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Ask the Critic: Which Food Events Are Worth Going To?

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[Illustration: Robyn Lee]

Editor's note: Here to answer your questions is senior managing editor, former SENY editor, and frequent author of our NYC restaurant reviews Carey Jones. We'll take a few of your questions each week and give you the New York restaurant advice you're looking for. Email carey@seriouseats.com with the subject line Ask the Critic to submit your question!

This week on Ask the Critic: making sense of the many (many) food events that go on in New York each year.

Which Food Events Are Worth Going To

Hi Critic. My husband gave me a very fun Christmas present, which was two tickets to any food event I wanted (woot!), but now that I'm trying to figure out which one to go to, I really don't know. Do I wait for the NYC Wine & Food thing in October? Are tasting events all they're cracked up to be? Help!

Having attended, oh, a few hundred food events in the last few years, I can tell you that they're not all created equal, and you're right to be a smart shopper. If two or more of us from Serious Eats are covering at an event, odds are at least 50-50 that one of us will turn to the other and whisper "Who's actually paying $150 to be here?" before the first hour is up.

Why? Because prices have crept up, and up and three-figure tickets are not at all unusual. There are so many good ways to eat in this town, so dropping that kind of money to see chefs cooking in less-than-ideal setups, just seems misguided.

Still, some folks put together fabulous events, well worth the ticket price and the experience. Here's how to suss them out.

Are you getting an experience you can't get elsewhere? The same 50-odd NYC chefs (with the same 6-odd PR companies) tend to show up at the same events, year-in, year-out, and so many have excellent Manhattan or Brooklyn restaurants. Sure, there's something fun about seeing them all in one place. But, let's pick an example: You're going to a pizza event. Do all the participants have New York pizzerias? Yes? Well, you could recreate the experience yourself, in a way.

What are experiences you can't get elsewhere? Out-of-town chefs: One of my favorite San Francisco restaurants, Bar Tartine, is visiting City Grit in early February (and they, by the way, put on fabulous dinner/events). Tickets are a damn sight cheaper than a trip to California. Aaron Franklin, hipster barbecue king of Austin, did a pop-up at Hill Country—folks wait in line 4+ hours for his brisket in Texas. The whole Big Apple Barbecue Block Party falls into this camp, too; it's a tour of the South in a few city blocks, and barbecue is inherently crowd-friendly. And less marketed events like the Indonesian Bazaar in Queens are not only inexpensive, but give you a tremendous array of food you otherwise don't have access to.

Which chefs matter to you? Celebrity chefs are often key marketing points, but be realistic: you're probably not going to meet them; if you do, it'll be a rushed hello and maybe an autograph, if you're lucky; they'll spend more time doing official photo ops and VIP meet-and-greets than mingling with the crowd. You're much more likely to have a chat with someone lower-profile, someone whose food makes you excited (not the whole Food Network).

How much can you possibly eat? Once you head north of 20 participants, odds are you won't eat at every table. Even if you have the best intentions (and heroic stomach space), the place will crowd up, some spots will run out of food, and it's just not realistic. Try to think through what your experience there could actually look like; if there are 100 vendors, know that you won't make it through a quarter.

Does this food make sense as event food? It's hard for event food to compete with restaurant food—when the chef is (in theory) in his or her element, in known surroundings, in control, rather than working with portable burners on a folding table. Temperature-sensitive things like pizza are especially vulnerable; if a pizza event isn't at a pizzeria, be skeptical. Also consider whether you really want to eat 20 different bite-sized portions of said food. Dessert events are really tricky; you may love chocolate/cupcakes/what-have-you to death, but you may also never have sampled two dozen in two hours. (As a professional, I have to tell you: it's not always as fun as it sounds.)

Is there a good cause involved? How involved? This calculus can all work out differently if there's a charity that benefits at the end. But if this factors into your decision, make sure you know how much; if "a portion of proceeds go to XYZ food bank," that portion doesn't have to be too high.

Good examples? The Taste of the Philippines, orchestrated by Filipino-American chef Dale Talde about a month ago, when two dozen eateries (plenty of them worth a visit) put together an event for typhoon relief, and 100% of proceeds were donated to World Vision, an on-the-ground humanitarian organization active after Typhoon Haiyan. Or Slice Out Hunger, which we attend every year—I know what I said about pizza events earlier, but Scott Wiener gets dozens of the city's best pizzerias to donate pies; slices go for just a dollar; and every dollar is matched by Scott's company, Scott's Pizza Tours, all of which goes to the Food Bank for New York City.

Do you drink? How much? What can you drink there? The rationale for inflating many ticket prices is simple: the booze. But be realistic. If they're serving mass-market beer and not-too-interesting wine, and maybe you won't get more than three drinks—even in Manhattan, that's the equivalent of $20-30/head. But if they've got top-flight spirits, or talented bartenders, or a selection of wines you're excited about, that's a different story.

What About You?

What are your favorite food events in the city? Tell us in the comments.

Ask Us!

Email carey@seriouseats.com with the subject line Ask the Critic to submit your question. All questions will be read, though unfortunately not all can be answered.

About the author: Carey Jones is the former managing editor of Serious Eats. Follow her on Twitter (@careyjones).

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