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A Feast for the Senses

GastroFest turns five this weekend

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There are food people and then there are food people. Erin Thursby, executive director of GastroJax, falls under the latter category. As a writer and editor, Thursby has covered the local food scene since 2005. In 2014, she leveraged that experience and helped launch GastroJax, a nonprofit whose mission is to showcase and preserve the talent she was writing about.

“I was in a unique position to see how quickly our food scene was changing here in town,” Thursby told Folio Weekly.

Before long, GastroJax begat GastroFest. It’s a free outdoor festival and, quite frankly, it’s more than a food fest. GastroFest is several festivals rolled into one. Jam out to a full lineup of local musicians including Borromakat and Guy & the Yehudas. Peruse the marketplace, where you can purchase locally made products from vendors like Cam. Lee Crafted Co., Hopcloth, Eat Your Yard Jax and more. Check out the cooking demos or get tickets to the educational workshops happening in the neighboring Museum of Science & History. Mom and Dad, you’ll be pleased to know there’s something for the kids, too: hands-on art projects, kid-geared activities and even live chickens, courtesy of River City Chicks.

Then, of course, comes the best part. Stroll through the tasting tents, where it all goes down. GastroFest regulars like Ibex Ethiopian Kitchen, Orsay/Black Sheep and Nomi’s Cheese Bar will be joined by newcomers like Abstrakt Filipino Essence, Crane Ramen and Well Oiled Events. Those seeking vegan options will be delighted to know that Hotdog Party’s vegan hot-dog cart will be making an appearance (and you don’t even have to be tipsy in Five Points on a Friday night!) as will the Girls Gone Green vegan nacho bar—a true nacho bar with all the fixins’.

The fest’s fifth anniversary edition unfolds around Southbank’s iconic Friendship Fountain.

“It’s right on the river,” said Thursby, “so it showcases Jacksonville! And MOSH has been a terrific partner.” Nothing gets much better than good food and good views, and the weather is shaping up to be beautiful.

Turning GastroFest into reality is a giant undertaking, and while Thursby does an incredible amount of work to make it happen, it isn’t a one-person show. Some really talented people sit on GastroJax’s board of directors. They donate their time to manage key parts of the festival.

“The fest is a lot of hard work, but we love sharing the awesome things to eat and drink here on the First Coast.”

Rachel Best Henley Price is creative director of GastroFest. Her husband, Nate Price, helps with design, and he’s a great person to have on the ground at events. (“We really couldn’t have GastroFest without him,” Thursby said.) Kamron Perry helps coordinate events. Remember that local music lineup? That’s Perry’s pièce de résistance. She works hard to make sure the day is filled with sounds from original local musicians. Jessica Fields helps with festival events. You can generally find her onsite helping out. Thursby added that it takes a village to put on an event like GastroFest: “There are many, many other volunteers that make the fest a great one.”

A major point of pride for the team is its Green Action Committee, which “focuses on making the festival as eco-conscious as possible.” This year’s committee is led by Tiffany Bess of Apple Rabbit Compost. Bess helps the festival cut down on waste. Whether it’s food scraps that can be turned to compost or items that can be recycled, the team will be on the ground working toward making GastroFest that much more sustainable.

GastroFest is free to attend, but cash is king in the tasting area. All participating restaurants are required to offer samples at an enticing price point between $1 and $3. The goal is to allow folks to try miniature versions of signature dishes—without breaking the bank. Thursby and co. hope that you’ll discover a Jax restaurant you’ve never been to, a dish you never would have thought to try, or meet a chef who doesn’t usually get the chance to sneak out from the kitchen.

In the tasting tent and marketplace zones, Slow Food First Coast is bound to be a big draw. Slow Food is an international organization that puts the focus back on farmers and producers. The local delegation’s tent will feature some amazing Snail Approved (its version of a seal of approval) restaurants.

Of all the things to see and do at this year’s edition, Thursby said there’s one thing you shouldn’t miss: the chocolate-covered Datil pepper eating contest (3 p.m. at the Gas Demo Stage).

When it comes to getting to GastroFest, there are several nontraditional ways to arrive in style. You can take a boat, ride your bike (Zen Cog will have a bike drop-off area) or take the Skyway. All of these carless options are part of the festival’s green initiative. If you show your support and go social with your contribution to environmental awareness (make sure you use the hashtag #greeninggastrofest), you might just win a prize.

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