If there's any lingering doubt that chefs are the new rock stars, a sampling of major outdoor concerts and live music festivals being held across Canada this summer should finally put the question to rest. Event promoters are pouring the sort of effort once reserved for signing top-selling bands into booking chefs, charcutiers, food trucks, even wineries to turn up with gourmet nosh for the music-loving masses.
In the last few months, Live Nation Entertainment, the international concert promotion and venue management behemoth, has contracted four food trucks to work its concerts in the Molson Canadian Amphitheatre near downtown Toronto, as well as at major festivals in Downsview and Algonquin Parks. On the bill: grilled cheese sandwiches made with aged cheddar, bacon, apple and maple syrup, plus tacos made with braised short ribs, and sweet potato chips served with cilantro lime dressing, fresh chilies and pineapple.
In Victoria this September, the Rifflandia Festival, which is ostensibly built around top bands like The Flaming Lips and Sloan, will also feature a mobile brick pizza oven, a southern barbecue "Pigmobile," a charcuterie vendor, a Polish delicatessen truck that sells grilled cheese sandwiches stuffed with pierogies and a company that does Central American paletas – frozen, crazy-flavoured fruit pops. The festival is going so far as to announce its food lineup one month ahead of time in a live radio event. "Not only do you know in advance what bands you're going to see at what time, but you know what food you're going to be eating," said Nick Blasko, the festival's director.
And a 20,000-capacity Tragically Hip show in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., later this month has partnered with Jackson-Triggs, the wine company, to pour white and red wine by the glass for fans – a far cry from the usual warm beer. The show is also expected to be the largest gathering of food trucks in Canada so far, with 20-odd trucks booked, some of them from upstate New York, as well as another 10 chefs and restaurants serving food from tents. (Carl Heinrich, who was declared the winner of Top Chef Canada this week, will be among them.)
"In the past, people were given a choice of a hot dog or a piece of pizza and if they were lucky they didn't have to stand in a line too long," said Elliott Lefko, a Toronto native and industry veteran who's promoting the Tragically Hip show.
Fans have music industry economics to thank at least in part for better concert food. With the collapse of music sales, touring has become much more important to the business, Mr. Lefko said. More bands on the road means more competition. What's worse, ticket prices have risen steeply.
"The experience is everything now," Mr. Lefko said, noting that concert-goers have come to expect such niceties as clean grounds, easy access to washrooms, shade and free water, convenient transportation to and from the venue and a choice of what they eat.
Demographics are also a big part of the story. "The Tragically Hip have been around for 25 years, and there is no doubt that for the older fans who are coming to this event, yeah, they're interested in a higher level of food and booze experience," said Patrick Sambrook, the band's manager.
Even younger music fans expect better. Daniel Glick, a promoter behind Montreal's three-day Osheaga festival, which is headlined by Snoop Dogg, The Black Keys, Metric and Sigur Rós, noted one of the most welcome new food trends of the last decade: its democratic appeal. "People are liking better food now, and they're more excited about food than ever before," Mr. Glick said. Or as another Osheaga organizer put it, "You expect people to come here for three days and eat only Pizza Pizza? Not a chance."
Even the bands will eat well at Osheaga: The festival has hired Chuck Hughes, the Montreal celebrity chef, to cater backstage.
Concert food has evolved so far, in fact, that in some cases the chefs are upstaging the bands. At the Great GoogaMooga Festival held in Brooklyn's Prospect Park last month, the 75 food and drink vendors, including star chefs Tom Colicchio, April Bloomfield and Marcus Samuelsson, were the main event. Yacht rock legends Hall and Oates, as well as The Roots and a tribute band called Lez Zeppelin, barely rated a mention meantime. (The event was a disaster, marred by long lineups for food.)
The logistics of bringing independent chefs and vendors into an outdoor event with tens of thousands of people isn't exactly simple: Aside from providing such basics as parking, plumbing, electricity, hand-washing facilities and waste disposal, organizers must also attend to mountains of health department paperwork. And unlike with indoor and stadium concerts, where costs are typically fixed, there's no limit to the potential cost of staging an event at a non-traditional venue, as Mr. Lefko will do with the Tragically Hip show in Niagara-on-the-Lake on June 30 at Butler's Barracks in the Fort George National Historic Site.
Hence the popularity of food trucks: They're self-contained, pull in and pull out and have typically been checked over by health inspectors dozens of times. Mr. Lefko has hired Suresh Doss, the Toronto food writer and web entrepreneur who has been central to the development of the region's food truck scene, to assemble a roster of trucks and vendors for the show, as well as for another near Barrie the following day – and to handle the paperwork. Mr. Doss has had offers from other festivals, but has so far declined to commit – it's all come too suddenly, he said.
And for most in the concert business, good food is still an experiment, with plenty of variables to consider.
Alyssa Tangerine, who has arranged with Live Nation to bring her food truck, called The Toasted Tangerine, to the company's concerts this summer, learned that the hard way last week.
Last Tuesday, Ms. Tangerine rolled up to The Molson Amphitheatre for a sold-out concert by One Direction, the Brit-Irish boy band. She brought pulled barbecue chicken sandwiches with green apple slaw, plus ravioli with ricotta and marinara sauce, she said. Though there were 16,000 music fans at the event, Ms. Tangerine sold almost nothing. "The entire audience was teeny boppers and the only thing they had money for was $40 One Direction t-shirts," she said.
Even worse, Ms. Tangerine wasn't able to move her truck mid-show, as she usually does, from inside the venue to outside in the parking lot, where sales are often brisk. She'd been hoping she could at least sell to the kids' parents.
"The place was so filled with screaming girls passing out everywhere that we couldn't get out in time," she said. "We were trapped."
The next night, One Direction played another sold-out show, but instead of The Toasted Tangerine, a Hamilton-based gourmet grilled cheese truck called Gorilla Cheese came out, said Live Nation's Alexis Pomrey.
One Direction fans like their cheese, evidently.
"They could barely keep up," Ms. Pomrey said.