That question makes for spirited debate amongst Valley foodies. Now in its 34th year, the weeklong Scottsdale Culinary Festival (April 17-22, scottsdalefest.org) boasts a full calendar of chef-oriented dining encounters (like the $175-a-plate James Beard Benefit Dinner), but it’s the Great Arizona Picnic weekend finale that defines the festival for the average attendee. And as the Picnic has grown – from around 3,000 guests two decades ago to its current, stadium-filling incarnation – some culinary enthusiasts bemoan a lack of connection to the Valley’s most acclaimed restaurants.
“[The Picnic] has become dominated by chains and a frat-party atmosphere,” David Bickford, author of the Valley’s popular PHX Rail Food blog, says bluntly.
To be sure, the huge attendance numbers have grown in concert with a more populist, party-oriented Picnic. The $5 early-bird admission fee is much lower than that of other top Valley food festivals, and the fare arguably more ordinary: This year’s roster of participating restaurants includes such high-volume brands as Dos Gringos and My Big Fat Greek Restaurant, and multi-state chains like Rubio’s and Kona Grill. Many attendees head straight for the Skyy Vodka tent – a see-and-be-seen bacchanal that’s become the festival’s answer to the Birds Nest at the Phoenix Open.
Perhaps most illustrative of the Picnic’s post-cuisine transformation is its choice of celebrity speakers. Whereas past invitees have included such culinary-school heartthrobs as Laurent Tourondel and Jacques Pepin, this year’s Picnic welcomes iron-stomached Travel Channel cohorts Andrew Zimmern (Bizarre Food with Andrew Zimmern) and Adam Richman (Man v. Food) – a pair of gourmands who rode the current stunt-eating trend to pop culture fame.
That the Picnic’s not strictly cuisine-oriented is a point even the organizer, the Scottsdale League for the Arts, concedes.
“We like to say we throw the last great party before it gets hot,” league president James Moser says. “The party atmosphere is part of the event. If we didn’t partner with [corporate sponsors] and play at that level, we couldn’t bring in as much money as we do.” He points to the festival’s lineup of food-centric activities – “events for chefs and winemakers” – earlier in the week, but says it’s the Picnic attendees that have allowed the league to dole out $3.5 million to Scottsdale arts programs since 2002.
“We try to make profits to give money to our community,” Moser says. “In the end, all we really want to do is help the arts.’’
In today’s food universe, everything is a competition. Who can check out a new restaurant first? Who can eat the spiciest Pad Thai? Who can wolf down the most hot dogs in 10 minutes? Andrew Zimmern recognizes the trend, but the host of the Travel Channel show Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern downplays it. “Quite frankly, [competition] is such an infinitesimal portion of our food- and beverage-loving world,” says the celebrity foodie, who will appear at the Scottsdale Culinary Festival (Sa, 3 p.m.; Su 1 p.m.). “It’s the same deal as when one tunes in to hear Nancy Grace go on and on about one of hundreds of crimes committed every day. She seizes upon the most fantastical.”
Zimmern argues that his own adventure-eating habits – beating frog hearts, yak genitalia, etc. – serve a noble end. “My show’s not Fear Factor,” Zimmern says. “I like to eat all kinds of food. I like to add to the library of flavors I have in my Rolodex inside my brain. I enjoy learning about culture through food, so I love spending time with people, eating the foods they eat, and I think it makes for great storytelling.”
Although the Valley’s 2011-2012 season for food festivals is nearly over, a few noteworthy events remain:
My Nana’s Salsa Challenge
More than 80 competitors vie for bragging rights to the Valley’s best salsa, currently held by Chandler restaurant El Palacio. April 28 at Tempe Beach Park, hemophiliaz.org/salsa-challenge
Tempe eatery NY Boyz Subz & Wingz returns to defend its 2011 title for the Valley’s best chicken wings. April 7 at Mesa Amphitheatre, wingstockaz.com
Glitz is the primary ingredient of this high-end evening where tickets start at $150. April 14 at Scottsdale Waterfront, theoriginaltaste.com
Ameri“CAN” Canned Craft Beer Festival
No bottle openers are needed at this celebration of 40-plus craft breweries. May 12 at Scottsdale Civic Center, cannedcraftbeerfest.com
Arizona Barbecue Festival
Now in its third year, this fast-growing meat melee is doubling its prize money to $40,000. May 19 at Salt River Stadium, azbbqfestival.com
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