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VOL. 6 | NO. 42 | Saturday, October 12, 2013

‘Culinary Adventure’

Food crawls on rise as Memphians seek new dining experiences

By Andy Meek

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Dishcrawlers dig in for a meal at Automatic Slim’s. Food crawls and other eating events are rising quickly in Memphis, which is moving way beyond barbecue.

(PHOTOS: Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

Kim Fuqua is always adding something new to the menu of events she’s planning for Memphis’ community of foodies who are hungry for fresh dishes and drinks to sample.

Indeed, she’s on a mission: to create new experiences that bring foodies together for socializing, exploring and eating.

Fresh off this month’s Battledish event Downtown, during which six chefs engaged in a cook-off and participants voted for their favorite entrees and cocktails, Fuqua – the Memphis Dishcrawl ambassador – is already looking ahead to launching new food-based walking tours to add to the events she already has staged this year.

For such so-called food crawls, participants assemble at a predetermined location and shuffle between a group of participating restaurants, sampling dishes along the way. There have been several already, such as a Cooper-Young Dishcrawl and a Downtown Dishcrawl.

In recent days, Fuqua said, the last available tickets for a Soul Food Crawl this month have sold out, signaling plenty of sustained interest in the series of crawls, though the soul food celebration will unfold a little differently.

Memphis’ best soul food restaurants, Fuqua explained, tend to be a bit more spread out geographically compared to the Downtown eateries within walking distance of each other. So for the Soul Food Crawl, happening Oct. 23, a bus has been chartered to wheel participants from one location to the next.

For that event, participants will hit up three eateries, learning a little about the history of Soulsville along the way. The starting location, as usual with these crawls, is a secret until shortly before the event is held, keeping up an air of mystery and fun.

And that event, like all the others, comes under the “Dishcrawl” umbrella.

“I feel like Memphians are loving the whole idea of Dishcrawl as much as I did when I first discovered it – exploring our own neighborhoods on foot, meeting and socializing with like-minded foodies, meeting the chefs and owners behind the food, and just going on an awesome food adventure,” Fuqua said. “The response to all of the different types of events – vegan crawl, taco crawl, soul food crawl – has been tremendous, and I’m just excited to continue organizing more fun foodie events for Memphis dishcrawlers.”

Beyond the imminent Soul Food Crawl, Fuqua has a Downtown Slider Crawl coming up Nov. 6, an event for which four restaurants will put forward an array of sliders for participants to enjoy. She’s also thinking about what she’s calling an underground supper club – similar to a pop-up, where she’d get a space and a well-known chef to create a meal in a secret location.

The events all are ginning up a camaraderie and direct interaction among participants and chefs, such as the kind on display during the Downtown Taco Crawl Sept. 25.

For that event, 41 people met up Downtown, kicking things off at bleu restaurant and lounge inside the Westin Memphis Beale Street Hotel. Bleu general manager Lance Morton welcomed the dishcrawlers, and mixologists whipped up some special margaritas as they awaited the first taco course.

Fuqua, armed with a mic, sang a bit of “Proud Mary” while participants waited for their dishes.

“That’s the kind of stuff that I think turns people on about these events,” Fuqua said, referring to the interactivity between foodies and chefs they might not otherwise see up close.

The next stop on that taco crawl was Bluefin, where the chef held the door open as participants entered. When the chef emerged with his creation – a double-decker Korean taco featuring smoked Korean pork belly – he talked about making it, as well as a little about growing up.

The next stop was the wine cellar at Flight, followed by a stroll to McEwen’s.

Such events to whet the taste buds of local foodies are multiplying. But they aren’t, it should be noted, limited to the Dishcrawl banner.

At the end of September, for example, the second annual Best Memphis Burger Fest brought a few thousand burger lovers and the scent of meat to Minglewood Hall. Event co-founder and director Seth Agranov estimated that between 2,500 and 3,000 people attended the festival Sept. 22.

