Scaled-Down Version of Houston Food Festival Still Looks Pretty Darn Fun
It’s another example of COVID Ruins Everything. Commune, a chef-driven festival that was originally scheduled to run for two weeks this summer, has been postponed until March 2022 due to concerns about the rise in COVID-19 cases. Instead the festival is being pared down to a three-day preview event that will take place from August 26 through 29 at the Heights House Hotel.
The events are being organized by the Indie Chefs Community, an organization headed up by The Pass & Provisions and Bernadine’s alum Grover Smith and Brett Cooper of Michelin-starred Aster in San Francisco (sadly, like The Pass and Bernadine’s, now closed).
However, this news is not necessarily all bad. The shorter version still looks fun, and now Houston is getting two chef-driven festivals instead of one. All events are being held outdoors, and equipment is being brought in to combat Houston’s famous August heat. In addition, seating has been reconfigured to allow for single tables for individual groups. Tickets are now available for tables with two, four, six or eight seats. The only communal seating will be for those who attend alone.
Here are the participating Texas-based chefs. Notes on those coming from out of town are included in the event descriptions. (A representative noted that the list of participating chefs is subject to change due to the current COVID situation.)
- Ross Coleman and James Haywood, Lit Chicken (formerly of Kitchen 713)
- Aaron Bludorn, Bludorn
- Jules Stoddart, Olamaie (Austin)
- Justin Yu, Theodore Rex
- Peter Nguyen, Riel
- PJ Edwards, Meadow Neighborhood Eatery (San Antonio)
Thursday, August 26
- Kicking off things is the first Indie Chefs Collaboration Dinner Night, featuring 12 dishes from a dozen chefs. The participating Houston chefs are James Beard Award-winning chef Justin Yu of Theodore Rex, Ross Coleman of Lit Chicken, a prior James Beard Award Best Chef Southwest semi-finalist formerly of Kitchen 713, and Aaron Bludorn of the eponymous Bludorn. A few of the out-of-town chefs who are also cooking are Jeffrey Vance (previously of James Beard Award semi-finalist at No Anchor in Seattle) of the forthcoming Old Gold Tomato Pies in Los Angeles and Maricela Vega of Chico in Atlanta (named as a semi-finalist in 2020 in the James Beard Award Rising Star category). The full list of chefs is available online. General admission tickets for the 12-course dinner with wine pairings start at $225 (plus a $52.31 service fee). Tickets can be purchased online. The event is from 6:30 to approximately 9:30 p.m.
- The first of two late-night events is a special pop-up of Washington D.C.-based restaurant Lucky Danger. According to the Indie Chefs website, the restaurant sells out daily, and the owners are already planning to open two more locations. From 9 p.m. to midnight, chefs Tim Ma and Andrew Chiou are serving their versions of Chinese-American dishes. While the event menu hasn’t been released, patrons can get a hint of what might be served by looking at Lucky Danger’s online menu. Tickets are $40 (plus tax and 18% service charge), cover up to two guest and act as a credit towards food purchases.
Friday, August 27
- The second Indie Chefs Collaboration Dinner again features a dozen chefs and a dozen dishes, but this time, all the chefs announced so far come from afar. They include Alan Sternberg, executive chef at Iozzo’s Garden of Italy in Indianapolis, and chef/owner Brittanny Anderson of Metzger Bar and Butchery and Brenner Pass in Richmond, Virginia. The time and costs are the same as noted for the first collaborative chefs dinner the night before, and the full list of chefs is available online. Visit the sales page for tickets.
- Another late-night food event is planned, but details have not yet been released.
(No events are listed for Saturday, August 28.)
Sunday, August 29
- Libby & Zoe’s Delicatexan w/ Daddy Jimbo Kanan is happening from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., and features Libby Willis and Houston native Zoe Kanan collaborating on this Jewish-deli-meets-Texas-barbecue pop-up with Kanan’s pitmaster dad. Kanan has trained under Christina Tosi of Momofuku Milk Bar and was a finalist for the 2019 James Beard Foundation Rising Star chef award. Willis was the chef and owner of MeMe’s Diner in Brooklyn, which sadly didn’t survive the COVID-driven shutdowns in 2020. The menu includes brisket or turkey leg along with three sides, smoked trout salad and a variety of bagels and schmears. There will also be Halva-glazed doughnut ribbons with Texas “fruit gravy.” The cost is $50, which will be applied towards food and beverage selections. (Guests can pay for anything in excess of $50 by credit card.) Tickets are available online.
