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The annual Audi FEASTIVAL event heads into its 10th season raising over $3 million that directly aids the arts and theater initiatives at FringeArts and at the annual Fringe Festival. | Image: Zachariah Hagy

It took 10 years for Feastival, the annual culinary event of all things Fringe, to transcend its status as a mere fundraising event and become an institution in Philadelphia.

Gourmands, arts patrons and philanthropists from all over the city are paying attention as Feastival continues on an upward trajectory with more talent, more opportunities to indulge, and, of course, more hype than ever before. 

In 2019, Feastival will continue to carry out the mission that it has had since its inception in 2009, which is, indeed, to fundraise for FringeArts, but also to celebrate two scenes that are changing what it means to be creative and involved in Philadelphia: the culinary and performing arts scenes. Co-hosted by chefs Nick Elmi and Michael Solomonov and restaurateurs Audrey Claire Taichman and Stephen Starr, Feastival invites the best restaurants in the city to come to one place to serve whatever they want while artists perform near, around and above the action. 

On a broader level, both food and the performing arts have emerged as major aspects of culture in Philadelphia along similar timelines over recent decades. At this juncture, supporting both the culinary industry and the arts industry in Philadelphia also supports the new version of Philadelphia while celebrating what has made the city great all along. 

“Food, dining and performing arts are all about experience and exploring the senses,” said Rachel Swartz Robinson, director of development at FringeArts. “The food scene in Philadelphia has absolutely exploded in the last ten years and is very parallel to FringeArts' growth as an organization.”

However, with a ticket price of $300 (and $450 for VIP), it's clear that the event isn't meant to be enjoyed by all lovers of food and theatre — only those with disposable income to spare. And it's a shame, since courting the city's elite only reinforces the stereotype that only wealthy people can be patrons of the arts, which seems completely antithetical to the welcoming, grassroots ethos of FringeArts.

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With general admission tickets starting at $300, despite going to a noble cause, Feastival has always catered to a certain clientele. | Image: Melissa Walker Horn

This year, however, Feastival feels like a homecoming of sorts. It will be hosted at Cherry Street Pier, which is where it was held for a few of its early iterations. It was known as Pier 9 at the time and was not yet renovated to be the design-centric, pedestrian-oriented space that it is now. For the past few years, the event was held at the FringeArts’ headquarters across the street. 

What Cherry Street Pier does is allow for more freedom for guests to move around, but, more importantly, it provides more space for performers to do what they do. Montreal-based performer Olaf Triebel will choreograph an aerial performance using more than 30 performers from Circadium, the circus arts school in Mount Airy. Feastival organizers are excited to use this 10-year anniversary to honor Richard Vague, a longtime FringeArts board chair, and Michael Forman, champion of the event. 

The food, of course, will be made thoughtfully and supplied plentifully. After experimenting with a neighborhood-based pairing program last year, Feastival is back to its classic format of restaurants setting up booths and serving representative dishes. There will be beef heart rendang from Sate Kampar. Michael Solomonov’s Zahav will serve up Lamb Merguez. Smoked brisket from Mike's BBQ. Desserts from Parc. And dozens of other custom dishes from more than 60 participating restaurants just for this event. 

As Feastival prepares to enter its 10th year, now’s the time to reflect on its success over the course of these years and how it has directly benefited the Philadelphia performing arts scene. Since its first year, Feastival has raised over $3 million for FringeArts. This funding has allowed FringeArts to build its permanent headquarters on Columbus Blvd., which, along with its own restaurant, La Peg, provides space for performing arts programming to take place year-round. The funding from Feastival has also allowed FringeArts to be able to expand a festival of festivals model, which now includes the comedy festival Blue Heaven, the artist incubator High Pressure Fire Service and the Hand to Hand circus. 

Feastival is valuable to the restaurants and bars that participate because it gives them a chance to innovate. Perhaps more importantly, it allows them to truly appreciate the work of their colleagues. Peter Woolsey, longtime Feastival participant and executive chef of La Peg and Bistrot La Minette, says Feastival serves as a de facto conference for participating chefs. 

23 | The number of years there has been a Fringe Festival event in Philadelphia. The oldest Fringe Festival in the world is held each year in Edinburgh, Scotland. That event began in 1947 and is over 70 years old. 

“Many chefs keep coming back not just to support FringeArts but to socialize with a group of people that are all constantly working,” Woolsey noted. “There always has been a great sense of camaraderie in the Philadelphia food scene, and it is events like this that allow us to actually catch up and see friends.”

The success of FringeArts is inextricable from the success of Feastival, which makes sense. On the most basic level, both food and the performing arts are venues for sharing experiences, whether they are related to identity, circumstances or the better and worse parts of the human condition. Both draw people who seek to understand those shared experiences. Both are centered around creating a controlled effect. 

According to Woolsey, "the restaurant industry in many senses is a performing art. I fret over lighting levels, playlists and sound, and even the words servers use to describe the food. It is all part of the performance we put on every night, much like a theater does."

As Feastival looks toward the future, the event should — and might need to — find ways to include diners and performing arts fans with smaller budgets. This isn't lost on the organizers of FringeArts, though. 

“We're looking at ways to expand Feastival to a multi-day experience,” Robinson said. “This would be a way for a wide variety of culinary patrons to enjoy the Feastival experience in different contexts, like small dinners or more casual programs, as well as for other types of food and beverage vendors to participate in different experiences.”

Perhaps this is one instance where the cliche of “only time will tell” holds immense weight.

Audi FEASTIVAL | Sept. 26, 6-10 p.m. $300 ($450 VIP). Cherry Street Pier, 121 N. Columbus Blvd. phillyfeastival.com/ 

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