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The Austin Food + Wine Festival is a food and beverage lover’s paradise. Samples of each abound. As in, on my first day there, I had had two wine samples, pie, brisket, tartlets and a vodka tonic by 11:10 a.m. Yes, life could be worse.

And apart from serving up bites and libations, this premiere festival serves up cooking demos with some of the nation’s most renowned chefs. Now, these demos are special in that chefs are candid and approachable during their sessions.

The first session I attended featured Chef Jonathan Waxman cooking up many seafood-centric dishes, including cioppino. With ease, grace and humility, he illustrated everything from the proper technique for smashing garlic to how to handle your cast iron pan when it’s at a high temperature. During his demo, he also offered many tidbits of wisdom such as “take the center vein of garlic out to avoid stinky breath,” “wait to season scallops until a few seconds before they are cooked” and “treat recipes like “the bible — open to interpretation.”

My next activity was an uber fun, hands-on one: grilling with Chef Tim Love. Under his guidance, myself and about 400 attendees grilled our little hearts out (talk about an event planning feat). With charcoal grills, a bottle of white wine and a bottle of red wine for each pair of people, and a tequila shot, gorgeous rib eye steak, salmon and ear of corn for each individual, how could anything go wrong? Our grilling was booze-influenced and Chef Tim Love only added to the merriment with his light-hearted, yet helpful tone. We learned that when you have barbecues at home, you should pre-grill the steaks and then finish them off when everyone is ready to eat. We also learned that rotating the position of your food on the grill will ensure that it’s cooked evenly. Perhaps most importantly, once you start grilling proteins, you should avoid opening and closing the grill top. I’ll tell you what — I’m an avid griller and I can tell you with certainty that I’d never cooked a better steak than today, and had so much fun along the way!

“Like a Lamb-orghani” with Houston-based James Beard-winning Chef Chris Shepherd showed Shepherd in his element — cooking meat chips, lamb vindaloo and Vietnamese short ribs. It was a representation of the Bayou City’s culinary diversity. His utter coolness and upbeat personality would make him the perfect candidate for a TV show. Chef Chris, what do you think?

I spent the last couple of hours of the day portion of the Austin Food and Wine Festival roaming around the grounds, where seemingly endless tents provided bites from Austin restaurants and booze from around the nation as well. A deejay tent in the middle of the grounds had the volume pumped up, and good vibes were oozing all over the place.

My only regret at this point was eating my whole steak, salmon and ear of corn earlier at the grill-out with Chef Tim Love. I couldn’t help myself because it was so good. However, in the following hours, all I had room for was an excellent goat cheese and cherry ice cream from acclaimed Austin ice cream shop Teo. Tomorrow, I’ll be better at not stuffing myself on the front end of the day so I can tell you all about the delicious bites to be had!

After resting for a couple of hours, I descended upon the Rock Your Taco event. Old-sound soul by Lee Fields & The Expressions literally rocked the outdoor venue, while celebrity chefs figuratively rocked it with their creative tacos. Uchi Chef Tyson Cole’s super refreshing, light applewood smoked masu taco with white corn, green curry, Tom Kha and honeydew stole my heart. It had the perfect crunch and really “popped” with flavor as soon as you took a bite. Another winner in my book was Jenn Louis of Lincoln Restaurant’s root vegetable taco. Spicy escabeche, sik l’ pak and cotija cheese made for an incredibly tasty summer taco. I may or may not have gone back to Chef Louis’ station three times to indulge. Last but not least, Paul Qui’s rendition of a tlacoyo de lengua melted in my mouth. The tlacoyo was nice and ‘meaty’ while the tongue was sliced and cooked to perfection. At the end of the night, it was Chef Tim Cole’s fried beef taco with braised onyx, pickled spring vegetables and avocado crema that impressed the judges (Christina Grdovic, FOOD & WINE Magazine Publisher; Gail Simmons, Food Writer and TV Personality; and Chef Graham Eliot) most. Chef Chris Shepherd’s Indian puffy taco and Chef Johnathan Waxman’s nopales y hongos asados taco also received nods from the judges.

To seal the day off with color, energy and fun, we attended the Austin Food + Wine Festival’s “Candyland” after-party at TRACE, the hot bar and lounge tucked inside the swanky W hotel. Sweet treats like ‘glitterfied’ cake pops and rainbow cupcakes, along with pleasing cocktails blurred the lines between reality and a dream. It was a grand time.

Day 1 of this incredible Austin culinary experience went even better than I could have ever expected. Come back soon to hear about my Day 2 adventures!

Carla Gomez

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