The event is a burger-eating and cooking competition in which participants get to sample different kinds of burgers from a variety of cooks, enjoy live music while they eat and support a cause at the same time.

“When teams weren’t turning in competition burgers, they were cooking samples to raise additional money for Mid-South Spay & Neuter Services,” Agranov said. “Winning entries were turned in by teams called Burgers Ellevan, Pirates of the Grillabean, Burgernado and The Burger Deacons. The grand champion burger was a jalapeno-and-cream-cheese-stuffed Juicy Lucy burger served up by the Burger Deacons.

“Burger Fest was the perfect storm of a (still) new festival, an inexpensive admission cost and a promise of two passionate burger lovers to give the people what they want: an afternoon of great food, cold beer and good music.”

For Dishcrawl’s recent Battledish event, six Memphis chefs vied for titles such as “most delicious” and “most creative” as well as for best modern, best cocktail and “most authentic.”

A portion of the proceeds from Battledish benefit the Roots Memphis urban learning farm.

Among the event’s gold award winners, chef David Johnson of Belle Dinner won in the “most delicious” category with his braised short rib with grit cake and sauteed Brussels sprouts. Kendall Robertson of Automatic Slim’s and his team of mixologists won in the cocktail category for their cranberry lemongrass martini, and in the category of “most creative,” chef Sam Miller of Tamp & Tap won for his Autumn Napoleon of Horseradish Brioche French Toast, roasted butternut squash puree, quinoa, heirloom tomato relish, fried shiitake and prosciutto with lime chimichurri.

For “most authentic,” chef Kaia Brewer of Lunchbox Eats won for her short rib chili. And for “best modern,” chef Daniel Cathren of Automatic Slim’s won for his four-sauce pan-seared sesame-encrusted tuna with spiced rice and wakame.

Among future events Fuqua is planning is a cocktail wars event similar to Battledish, except this one would pit mixologists instead of chefs against each other. She’s also thinking about a “bacon battle” – an event where everything prepared would in some way feature or include bacon.

Dishcrawl was founded in 2010 by Tracy Lee of San Jose, Calif., and quickly spread elsewhere, including New York City, Philadelphia, Washington, Montreal and Toronto.

The Cooper-Young Dishcrawl in February sold out almost immediately, necessitating the addition of a second night, which sold out too. A later Dishcrawl in Overton Square also sold out quickly, and a Downtown Dishcrawl in June sold out in 10 days.

Fuqua said Dishcrawl generally sees about 40 participants who go among the various restaurants sampling dishes for a particular event. Dishcrawlers dine on a weeknight, when the hope is that restaurants aren’t as busy as they might otherwise be, and participants only visit a few restaurants within no more than 10 minutes’ walking distance.

At each venue, the chef or owner introduces a special tasting creation and talks about the food and the restaurant’s history. In that way, Dishcrawl is a community-focused event.

Fuqua said Dishcrawl is a great way for local foodies to try new dishes, meet new people, and visit restaurants they might not have chosen themselves. It also provides welcome exposure for restaurants that participate.

Dishcrawl itself is established in more than 100 cities in the U.S. and Canada. According to Dishcrawl founder Tracy Lee, expansion to new cities is partly the result of serendipity and partly the result of people simply wanting it in their area.

Locally, the Dishcrawl list of events keeps growing, Fuqua said, explaining that she has a constant stream of ideas.

“I think people are excited about what we’re going to do next,” she said. “It’s exciting me too. I think Memphis was really wanting something new like this.

“Memphis has a lot of offerings that cater to tourists, which is awesome, but Dishcrawl is about offering unique foodie events to the people who call Memphis home. My events are all about turning locals on to the locally owned restaurants they drive or walk past every day and allowing chefs to cut loose and show off some of the culinary creativity you might not find on their everyday menus. I think Memphians are enjoying this new type of culinary adventure.”

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