Back in high school, when I started to enjoy the city’s festivals on my own, attending the Taste of Edmonton was an annual tradition. I loved the atmosphere out on Churchill Square, the music, the smells. The food was nothing special, but what always brought me back was the unique aspect of sampling from many outdoor vendors.
But after a few years, it was clear that the Taste of Edmonton is a stagnant and forgettable festival. Sure, complementary enhancements like a “Taste of Wine” have been added recently, but the heart of the event – the food – remains uninspiring and perhaps most significantly, unchanged from year to year. Without interesting and different menu items, what is the draw of the festival?
When it was announced this year that the Taste of Edmonton was putting a policy in place that would see restaurants having to include new items every two years, I was encouraged. To see what, if anything, had changed, Mack and I decided to sample a few items on the weekend.
The crowds were decidedly smaller on Saturday afternoon – I’m sure the long weekend and competing Heritage Festival had something to do with it. Because of that, we had a much easier time manoeuvring the aisles than we did when we had walked through the Square earlier in the week. The layout of the food vendors – along the outside of the square, ceding prime real estate to the beer gardens – just seems inefficient.
The pulled pork sandwich from The Hat (4 tickets) looked good, and was all right. It was definitely better than the bacon wrapped scallops from The Palace (5 tickets) that Mack sampled. Charred and much too salty, if the skewer was meant to entice patrons to the restaurant, I’d say they would be better off serving nothing at all.
Pulled pork sandwich from The Hat
Bacon wrapped scallops from The Palace
The best (and new for 2011) item we tried was the petit tender with blue cheese potatoes from Zinc. Cooked to medium rare just before plating (instead of languishing under a heat lamp), the Spring Creek Ranch beef was juicy and flavourful, accented by crunchy fried green onions. The serving of creamy potatoes was also quite generous, well worth the 4 tickets we paid.
Alberta beef petit tender with blue cheese tomatoes from Zinc
I recognize how difficult it is for long-standing festivals to make changes, but the fact the Taste of Edmonton is implementing even the two year item limit is a positive sign. Here are a few other suggestions that I think would help bring some zest to the event:
Congestion, especially on the east side of the Square, could easily be averted if more of the booths were better spread out (the beer gardens are more prominent than the food!). When Mack tweeted this out, Paula responded that this is the fault of the City – they don’t want to stain the concrete! How’s that for rendering Edmonton’s largest gathering space useless for one of its biggest annual events?
That said, I really liked the new partnership with the Art Gallery of Alberta. A Taste of Desserts and Liqueurs was held in the lobby of the AGA, which probably helped to expose many festival-goers to the beautiful building for the first time. Most of the desserts were, unfortunately, the same dishes that had been served in years past, but the offshoot has great potential.
Taste of Desserts at the AGA
Even better, the precedent set by using adjacent spaces gives me hope that perhaps some underutilized areas downtown will finally be taken advantage of. For example – Centennial Square, just south of Stanley Milner Library, could easily accommodate ten vendors. Plus, with a built in stage, it could accommodate another act! It’s also just down the street from the main festivities, and would help alleviate some of the congestion during high-traffic times.
Of course, Centennial Square probably isn’t built to accommodate the power, water and weight needs in the same way that Churchill is, but perhaps this would be a good reason to upgrade a space downtown that is more rife with tumbleweeds than people.
I referenced the unchanging, tiresome Taste of Edmonton menu already, but it is worth mentioning again. Moreover, what’s worse, with a few exceptions, is that the items offered are predictable. Green onion cakes? Check. Sliders? Of course! Chicken satay? Step right up. I’m hoping the two year limit will help reinvent the menu in the future, but it will probably be slow going.
We heard that the organizers do their best to limit duplication, but this is half-hearted at best (e.g. is ginger beef really different than Szechuan beef? Or, is a pulled pork sandwich so essential to the festivities that it has to be offered first by the Hotel MacDonald and then by The Hat?). I think a better approach would be to fully embrace duplication, throwdown style. Invite attendees to vote for their favourite spring roll, the best burger, the tastiest tart. That way, there’s an added incentive for restaurants to put their finest food forward, and another way for the festival to promote what’s new.
What baffles me the most about the Taste of Edmonton is why people are willing to pay for such low quality food. Ten years ago, when this was one of the only outdoor sampling venues in the city, I could understand it. Now, with so many fantastic warm weather taste alternatives (Al Fresco, Taste of Summer, Tomato Fare, most farmers’ markets, just to name a few), I’m surprised the crowds haven’t dissipated.
Again, there are some exceptions, but for the most part, portions are small, prices are high and creativity is non-existent. I suppose restaurants want to cater to the widest tastes possible, which limits ingenuity, but also, if the people don’t demand it, the status quo will continue. I also have to wonder if people do seek out the establishments after enjoying a dish – because if name recognition is the only reason restaurants participate, I suppose it really doesn’t matter what food is churned out.
The unfortunate reality is that restaurants that have great reputations don’t participate (they probably can’t due to staffing, or don’t need to promote their business), but their involvement could help raise the bar for others. I have ideas for what restaurants and cuisines I’d like to see included, and I’m sure others do as well. Does the Taste of Edmonton actively seek feedback? Has it ever?
My ultimate hope for something branded the “Taste of Edmonton” is for it to provide a decent snapshot of what the city’s restaurants have to offer. Knowing the quality of food that is available, the event certainly isn’t living up to that standard. But then at the end of the day, maybe that isn’t the role of Taste of Edmonton. Maybe pedestrian, crowd-pleasing fare is what festival-goers are looking for. What say you?