Each year, the Arts Council of Oklahoma City throws a nearly weeklong party called the Festival of the Arts. Each year, it's the organization's top fundraiser. Each year, it's because the food is incredible.
Add those absolutes and it's easy to understand why the Arts Council takes choosing the food so seriously. Almost four months ahead of the opening of the festival, a jury convenes in the McAlpine Center to determine which foods have what it takes to draw people downtown for lunch and, hopefully, dinner, too.
Food is a big draw for the festival, and the reason is quality over quantity. Booths don't go to the highest bidders, they go to those invited by a food jury, and it's got your palate's back.
Over three nights, jurists blind-taste foods to ensure impartiality. They score them on taste, price and practicality.
Some 44 local restaurants auditioned for the role. Last year's five top-selling vendors were exempt from the process. That means the Strawberries Newport booth hasn't had to audition, well, ever.
Meanwhile, chefs and restaurateurs of various catering companies and restaurants opted in for a chance to show their stuff. In years past, vendors dropped their food off to be judged in private. This year, the food committee invited vendors to stand behind their food as jurists passed through to sample the flavors.
“We wanted to give the vendors a chance to talk about their foods and answer any questions we might have,” food co-chairman Randy Cassimus said.
I was lucky enough to happen into the middle night of the jury trials, which was international night, featuring foods from around the world. Gopuram, one of the city's first and well-established Indian restaurants, was there seeking a chance to continue its longtime association with the festival. So was Ana Davis of Cafe do Brasil, the city's only Brazilian restaurant and one of the key cogs in the rebirth of MidTown.
What I learned this year is that no matter how many years you've run a food booth, if you're in the audition phase all the dishes must be tested by the jury.
“If a vendor brings five dishes, we might only pick three,” Arts Council Executive Director Peter Dolese said.
After three days and 44 applicants, it came down to 21 full-kitchen vendors and 10 food carts.
Ultimately, the hungry masses will have 100 food options on the festival's menu, from appetizers to entrees to desserts with plenty of stroll-friendly snacks.
Come April 23, the following vendors will be at your service at the Oklahoma City Festival of the Arts:
The Indian Taco booth; Bodacious Burritos, Sammy's Pizza, PaPa's Greek Foods, Strawberries Newport, Cajun King, Interurban, Local, Cafe do Brasil, Gopuram, Inca Trail Peruvian Restaurant, Guiltless Concession, Deep Fork Grill, Craig & Carter's Fish Tacos, Harry Bear's, Wong Key Asian Pacific, Brewer Entertainment, Waffle Au Som, Helmut's Strudel, The Roadhouse, and Sweet Corn Express.
Carts include: The Nutcracker, Goode Snacks, Just Nuts, Maui Wowi, Rodney & Lisa Nuts & More, Kona Ice, Scoops Italian Ice, Dippin' Dots and Temptations Food.