8 Ways To Get The Most Out Of A Food Festival

Some do's and don'ts for navigating this culinary wonderland.

This is the final weekend of Jazz Fest in New Orleans, and while thousands of people are there to hear artists such as Jon Batiste and Tom Jones, other fest goers concentrate primarily on the food, enduring long lines to nab Crawfish Monica or a chicken empanada. In fact, food festivals abound across the United States as soon as the weather warms up, and they've become attractive ways to spend a few hours (or for some of us, the entire day).

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But the choices can be daunting, and you might get stuck in a line for far longer than you think was worth it for a salad-sized plate of food. You might even end up meeting celebrity chefs and have no idea what to say to them. Never fear: I'm here to help you sort out the complexities of food festivals and help you navigate.

Strategize before you arrive

Whether it's a festival that celebrates fried chicken or a gathering of craft brewers, food festivals routinely publish lists of their participants in advance. You can often find them on social media like Instagram and Facebook, or on the festivals' own websites. These lists are crucial to getting the most out of the event. Before you set out, pick out four or five spots that most appeal to you. And if you aren't familiar with the participants or their dishes, look them up online. Also, if you can purchase tickets in advance, get them and avoid an extra wait at the gate. They're usually more expensive on the day of the event, too.

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Arrive as early as possible

In February, I went to the first ever NOLA Nite Market, a two-day event to mark the Year of the Rabbit. Scrolling through photos of the first day, I knew that the crowds would be big. So, I arranged my schedule to get there right when the second day started at noon. Although some of the proprietors were still setting up, I was able to stroll the perimeter, get a sense of what everyone was selling, and then dive back in as the vendors were beginning their sales. By the time I left about an hour later, the lines had already built up at each stand and I would have faced lengthy waits for noodles, cold drinks, and crepes.

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Check the map first

Hopefully, your event will have good signage directing guests toward the various food booths. It also should have a map at the entrance that will tell you who is where, perhaps sorted by category of cuisine. Granted, some people enjoy wandering among the booths with no set priorities, and you can do that, too. But when there's something you have your heart set on, you should aim to find that booth first, rather than leave it to chance.

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Try something new

Food festivals give you the opportunity to try out foods that have intrigued you, but which you haven't yet tried, either because you haven't encountered them before or you weren't previously ready to commit to ordering a restaurant-sized portion. Here's your chance to expand your horizons; for example, I tasted elotes for the first time at a street fair in New York City. Be sure to peek at what other people are ordering, too. If it looks tasty, go for it. And don't hesitate to ask the vendor to explain their dish. Education is part of the fun.

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Be cool about prices and portions

Food festivals are a grind for the people working those booths. They have to crank out dozens, even hundreds of portions throughout the day. Meanwhile, they have to pay for and haul ingredients, hire or convince staff to work the booths, deal with bulky portable equipment, sweat through hot days, and face these challenges with a smile. Try to be cool about the amount you get and what they're charging for it. Also, a festival isn't the place to request extensive modifications, especially if the plates are assembled in advance.

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Chat with the chefs, but don’t linger

Food festivals often give you the chance to meet famous chefs and restaurant owners. They go to food festivals not only to cook and serve the food, but to do some general PR for their operations. By all means, introduce yourself, tell them that you enjoyed their appearance on the Food Network, or mention the best dish you ate in their restaurant Ask for a selfie if that's your jam. But try not to monopolize them. There could be a long line building up behind you that will cause some grumbling, and the goal of the chef is to serve as many guests as possible.

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Pace yourself

By the time you eat the offerings at four or five kiosks, you might start feeling too stuffed to hit all the spots on your must-visit list. Try to pace yourself; maybe have one plate, get up and walk a little more, grab a beverage, and then dive into another booth. Those small-looking portions can easily add up, especially if you scarf them down all at the start. That goes for drinks, too: A few different craft beers on a hot day can knock you flat if you aren't spacing them out and enjoying food alongside them.

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Take the literature

Many chefs bring along business cards, postcards, and brochures for their restaurants. Some will sell their cookbooks at such events, and the restaurants often list their social media handles and QR codes to learn more. If you like a place, take the literature; it can help you remember what you ate at the festival so you can recommend it to others in the future. Similarly, if you post any photos of the food online, tag the business so chefs know that their food is resonating.

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