- The final multi-chef dinner of the series is the Indie Chefs Collaboration Dinner Night 3 Grand Finale. Rather than a dozen chefs, like at the prior two collaboration dinners, this one features a whopping 24 from both Houston and all across the country. Chefs will work as duos to prepare the 12-course meal. Joining the aforementioned Houston chefs Yu, Coleman and Bludorn are Alan Delgado (who grew up in El Paso) of Oxomoco in Brooklyn, Boby Pradachith of Thip Khao in Washington D.C. and many more. Dinner is from 6:30 to approximately 9:30 p.m. and tickets are $375 for VIP and $275 for regular, plus service fees.
- Closing the festivities is one final late-night feast: Shababi Palestinian Rotisserie Chicken with Marcelle Afram. Afram started this takeout meal as a stop-gap in 2020 after working at Maydan in Washington D.C. The family-style menu includes not only rotisserie chicken but also Mom’s Potatoes with Mediterranean spices, hummus, and taboon, a flatbread made with caramelized onions and nuts — dishes that pay homage to the Levant, the region along the eastern Mediterranean, that is now home to Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine. Tickets for up to two guests cost $40 plus a $9.30 service fee and the base cost applies towards purchasing the a la carte dishes.
With so much talent on display, so many out-of-town chefs to meet and many intriguing, seldom-seen dishes to try, it’s a fair bet that this mini-version of the COMMUNE festival is going to make the full version next year a hotly anticipated “anti-festival”. It also looks it’s honoring organizer’s description of that original event: “anti-food-festival; one that is equitable, gives back to the community, champions social justice, and is committed to addressing systemic issues facing the hospitality industry.”
The full statement by COMMUNE’s organizers regarding the delay of the full event series is below.
We set out to deliver COMMUNE in a 200+ chef, two-week-long package this summer. Unmasked, vaccinated participants and staff — the reunion we’ve all been waiting for since last March. But, the COVID climate has changed significantly since COMMUNE’s inception and over the past week, we’ve seen case counts and hospitalization numbers rapidly climbing.
Given our values and those of our community, we can’t, in good faith, ask hundreds of chefs and thousands of you to get in cars and on planes in a month’s time. While we can’t predict where we will be by then as a state or even as a country, we know that we are unwilling to gamble with anyone’s health.
We want to do this thing right. What does that mean?
We’re scaling this one back — it’ll still be an all-star lineup of talent and an entirely outdoor, experiential dining compound. Just three days instead of two weeks; two dozen chefs not two hundred. For now…
In March 2022, we are doing COMMUNE as intended. 200+ chefs, two weeks, central Houston. We made a commitment to support this city and its restaurant scene which we value immensely. We also made a promise to all of you and we intend to deliver. With intentionality, an innate sense of hospitality, and some extra thought and care, we’re confident we still can.
Those who already purchased tickets have first right of refusal to keep them for this three day, intimate experience, dubbed COMMUNE Preview, to hold their ticket for COMMUNE proper in 2022 or to receive a refund. We have a limited number of spots available online for COMMUNE Preview, running August 26, 27 and 29, 2021. All events will be held in a 7,500 sq ft outdoor space, with limited and spaced seating and all local guidance observed.
That said, a lot can change in a little bit of time as we’ve all learned this past year. If the tide rises again, we’ll make a decision that prioritizes the safety of staff, talent, guests and our greater community. We appreciate you navigating this with us and we’re looking forward to taking these lemons and making some lemonade. What’s better than one anti-food-festival? Two. Let’s do this, Houston.
Phaedra Cook has written about Houston’s restaurant and bar scene since 2010. She was a regular contributor to My Table magazine (now closed) and was the lead restaurant critic for the Houston Press for two years, eventually being promoted to food editor. Cook founded Houston Food Finder in November 2016 and has been its editor and publisher ever since.