Nevermind the headliners: how head chefs became the festival draw

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How head chefs became the new headliners/ Film Magic (FilmMagic, Inc)
How head chefs became the new headliners/ Film Magic (FilmMagic, Inc)

Festivals: built around hedonism, escapism and pure recklessness, pretty much everyone is sure to provide a bizarre experience or two to rustle up at the dinner table. One of my earliest memories is of the beginning of a weekend in a sludgy field, when a man in front of me was being searched for drugs — okay, so, perhaps this isn’t a story for the dinner table, but let’s just say they found some, hidden in a bag for life, somewhere I won’t mention. My other, only slightly less gruesome takeaway from the same experience is of the lacking food offering. Soggy pizza and bland, bone-dry burgers made for a dire culinary experience. This was reflective of what festivals traditionally were, where at worst, eating was considered highly improper, and at best, if you felt faint, you’d sneak off ‘for a pee’ and quickly skull the most wholesome thing you could find, which would invariably be something watery from a van that’d make you feel sick just to look at.

For some time now, though, the draw of many festivals’ culinary offerings have been as big — if not bigger — than the music. Since the arrival and relative success of Alex James’s (albeit rather lame) Cotswolds-based Harvest Festival and then Big Feastival, an increasing number of people are booking their weekend in a field because they want to be fed by accomplished chefs as much as they want to sway along to Jamie xx or Years & Years. And this summer, there are more, bigger and better food offerings than ever.

Wilderness is offering a record number of drinking and dining experiences — there’s an even more impressive Veuve Clicquot champagne garden and food by Quo Vadis chef Jeremy Lee, Spring’s Skye Gyngell, Sam Buckley of Where The Light Gets In and Niklas Ekstedt of Ekstedt At The Yard to name a few. Meanwhile, this year the founders of Lost Village are expanding their food offering to include intimate woodland-set chef’s tables by Kol’s Santiago Lastra and Rafael Cagali of Da Terra. And new kids on the block The Good Life Society Summer Camp are hosting a series of food-focused ‘micro-festivals’ for 100 people, with headliners including MasterChef winner and founder of Wahaca Thomasina Miers and ‘foodfluencer’ Max La Manna. Likewise, earlier this summer 8,000-acre estate Wilderness Reserve teamed up with The Balvenie and Laurent Perrier to host an intimate retreat based around whisky and champagne tastings, with feasts hosted by Lisa Goodwin-Allen, Sat Bains and Ivan Tisdall-Downes. Plus, last weekend at Westival the team behind Roots, a supper club series designed to showcase the fare of up-and-coming chefs, put on a pop-up by Olly Oakley and Lexi van Breugel.

Moreover, if you don’t fancy making a weekend of it, there is an increasing number of get-gluttonous-and-go-home days out. Tom Kerridge’s Pub In The Park has expanded across the entire country, and there are plenty of solely food and drink offerings including Wing Fest (celebrating all things Chicken elbow related, duh), Meatopia, Savour Festival, the National Geographic Traveller Food Festival, Hampton Court Palace Food Festival, London Craft Beer Festival, the London Dessert Festival, Taste Of London and the Ice Cream Festival to get stuck into. And even if you’re off to Reading/Leeds, you’ll be able to eat stonebaked pizza, gourmet mac ’n’ cheese, succulent stacks from Burger and Beyond, and even, er, Nando’s.

So what changed? Andy George, co-founder of Lost Village, says that festival-goers’ interest in food at events is on the up because ‘people are rightly thinking more and more about what they put in their body and the effect it has on the environment’. Plus, post-Covid, we’re all appreciating both the ability to eat out and the art of conversation a lot more. Jeremy Lee, who is hosting a banquet at Wilderness for the first time, says, ‘I think there is a great interest in food for the simple reason that folk love nothing more than a great dinner, and they are vital for adding structure to these few days of endless delights.’ Not to mention, as the organisers of younger festivals find their feet, it seems to be encouraging fine dining chefs who may not have considered serving festival fare in the past to get involved. Renowned Brazilian chef Rafael Cagali, whose Bethnal Green restaurant has two Michelin stars, believes ‘It’s a great opportunity to do something outside of my bubble and try to represent Da Terra in a totally different environment.’

Will wellies be necessary? That depends on the weather. Just don’t forget to pack your appetite.

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