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Celebration of Food and Whine: LA Times' Event Leaves Some Hungry

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If I could go back in time and make a checklist for myself for what to bring to the Los Angeles Times Celebration of Food and Wine event held Sunday, I would have included: Sunscreen, giant hat, wallet full of cash, water bottle, and infinite patience. Why? Because for many of those who paid $55 in advance, or $65 at the door for general admission, the event was anything from a slight hassle to a total disaster. Those who forked over the $125 for VIP seemed to fare better. So what happened?

As the midday sun powered its rays over Paramount Studios, the first wave of attendees crowded the backlot to turn their eight drink tickets into cups of wine or other booze, and to form lines at the many food trucks and select other vendors who were offering eats to the overall crowd. The semantics of just what your GA ticket got proved to be misleading to many who thought that the truck tastes would be plentiful, rather than priced. That's right--you could stand in line to get a $3 taco you paid $55 to have access to that you could otherwise find on the street.

There were some places offering free food, though you'd have to have been tipped off by someone as to what lines to stand in. Some of the lines were so confusing that some weren't even sure what was at the end--a grilled cheese sandwich bite, hopefully? In the Food Network area, a few of the trucks competing on The Great Food Truck Race were on hand--the biggest line of all for the Nom Nom Truck. Couldn't find food? Well...you sure could get sauced.

Each person was issued 8 drink tickets, which meant that they could pour booze into their likely empty stomach all while getting sunstroke. Sitting down to hear one of the many panels or cooking demonstrations meant respite for weary feet, but no escape from the sun--only the speakers were offered shade; all the seating was out in the wide open. Good luck finding water. I found mine in the media room. No clue where--or if--everyone else found any.

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The panels were, for many, the highlight of the event, as well as the chance to meet their favorite chefs and food personalities. Blogger and author Ree Drummond (The Pioneer Woman) and The Next Food Network Star Season 6 winner Aarti Sequeira chatted with panel moderator Rene Lynch of the LA Times about blogging, and later former Top Chef-testants Betty Fraser, Alex Reznik, and CJ Jacobsen were on a panel moderated by Brand X and LA Times blogger Krista Simmons (we hear "Pea Puree!" was shouted a few times).

Was that enough to appease the attendees? Frankly, no--myself included. Because of capacity issues, members of the media (minus those who work for the Times, natch!) were not admitted to the VIP area. Well, we could have been escorted in to look (that's two bodies, one for the media member one for the escort) but not eat, though we were told it was not an issue of not having enough food (that's one body eating; what's the capacity issue again?). The VIP section, which opened at 3 p.m. (three hours into the event) was positioned in the open air, at the front of the venue. That means everyone walking past got to look at it, and, I suspect, smell it. But--ha ha ha!--not everyone got to go in. (I'll confess my plan was to find a way in to the VIP area; that was abandoned when, with only half a mung bean pancake from the Korean Cultural Center in me, I joined some friends in leaving...to go have lunch somewhere else.)

VIP was, we hear, the place to be. Samples were un-ticketed, un-priced, and unlimited. Eva, Border Grill, First & Hope, BLD/Grace, Lago, RockSugar, Water Grill, Waterloo & City, Mercantile/District, and many more of the city's favorite restaurants were represented. For those lucky enough to have purchased these passes in advance (they sold out ahead of the event day) this was a rousing success, and the true definition of a food and wine festival.

For those who were there as the day came to a close, a concert from She & Him rounded out the day, and hopefully gave the wine-soaked a chance to sober up. Tickets to the concert alone were sold for $40. She & Him didn't allow press photography of their set. Well, all right. I was long gone by then.

The reaction, as chronicled on Twitter, was split.

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The good:
- @umtank: Leaving the LA Times Food & Wine Festival. Fun event, good shows & many fun, drunk people. :-) #latfoodwine
- @ CurtisAndersen: Had a great day at #latfoodwine celebration! Looking forward to next year!
- @foodbully: #latfoodwine was great! Lots of food and drink. Stuffed for days! But I had VIP. Paying a little more paid off. :)
- Plus a host of people reporting about delicious bites, favorite trucks, meeting chefs, and successful sips.

The not good:
- @theminty: it was such a let down. But it was their first event. Perhaps they'll listen to feedback. #latfoodwine
- @raechal: The #latfoodwine was beyond disappointing. Arrived hungry only to find hardly any free food and ridiculous lines. $110 for this? #neveragain
- @DrewLy: #latfoodwine event was a no go! They should not do this next year unless they bring food! Misleading for $55!
- @tastyjules: So all the trucks are cash only...most of the food vendors are cash only...why no head's up before the event #latfoodwine?
- @ScriptgalJulie: #latfoodwine SUCKS! very disappointed!
- @maximooz: These food trucks should be offering tastings or cheaper festival menu prices. Lines badly organized, even dangerous. #latfoodwine #ripoff
- Plus a ton more along the same, uh, lines.

Ultimately, count me in among the "not good" bunch. Well-trained for food event eating, I was primed for making a meal out of the offerings in the general section, and had chosen to be here instead of at the Brunch session of the competing Taste of Beverly Hills event (where many of the VIP area restaurants had also been during the rival's 4-day event). The backlash from the first, and even the second, LA Street Food Fest events echoed in my mind as I scanned for a tolerable line in which to stand, and be made to part with money to buy something readily available any other time. Then the discussion in the comments section of a post about The Taste of Beverly Hills gave me double pause, when thinking about the issue of value.

Did those who paid $55-$65 get their money's worth? My answer: An emphatic NO. Demands for refunds surfaced on Twitter Sunday afternoon, not surprisingly. Did those who paid $125 for the VIP admission get their money's worth? My answer: Most likely, yes, though that's an assumption since I wasn't permitted that experience in order to report on it.

As some suggest, it's hopeful that the LA Times will learn from the experience of putting on this event for the first time, and make improvements to their sophomore effort. A day unencumbered by another major food event would be ideal. Shade for the seating to hear the panels. Free tastes for all in the general admission area, or, better--skip the class system altogether; this "let them eat cake" system is unnecessary.

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Have your say: The LA Times has opened up a survey for attendees.