As a man and woman sit down with their coffee one recent morning at Cafe Driade, they notice the T-shirt worn by the woman at the next table. They react with the instant familiarity of seeing a stranger in some foreign city wearing a cap emblazoned with a shared college logo.
The shirt said “TerraVita Food & Drink Festival,” and the couple knew they had found a friend. They had actually found its founder, Colleen Minton.
“TerraVita! We saw your shirt; he wears his like once a week,” the woman said.
“That’s great, thanks for coming,” Minton said. “Are you coming back this year?”
“We’re hoping,” the man says. “It’s awesome. Really it’s a great event.”
This year’s festival runs Oct. 18 to 21 in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, including three dinners, a host of workshops and the Grand Tasting, where more than 40 chefs, brewers and mixologists from North Carolina prepare dishes and drinks for one giant party.
The roster of talent includes acclaimed North Carolina chefs Scott Crawford (Crawford & Son in Raleigh), Cheetie Kumar (Garland in Raleigh), Ricky Moore (Saltbox Seafood Joint in Durham) and Vivian Howard (Chef & the Farmer in Kinston). There will be a tribute dinner for Crook’s Corner chef Bill Smith, along with panel discussions with pitmaster Ed Mitchell and recent James Beard Award winner and author Ronni Lundy, among a couple of dozen others.
Minton created TerraVita as a one-off dinner and bank-rolled it herself for the first three years, but now it’s a fully formed festival that means different, even personal things, to the thousands who have attended.
With the ascent of food and dining as a cultural, even pop cultural, phenomenon, food festivals have popped up all over as meeting points for chefs and diners beyond what happens daily in restaurants.
TerraVita sets itself apart from other festivals with its focus on sustainability. There’s no trash accumulated from the festival, made possible with meals and dishes served on the finest biodegradable plates and volunteers standing at waste stations directing traffic for what can be composted and what can be recycled.
The signature event is probably the Grand Tasting, where diners stroll from great bite to great bite under a big top tent.
But Minton is proudest of the Sustainable Classroom, which she believes the festival does better than any other. Book deals have come out of past panels and workshops, and this year’s schedule ranges from the role of chefs in efforts for social justice to Appalachian cooking to making better cocktails at home and the beyond-slurping benefits of oysters.
Like a bride on her wedding day, Minton says she doesn’t actually eat very much at her festival, but promises the food is very good. We spoke to her about food festivals, the Triangle’s dining scene and sustainability.
Q: When you’re putting together a food festival, how do you go beyond that?
A: I think it helped that I had never been to a food festival before I started it. I think it helps that I had no reference point. It was totally accidental. I had no idea what I was doing. I hope it’s authentic and comes across as rooted in a place that’s super genuine and accomplishes something more than just putting down good food. I want it to be more than that. It should be more than that.
The real reason I do this is really about connecting with people in a way that’s more meaningful. The food festival part of it and the drink festival is really more about quality sourcing than being focused on that as the starter. That’s part of the equation always, but it’s never the starting point. It’s always about the connections and relationships and ideas that are the impetus of whatever we’re doing that year. Then we think who fits the bill to meet these goals.
Q: How do you think TerraVita compares to some of the other food festivals out there, like Charleston Wine and Food?
A: It’s a good one, but I have to be honest, I think we do some things better, which is pretty nice to be able to say that. People said it to me before I went, and I thought, really? But actually, maybe that doesn’t sound super humble, but I do think that’s true. The trash-free thing is unique and unbelievable. There are things we do in comparison that are outstanding and I think really important. We were lucky to start that way. It’s really tough to start out and go back and fix it. But these chefs have bought into it. They have to in order to make it successful.
Q: To what extent do you keep your eye on those other festivals?
A: I’m definitely in their loop, I keep an eye on them, they influence me and they do inspire me in some ways, because I do think they do some things really really well. But I hope, and I kind of know, we’re an influence on them as well.
Q: Why was the trash-free part so important?
A: Our waste, that piece of it, you’re always going to learn something from that. I can not throw things away that I used to be able to throw away. Like a banana peel, especially, if I’ve eaten a banana peel in a car or in another location, I’ve got to take that banana peel back home and put it in my warm bin. I definitely wasn’t like that 10 years ago. I think it influences other people like that too. That cumulative effect is important. That’s what’s going to make the difference in the future.
Q: How has TerraVita changed as the Triangle’s food scene has grown?
A: Chapel Hill was the only place that had a great dining scene, the only dining scene in the Triangle for years. And a big part of that was (Crook’s Corner founder) Bill Neal and Karen and Ben Barker, who were in Durham, but lived in Chapel Hill.
It makes it harder to go other places when you have so much great talent here. But it’s important to keep our boundaries moving out in order to keep it fresh and engaging in a different way, and we can do that through different channels. The Sustainable Classroom is never confined to the state, but the Grand Tasting is. I’ve kept that a North Carolina-focused event. And I think that’s important, because it does become something different.
Because the scene has gotten really great here, it’s gotten hard to avoid the Triangle, and I don’t want to avoid it, but we have more from the Triangle this year than we’ve had before. The challenge is that part of the idea of the Grand Tasting is giving people an experience that they can’t get all the time. Can they go to Mothers and Sons, Crawford and Son, 18 Seaboard, Garland? Yeah they could, on their own.
The nice thing about this is if they haven’t been to all those places it’s a bite, an engagement. Cheetie Kumar, I find her to be always amazing. And if you eat her food and have that experience, you’ll make a point to go (to her restaurant, Garland), whether you live in Raleigh or whether you live in Wilmington.
Q: Why is food a good way of talking about issues of sustainability?
A: It’s all interconnected. I’m of the belief that local is not better than organic. Or organic is better than local. I think it depends on the situation, some meeting in between. Like strawberries, I would not eat them locally over organic if they were sprayed. But I’d prefer to find organic and local. It’s such a part of the food system – sustainability – if you look at the core and every facet of it and you have to have that discussion.
Q: How do you mix the expectations of a food festival and the eating and drinking with the goal of a larger takeaway about sustainability?
A: This is a food-driven event. If nothing else, people love food and drink. In addition to a panel discussion, we try to make it an integrated conversation with the audience.
So we say, Bill (Smith, who’s on the “Beyond the Kitchen” social justice panel), bring something small that connects you to your audience in a way. And he talked a lot about how his Latino family had changed his life, and I think he’s going to do tamales or something like that. So to me that makes a complete experience. You’re hitting all the senses and that’s a goal for me.
Q: What’s the best few things you’ve had to eat at Terra Vita?
A: You know, it’s funny, I don’t eat usually. I don’t eat very much at these events. I always say I create the event I would like to go to.
Drew Jackson; 919-829-4707; @jdrewjackson
For tickets and a schedule, go to TerraVitaFest.com.