There's no doubt about it, food festivals are de rigeur at the moment in the restaurant world. And we're not talking tourism drives backed by local authorities or government bodies, but the more personal, intimate events organised by restaurants or hotels themselves which are surfacing up and down the country.
The restaurant industry is, of course, often accused of being susceptible to passing trends but food festivals needn't be a culinary fashion accessory. The successful and more prestigious ones are staged because they achieve several things in one hit. Just ask John Campbell, the Vineyard at Stockcross's executive chef, who last year persuaded the Berkshire luxury hotel to stage its first food festival, Chef's Table, a five-day-long affair featuring a different culinary standard bearer cooking a multi-course menu each evening.
"There were a few reasons I wanted to do one myself," Campbell says. "One, to network with other chefs and to allow them to come into my kitchen so that my own brigade could see how they work. Two, to build up good friendships within the industry and share ideas. Three, it also offered our dining public - regular and non-regular - a chance to see what other chefs, with whom they might not have been familiar, were doing.
"We've definitely attracted new diners as a result of last year's Chef's Table - regulars of the Fat Duck and the Waterside Inn [whose chef-propietors, Heston Blumenthal and Alain Roux, both cooked at the festival]. And I know that one of ours who had never eaten at Phil Howard's restaurant, the Square, but was booked in here on the night that Phil cooked now won't eat anywhere else when he's in London."
Blumenthal, Roux and Howard preside over three of the country's top Michelin-rated restaurants and association with their establishments also served to underline the fine-dining league in which the Vineyard operates. Both the Fat Duck and the Waterside Inn have three Michelin stars, and the Square has two. The Vineyard has one but is tipped for two under the red guide's recently introduced "ones to watch" system.
Nigel Haworth, chef-proprietor of Lancashire's Northcote Manor, whose own week-long food and wine festival at the Langho hotel in part inspired Campbell's event, agrees that festivals can widen customer bases. "We've got more corporate business in the week now," Haworth says. However, he pinpoints the motivational knock-on for staff as something of incalculable benefit to his business. Like the Vineyard, Northcote Manor is located in the country and attracting industry high-flyers into his kitchen for a night in effect gives his brigade mini stages without forcing them to leave his payroll.
"My chefs work in the kitchen for seven days with some of the best chefs in Europe and the world and they learn a huge amount. It's incredibly motivational for them. We stage our festival in January, which can be a flat period. Some of the brigade actually work on their days off because they don't want to miss the opportunity of working alongside a certain guest chef."
A week-long food-fest
Haworth's festival of food and wine (the wine matching, by the way, is down to his business partner, Northcote's co-owner Craig Bancroft) has been running for seven years and started out as a four-day fest. It has been such a hit with customers and chefs alike that it now extends to seven nights (Monday to Sunday) and invariably includes an international star among its line-up - something which Campbell hopes to progress to in the Vineyard's third year in 2007.
"I never wanted to go just to London chefs," says Haworth, who has persuaded chefs from Sweden, Portugal, Spain and the USA to make the journey to the Red Rose county over the years. It's not an easy route to take, as diners outside of London are generally not always so conversant with the international culinary scene and sometimes take a little convincing to try out a foreign chef. "We've not always made money on the festival," Haworth admits, "but we've generally covered costs."
Those costs can be up to £14,000 or £15,000 depending on how hi-tech you go. Both the Vineyard and Northcote Manor have kitchen cameras which relay pictures out to diners during the evening. This year, too, Campbell is getting in a hand-held camera; next year he's hoping to get a DVD edited version of each night's service to sell on to diners and visiting chefs to use in their own marketing and PR campaigns.
The best way to make sure that all costs are covered is, of course, to get a festival sponsored: without sponsorship, staging one can easily result in a financial loss. "If we were to pay for absolutely everything - food, extra equipment, accommodation, wine etc - there's no way we could make money," Campbell agrees. The obvious ports of call for sponsorship of a gastronomic extravaganza lie with likes of crockery manufacturers who want to showcase a new range; wine producers or suppliers; even car manufacturers who can provide the limousines needed to ferry guest chefs to and from airports to the venue.
Planning an event
So, what are the most important things to get right when you are staging a food festival - and how soon do you need to start planning an event? Campbell's first festival, staged in 2005, was three years in the planning to get it off the ground. However, once an event is up and running a 12-month cycle is probably a good average to work off. Haworth, for instance, likes to have some of his next year's guest chefs lined up before the end of any given year's festival.
And according to Campbell and Haworth, the most important thing to get right is the hosting role. That is, looking after guest chefs satisfactorily - because these chefs, ultimately, will attract the diners and establish the reputation of a festival. And if they feel valued and have a good experience they'll be more inclined both to come back and to recommend other chefs to participate in an event.
"I've done events and festivals which were a f****** nightmare, where you're basically just shown the kitchen and left to get on with it. Ones where nobody gives you any indication on what the service call is - whether you need five, 10, 15 minutes before plating," recalls Campbell. "Looking after people is difficult," agrees Haworth, "but you have to give chefs a professional platform to work off. If you don't co-ordinate supplies or forget to order specific pans there's no excuse."
The easiest way to make visiting chefs feel special is to chauffeur them into your restaurant/hotel. If you have rooms, put them up on site; if you have facilities such as a spa or gym on site, put these at their disposal. And if a chef has a young family, invite them along as well - it will win you hundreds of brownie points.
The lesson is, don't just think that you can stage a food festival overnight with a click of the fingers. You have to be prepared to put in a lot of time and work into organisation. "If it's not organised, it will go wrong," stresses Campbell. However, the rewards in terms of marketing your restaurant, networking with your peers and motivating your staff can make the effort worthwhile.
Chef's Table: Vineyard at Stockcross
Monday 31 July: Claude Bosi, Hibiscus
Tuesday 1 August: Andrew Fairlie, Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles
Wednesday 2 August: Phil Howard, The Square
Thursday 3 August: Gary Jones, Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons
Friday 4 August: John Campbell, Vineyard at Stockcross
Further information and bookings:
Northcote Manor Festival of Food and Wine: 01254 240555
John Campbell's Tips for Staging a Food Festival
Who to invite?