Gather round, children: I'm going to tell you an old-timey tale of what Coachella was like when I began making my annual pilgrimage, back in aught three. The wristbands were made of paper, instead of RFID technology encircling your wrist like Fort Knox. Your mobile phone got no "bars," let alone Wi-Fi (in fact, it would be several more years until Paris Hilton popularized the bedazzled Blackberry) — and there were no "influencers" with a need for it anyway, because there was no Instagram. We tossed a stick of deodorant in our bags for 15 sweltering hours of dusty concerts and party-hopping (accessed with the help of pre-printed MapQuest directions). And when we got hungry, we rooted around in the dust for a churro cart.
Did I set all of that up to obnoxiously assert my street cred? Of course — what's Coachella without posturing? But my main goal is actually to paint a picture of a time when the festival was a place to see Amy Winehouse perform in a tent and retrieve a smashed Power Bar from your bag when you got hungry — and not a place where some of the finest culinary talent in the state (country, world) gathers to present bucket-list-level high-end meals for fancy foodies' pleasure.
But flash forward to 2019, and that's exactly what's happening at Coachella, which these days features a truly spectacular "culinary program." The so-called "Indio Central Market" on the festival grounds features 15 curated restaurants under a large tent with plenty of shaded seating, and you can even make a reservation (!) at one of the pop-up restaurants on site. Food vendors include Bravo's Top Chef names such as Bruce Kalman, Tyler Anderson, Brooke Williams, and Marcel Vigneron — no big deal.
VIP ticket holders can upgrade their experience (at $225 additional cost per person) to dine within the on-site rose garden for a spectacular sunset meal produced by Outstanding in the Field, with different big-name participating chefs each of the six nights of the festival's two-weekend run.
On April 12 — the festival's first night — I joined the diners in the rose garden at a snaking banquet table, set with charmingly mismatched plates, for dinner by Top Chef alumni Shirley Chung and Casey Thompson. Travis Masar — who met Chef Shirley during filming for Top Chef Season 11 and recently opened Ms Chi Café with her in Los Angeles — was also in the desert to help whip up the meal.
The dinner was served family style on white-clothed tables under twinkling stringer lights. It began with a selection of Tartine breads — placed right on the tabletop for a rustic feel — along with charred jalapeño with vinegar and olive oil and whipped tofu with hazelnut pesto, which had such a robust, memorable flavor: I can still taste it.
From there, multiple dishes rolled out along with wine pairings. A kombucha cocktail bar from GT's Kombuchas was also conveniently positioned in the middle of the garden...
Next up was thrice-fried safe mountain farms potatoes, pickled Fresno peppers, smoked roe, broccoli leaf, sage mountain farms spring onion, nori, and kewpie, with 2017 Ryme Cellars “Hers” Vermentino, from Carneros California.
Then, out came Ms Chi’s pork and shrimp wontons, with spring vegetable broth, English peas, and chili oil (paired with 2016 Ryme Cellars Ribolla Gialla, Vare Vineyard, Napa). My vegetarian dumping alternative was also divine, which shouldn't surprise: Chef Shirley's Ms Chi eatery serves progressive Chinese American cuisine, and has a big vegan following.
I also devoured my cauliflower substitute for the kurobuta pork loin (Shanghai-style sweet and sour sauce, grilled Flying Disc Ranch grapefruit, and Coleman Family Farm spigarello). It might be noted that I'm not even a cauliflower devotee — but certain dishes like this one (and like Tom Tom's buffalo cauliflower "wings," which are insane) win me over heartily.
The dessert station managed to blend that notion of warm-weather festival fare with fully elevated, ethnic cuisine: rice pudding, shaved ice, fruit syrups, and various toppings. Chef Shirley personally prepared mine for me. And yes, I wanted all the toppings:
Participating chefs at Outstanding in the Field for other nights of the festival include Tartine’s Elisabeth Prueitt, Katie Hagan-Whelchel & Leah Chin-Kat; Adam Sobel of Cal Mare and Ray Garcia of Broken Spanish & B.S. Taqueria; and Border Grill’s Susan Feniger & Mary Sue Milliken. Not too shabby.
Indeed, with its world-class dining experiences, Coachella has fully matured these days: all sophistication, pampering, and little use for the character-building discomforts of the old days.
And — since that's exactly what's become of me, too — I'm here for it.
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