Shitty food at music festivals is something of a dying breed. You can thank—or curse—Goldenvoice culinary director Nic Adler for that.
The man behind the highly Instagrammable dishes at gargantuan events like Coachella and Panorama upped the ante for concert fare, creating new, Millennial-friendly industry standards. He didn't start out with this intention when he threw his first festival in 2009, however. In fact, food wasn't a factor at all.
"Oh, I didn't care," Adler says of that culinary lineup.
Fast-forward eight years and Adler has gone from not caring to caring a lot. We're standing on a golf course just outside of the Rose Bowl football stadium in Pasadena, California where the first annual Arroyo Seco Weekend will go down the following day. Some 300 staff members are running around the grounds putting together finishing touches. Next to us is a craftsman-style home—albeit a tiny one—built to house a craft beer stall for the occasion.
Inspiration for the music festival struck Adler and Paul Tollett, the Goldenvoice CEO, while tailgating on the Rose Bowl grounds. Adler and Tollett thought it was a perfect venue for a festival, but the citizens of Pasadena did not. It took four years of back and forth at City Hall meetings before both parties could reach a compromise.
Goldenvoice got the green light to put on Arroyo Seco, but it would be a more low-key event than other music festivals. (The headliner is Tom Petty, not Nine Inch Nails.) Instead of giant ferris wheels and massive art installations, it would pay homage to its host city with decorations like the beer houses inspired by Pasadena's beloved craftsman-style homes.
"All of our high-end food is all in this area," says Adler, gesturing as we walk across the festival grounds. LA chefs like Walter Manzke, Ray Garcia, and Dakota Weiss will have tents here. There will also be multiple cold brew, kombucha, and craft soda vendors. This is the new normal for the festival world.
"I almost feel like we forced all festivals into that place. You can't go backwards. This is where we are in festivals today," Adler says.
Adler got this job when he told Tollett the food at Coachella could be better. As a vegan, Adler had spent 15 years attending Coachella underwhelmed by the dining options.
"When you're vegan you kind of get bummed when you start thinking about what you're going to eat. They had this raw place called 118 Degrees, but you're there for three days," he recalls. "Do you really want to eat raw? I probably smoked some weed and had some tequila and I'm like, raw food."
With a background throwing a popular annual vegan beer festival (now dubbed Eat Drink Vegan), Adler took his experience to transform Goldenvoice's food and drink operations. Soon the culinary lineup was as thoughtfully planned as the festival's musical talent.
Adler realized that there were parallels between the food side and music side of a festival.
"When they keep saying that chefs are the new rockstars, it is somewhat of a good comparison—not in the rock star sense, but they're treating them like artists now," Adler says.
"In the early years of Coachella for us and our food program, we really struggled to understand how and what the needs for the chefs were, and then eventually we learned that they're similar to artists. They have a rider and it doesn't have an amp on it or a certain kind of speaker or subwoofer, but it's a sous vide [machine] and a certain kind of table and a low boy refrigerator."
It's a constant challenge to keep band lineups fresh, and just as much of a challenge to keep food lineups fresh, too. Now that almost everyone in the biz does good food, Adler is looking to create better experiences surrounding the eating and drinking.
At Coachella, you can escape the Indio heat by ducking into a tiki bar located on the festival grounds. You can grab a picnic basket put together by your favorite chef and enjoy it on a Turkish blanket in the shade.
Beyond arguably trivial upgrades—like being able to find biodynamic wine in the middle of a grassy field—Adler's obsessive attention to detail is helping improve critical festival elements from cell service to security. It takes years of experience to ensure these massive events run smoothly.
"Most of us can make a good time when we're here. It's not a hard thing to do. It's like having a party at your house," Adler says.
The most difficult part of the festival to plan is the before and after.
"While people are at your house, it's pretty easy. Here's a drink, here's a couch, I'm talking to my friend, and I'm happy," he said. "Well, did you struggle to find a parking space? Did you go outside of your friend's house and your car was broken into? It doesn't matter how much fun you had at the party if you've left with these feelings."
Naturally, it's a herculean task to accommodate for 30,000 to 125,000 people.
"Festivals don't just happen. A team of 50 people work 365 days a year at this," says Adler. "All of us, we play this festival through our mind. Paul Tollett and I came multiple times to Rose Bowl games. We took a shuttle in. We walked down. We walked out and both of our phones were dead and we couldn't call an Uber. Paul came with a friend who was in heels and they had to walk all the way up back to Old Town. We put ourselves in as many of those situations as we could."
The result of year-round efforts isn't always obvious, which is the point. Attendees are supposed to soak up music and craft beer without thinking about logistics. We all saw the disaster that was Fyre Festival; planning matters a whole damn lot.
Of course chefs are also an important part of the equation. Once a restaurant signs on to participate in a music festival, coordinating a successful execution takes time—sort of.
"If we have enough lead time, we try to plan two to three months ahead, especially if the festival is outside of LA or a particularly large production," Badmaash co-owners Nakul and Arjun Mahendro tell me by email. "That said, we've done some events like this with only a few days' notice."
With the chaos of running a business, restaurateurs are hard-pressed to find extra time to plan their Coachella finger food. Extra hands help.
"I think about it in my head, but we're so busy with the restaurants that I am pretty spontaneous with what we cook up," says Scratch Restaurants Inc chef and co-owner Phillip Frankland Lee in an email. "We have a fantastic team led by our director of operations, Gabriel Wischmeier, who handles these things far in advance, so that I get to switch it on at the last minute."
A band can rehearse perfectly in a studio. It's an entirely different ballgame when they're playing live on an outdoor stage for 40,000 people. The same is true for chefs.
"The hardest part of making food at a music festival is battling the unknown and the conditions," Frankland Lee said. "It could be blazing hot, pouring rain, freezing cold. Or all three within a matter of an hour. Power and equipment could be a challenge at times. That's when it's key to have a strong team."
Adler rattles off the names of the Arroyo Seco stages: Sycamore, Oak, Willow. They're names of trees native to the area. Details like these won't increase revenue for Goldenvoice; they're supposed to add something Adler calls "texture" to the experience. An on-trend abundance of food and drink options is another texture essential to the modern music festival. Without it, Adler says, a festival would feel wrong.
"It would be like going to dinner without your shoes on," he says. "You should be going to dinner with your shoes on."