It's noon on a steamy Sunday in the Thai countryside and chef Paolo Vitaletti, the son of a Roman butcher, is barbecuing a whole lamb. Sweat beads up on his forehead over the roaring open flames, but he's in high spirits, as is the rest of the team, who is busy cooking family-sized frittatas and gai yaang, northeastern Thai-style grilled chicken. Reggae is blasting and almost everyone has donned dark sunglasses, because, hangovers and sweltering temperatures be damned, it's showtime.
"This year we decided to do the kind of food that people might want to eat when they've had a long night, or are feeling a little fragile," says Jarrett Wrisley, an American food writer who launched Bangkok's Soul Food Mahanakorn and, in collaboration with Vitaletti, Appia, a Roman trattoria, and Peppina, a pizzeria blessed by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana. "Meatballs and frittatas from the Italian side, khao tom [soupy rice porridge], Thailand's number-one hangover cure, and som tam [papaya salad]. And we've got a pizza oven as well, and, you know, pizza cures all ills."
Especially if it's this pizza, which benefits from an overnight fermentation, a blast of heat in the wood-fired brick oven, and a scattering of guanciale and smoked mozzarella topped with a sunshine-yellow yolk—the Italian answer to bacon and eggs. Diners, many of whom look as though they haven't slept, are digging in at giant communal tables. Shared dishes come out in no particular order, but plates are plentiful and no one seems to mind.
Where does the lamb fit into this picture? "Oh yeah, and we're roasting two whole lambs, for tacos. We don't have a Mexican restaurant," he says, still manning the pit. "But we love roasting whole animals, and we fucking love tacos."
If all this sounds a bit more sophisticated than the standard fare used to propel ravers through long DJ sets, that's because most things here are a cut above the ordinary. While the throngs of pretty people dolled up in a style best-described as festival-chic—the obligatory mish-mash of fringes, flowers, and culturally appropriated feathered headdresses—might seem reminiscent of Coachella, Thailand's Wonderfruit aims to be a less vacuous affair. Sure, photo-ops abound, but judging by the colossal artworks, the ambitious menus, and a commitment to sustainability that goes well beyond lip service, this event genuinely wants to be different.
For starters, organizers have fought hard to avoid the kind of environmental waste that has marred Glastonbury and the like for years. By building structures out of biodegradable materials—one stage is constructed entirely out of bamboo and organic rice, which is later distributed to local farmers—and offsetting the event's eco-footprint with donations to Rimba Raya Biodiversity Reserve in Borneo, Wonderfruit has managed to go carbon neutral this year.
Cynics might be tempted to dismiss such measures as an easy way for yuppies to assuage their guilty consciences. A number have also pointed out that all this fine food and eco-cred doesn't come cheap. Full four-day passes for Wonderfruit start at THB 5,500 ($160 US) and while I was more than happy to park in the free camping zone, many festival-goers opt for boutique glamping options that go as high as THB 40,000 ($1,150 US). Like Further Future, which has faced both considerable backlash and praise for its high-end approach, or let's face it, even Burning Man, this is a party not everyone can afford to attend.
An acrobat at the Solar Stage.
Still, walking around the trippy sculptures on the mostly plastic-free grounds, I can't help but feel like the effort is sincere. Compared to every other festival I've attended, there's a conspicuous absence of trash outside of the recycling bins, sexual harassment, theft, and other general signs of dickishness. Families with toddlers dancing to the beats or playing on hay bales don't feel out of place. And at least a sizable portion of those funds have gone to good use. It's hard not to stumble into a lecture on the dangers of plastic abuse or the value of sustainable farming techniques.
That combination of upmarket attitude coupled with social responsibility filters into the dining scene, which leans heavily on organic, fair trade, and locally sourced products. Food is central here, with stalls selling everything from tom yam noodles to lobster rolls to sashimi. While plenty of festivals view food from a strictly utilitarian standpoint, at Wonderfruit the "feasts"—and they truly are feasts—offer dishes like Cocotte's Wagyu tomahawk and bread bowls filled with gloriously stinky Camembert-truffle fondue. Some feature chefs with as big of a billing as the musical headliners. Chef Gaggan Anand, whose eponymous restaurant was recently crowned Asia's best for the third year in a row, and chef Daniel Chavez of Singapore's Ola Cocina del Mar collaborate on a THB 3,000 ($85 US) tasting menu that would fit right in at either of their fine dining temples.
