The Arts Council of Oklahoma City’s Festival of the Arts is OKC’s paramount celebration of all things art.
The festival has been an annual downtown event since 1967, the year the arts council was granted its nonprofit status. Since then, the festival has grown into the best place to enjoy art publicly and for free in the beautiful (even if occasionally soggy) springtime.
By design, it is a celebration of the visual, performing and culinary arts.
It’s no accident that the food at the festival is markedly different from run- of-the-mill state fair food that is often fried and on a stick. The purveyors on International Food Row are chosen by the same process and with the same care as the art that is on display.
“Anything on the grounds is juried and curated,” said Angela Cozby, the festival director.
When she says “anything,” it’s no exaggeration. All art on display at the festival goes through a rigorous application process, and the food is no exception.
The food options have greatly improved over the years.
“The first year, volunteers sold peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” Cozby said. “It was definitely somewhat of an evolution into International Food Row.”
Food vendors at the festival come from all over the country. Just Nuts, run by Bob and Judy Heimer, is from Kansas, and Papa’s Greek Food is from Lincoln, Neb.
At the Oklahoma State Fair, vendors are simply required to pay a fee to set up shop. The Festival of the Arts takes a much different approach. The only real similarity between the festival and the state fair is that it is a once-a-year chance to enjoy that food you have been missing since last year. Cross your fingers that your favorite vendor is back for another year.
This is in no way a criticism of fair food, but you are going to have to wait another few months for your fried bacon on a stick.
There will be 28 food vendors at this year’s festival, and several are new.
The Blue Belle Saloon & Grill in Guthrie will offer its mashed potatoes and gravy as well as its spinach artichoke dip, a favorite at the restaurant. For dessert, there’s fried blueberry pie with homemade whipped cream. For those with a really serious sweet tooth, new local food truck The Sugar Shack Sweets and Treats has something for everyone. Smoke Stack BBQ is coming in from Haskell and has won awards at Tulsa International Mayfest and the state fair.
Festival of the Arts is a fundraising event not only for Arts Council of Oklahoma City but also for other arts nonprofits in Oklahoma. International Food Row is one of the major places for other groups to raise some serious funds while feeding the masses.
Each eatery partners with an arts nonprofit and makes a donation to that respective organization. Volunteers from the partner organization supply the labor for the tents. For example, Waffle Awesome OKC’s partner is Paseo Arts Association.
Volunteers from the organization will work in the tent, and the sales will directly benefit the association. Vendors also pay a commission to the arts council. For the exposure and the profits, it’s a win-win.
Culinary arts demonstrations
The Culinary Arts Stage was added to the festival last year. Local chefs and foodies alike will hold demonstrations to illustrate aspects of the culinary arts.
“Our claim to fame is the visual, performing and culinary arts,” Cozby said. “We wanted to expand on the culinary arts and show that it really is an art to create beautiful food.”
The presentations will last for 45 minutes and will include contributors from local markets like Urban Agrarian and Uptown Grocery Co. as well as food journalists and bloggers.
Presenters will create a dish of their choosing while talking about a variety of topics.
Andon Whitehorn, executive chef and creator of Nani, will host a presentation on Saturday. His concept is a blend of Cherokee and Japanese comfort food with an emphasis on reducing waste. Whitehorn plans to prepare two or three dishes from one of his raved-about Nani concept dinners at which Whitehorn and other chefs create a multi-course tasting dinner in a diner’s home. There is no brick-and-mortar location for Nani at this time; it is a moveable feast.
Whitehorn forages for many of his ingredients and uses ethically farmed or caught fish and fresh local ingredients from places like Urban Agrarian.
“I make sure the products we use are sustainable (and) if we didn’t pick it ourselves, it is local or it has a low- carbon footprint,” he said.
Whitehorn will discuss how to consistently choose the best ingredients that have the least impact on the environment. He is passionate about sustainability and is all about educating so it’s not just a nifty buzzword. You can find out more about Nani at naniokc.com.
Other presenters include Café Do Brasil, The Coach House and Pie Junkie. The full schedule is listed on Arts Council of Oklahoma City’s website, artscouncilokc.com.