and moved over to Reel Mac and Cheese.
“Our theory is that they just have to scoop it and put it in a bowl rather than grill it,” Ms. Wright said.
“We’re desperate,” Ms. Nielsen added. “At this point, we just want anything to eat.”
In addition to food trucks, there was a long row of counter-service stations in the central field that featured fare from well-known Vancouver restaurants, many of which do not usually do street food. The biggest names – Vij’s, Bao Bei, Fat Mao, Monarch Burgers (the latter sold 900 burgers on Saturday alone) – drew the longest lines.
I was not willing to brave those queues, but was amply rewarded by taking a chance on Coquille Fine Seafood (which grilled excellent oysters au gratin at $12 for three), and The Birds & The Beets (spicy adobo brisket, also $12, on crusty fresh-baked sourdough).
Saturday and Sunday featured a fun grab-and-go picnic-basket option, created by various Vancouver restaurants. The baskets, which ranged from $85 to $135, came with keepsake blankets for spreading on the grass – or mud – and had to be ordered in advance. My $85 basket from Les Amis du Fromage was a relatively good deal, with huge wedges of three cheeses and more pork rillettes than two people could possibly consume in one sitting.
But I felt for two sisters who freaked out in front in me when told that the Honey Salt premium baskets were sold out.
“What do you mean they didn’t make enough?” Crystal Chin fumed, even though they were given a smaller basket and refunded the $30 difference. “We ordered this two weeks ago.”
For a festival that put so much emphasis on its partnerships with the local Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations and featured an extraordinary lineup of Indigenous artists, there wasn’t much First Nations food to be found. Mr. Bannock, a food truck from Squamish, was the lone representative.
Skookum also partnered with Ocean Wise Life and was, in this case, extremely serious about reducing its environmental footprint. Single-use plastic bottles were verboten and every single cup, napkin and fork was compostable. The restaurant vendors weren’t even allowed to bring in plastic wrap for their prep.
“We had to get really creative and pack everything in parchment paper,” said Dana Ewart of the Okanagan’s Joy Road Catering, who prepared Saturday night’s long-table dinners.
As for those long-table dinners, they probably would have been better attended if they had been elevated (similar to the VIP tents) so that diners could see a stage – instead of having to stand on the bathroom steps and peek around the corner as I did.
Despite the first-year hiccups (did I mention the long lineups?) and Mother Nature’s unwillingness to co-operate, I cannot fault the BrandLive producers for a lack of ambition.
If only it had been held earlier in the summer, when we were crying for rain and dying in the heat.