Taste Test

Fantastic Food Fest promises a plethora
of palate-pleasing activities

By Jon Shoulders

»Leslie Swathwood has big plans for the Fantastic Food Fest happening in January at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, not just for this year’s fest, but also for decades to come.

In January 2016 Swathwood and her husband, Jason, owners of the event production company Circle City Expos, organized and launched the first Fantastic Food Fest at the fairgrounds with more than 200 food and culinary equipment exhibitors, cooking demonstrations and workshops, and celebrity and local chef appearances. More than 8,400 people showed up for the two-day event that, from day one, the Swathwoods have intended to be a perennial Hoosier favorite.

“Our vision is that just as people go to a home show every year, or a garden or holiday show each year, we’re trying to create that tradition with Fantastic Food Fest,” Swathwood says. “We hope that 20, 30, 40 years from now people are still putting it on their calendars and looking forward to it. We’re trying to create a legacy with this event and make it something that central Indiana and even the whole state looks forward to every year for years to come.”

The second annual fest will include speeches and cooking demonstrations by Alex Guarnaschelli, a frequent judge on the Food Network program “Chopped” and author of the cookbook-cum-autobiography “Old-School Comfort Food: The Way I Learned to Cook,” as well as Loreal Gavin, a finalist on season 10 of the television program “Food Network Star” and former butcher at L.E. Kincaid and Sons meat market in Indianapolis. Tannoria Askew, a 2016 finalist on the competitive Fox cooking show “MasterChef” raised in Indianapolis, will battle Dave Smiley, local radio host of WZPL’s “Smiley Morning Show,” in a culinary competition on day two of the fest.

“Tannoria has been on the Smiley show a number of times, and they have a great rapport, so we thought it would be fun to have a competition with the two of them,” Swathwood says, adding that two separate stages will feature culinary demonstrations and speeches by local chefs, including Craig Baker of Plow & Anchor and Tyler Herald of Patachou Inc.

“We’re planning on expanding the Grand Tasting Pavilion from last year, where different restaurants will offer sample-sized portions of their signature dishes,” Swathwood says. “And then there’s a beer, wine and spirits area that we also want to expand this year. We’re saying come hungry because there’s plenty to taste. There will be kid and adult cooking classes, and a VIP area and a jazz band.” A portion of the proceeds from cooking class ticket sales will be allocated to American Culinary Federation scholarships for aspiring culinary professionals.

Three years ago Leslie and Jason began kicking around the idea of a large-scale, Indianapolis-based winter culinary event and attended food fests of all sizes throughout the country, including the South Beach Wine and Food Festival in Miami, to research and compile ideas. Given the couple’s familiarity with the Indiana State Fairgrounds through several other events produced by Circle City Expos like the Indianapolis Bride Expo and Indy Women’s Expo, the 65,000-square-foot-plus Champions Pavilion seemed like a natural choice to house the Food Fest. Exhibitors will showcase produce, baked goods, meats, coffee and tea products, cheeses, cutlery, kitchen accessories and more.

Swathwood says about half of the approximately 200 food and beverage exhibitors scheduled to appear are members of Indiana Grown, an initiative of the Indiana State Department of Agriculture to promote awareness of the state’s agricultural products through distinctive labeling. Indiana Grown, the presenting sponsor of the event, was officially launched by the ISDA in the summer of 2015, and membership currently consists of more than 500 restaurants, groceries, farms and wholesalers throughout the state.

“It’s a great opportunity for vendors to network as well, not just for the people coming to sample food,” Swathwood adds. “We’ve seen partnerships get forged where food vendors come in and strike up conversations with grocery chains and secure good relationships. So it’s beneficial on the business-to-business side, too.”

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Fantastic Food Fest 2017

What: A two-day culinary event open to the public featuring more than 200 food and beverage exhibitors, workshops, cooking demonstrations, celebrity appearances and food, beer, wine and spirit tastings.

When: Saturday, Jan. 21 from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Sunday, Jan. 22 from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Where: Champions Pavilion at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, 1202 E. 38th St., Indianapolis

Event producer: Circle City Expos

Presenting Sponsor: Indiana Grown

Contact: (317) 708-4401, info@fantasticfoodfest.com

For ticketing, exhibitor, guest speaker or class schedule information, visit fantasticfoodfest.com.

To learn more about the Indiana State Department of Agriculture’s Indiana Grown initiative, explore indianagrown.org.