All this begs the question: How the hell do you replicate a restaurant experience in the middle of a field, let alone do so in a way that lines up with a rather stringent eco-ethos?
"We're showcasing indigenous ingredients on our menu, in part to expose people to them and in part because want to support the farmers and encourage them to grow things the organic way," says Chef Panupon "Black" Bulsuwan, a former Thai Iron Chef contestant, the head of Blackitch Artisan Kitchen in Chiang Mai, and part of F.A.C.T. Collective. "Now, in Thailand, nobody knows the best ingredients. They export everything to the other countries, but Thai people do not get to consume them." He hopes that his menu, a joint effort with southern Thai chef Khanaporn "Oom" Janjirdsak, will both shed light on lesser-known indigenous ingredients and make a case for greener produce in local cuisine. "In Chiang Mai, I go out to the markets, out to fields, out to the farms, sometimes bringing faculty from the agricultural university along with me. I use local products wherever possible. We have our own soy sauce, fish sauce, shrimp paste, and even a secret ingredient: insects."
For Daphne Cheng, a Beijing-based chef, the festival's sense of environmental responsibility was a prime selling point. "Yes, we're having fun, but we're also doing something that has a positive impact and makes a difference," she says. She first got turned on to the idea of working at festivals after a stint at Further Future and found herself searching for other parties with substance. Her low-impact menu focuses on plant-centric dishes, though she hates to call them vegan. "A lot of people think of salads, carrot sticks, hummus—boring stuff. When some people hear the word vegan, they think, Oh, I'm not a vegan, so I can't or don't want to eat this. But actually, it's the common denominator—everyone can eat it."
As with any festival, or kitchen for that matter, there's an element of behind-the-scenes chaos. For instance, Cheng's planned jianbing, a crispy crepe and typical Beijing street snack, with smoked jackfruit had to go out the window due to supplier problems and she had to scramble to find a last-minute substitute. "We're just going to make a bunch of food and hope for the best," she tells me.
Smaller vendors find themselves grappling with other challenges. FullMoonFoodTruck's fabulously greasy, shockingly authentic Philly-style cheesesteaks prove so popular with revelers that they sell out almost immediately. With no access to the necessary imported ingredients, the team improvises with a mix of ground beef and pork—not quite the real deal, but solid drunk-food nonetheless. Meanwhile, every time I stop by Egg Picnic, a crowdfunded truck painted by artist Ong Kongpat, the crew are churning out khai jiew (fried Thai omelets) at a dizzying speed. Though the process looks like pure pandemonium, the Sriracha-slathered egg saves me from a brutal subsequent morning, plus I get to feel slightly smug about eating it, knowing my $3 go to benefit hilltribes.
The Cocotte team.
At the end of the day, most of the chefs look exhausted, but remain solidly in the spirit of things. "At the first Wonderfruit, Paolo cooked an evening feast and then we went right into doing a brunch the following day on very, very little sleep," Wrisley remembers. "And we had a hell of a good time. The DJ slept through the morning set, so I just plugged in some old reggae and dub playlist that I had on my phone. Slowly, festival-goers started to trickle in, and the vibe was gentle, and the food was good, and it ended up being a really special thing."
The DJ manages to make it this year and things run a bit more smoothly, but by the end all social norms disintegrate and it devolves into one big, messy impromptu singalong nonetheless. Total strangers are dancing together and occasionally wandering back to the table to grab another taco, while the giddy, delirious kitchen crew boogies with equal abandon. Wrisley looks both exuberant and relieved that they've managed to pull everything off.
"Paolo and I want to support this because it's so unique in this part of the world. A real-deal music festival that also promotes the arts, design, and food," says Wrisley. "It's great to see people just let loose and enjoy themselves. Like nobody's watching. Like it should be, without all the bullshit expectations and etiquette that dictates everyday life."
For all its fancy trappings and laudably high-minded aspirations, this remains one big party, and what better way to celebrate than with a feast?