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For foodies, BottleRock means meals of all kinds, by the thousands

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Inside her cramped food truck, chef Jamilah Nixon admitted she was a little nervous. She’d been up since 4:30 a.m. getting ready for the onslaught of hungry festivalgoers at BottleRock 2019 at the Napa County Fairgrounds. Like hundreds of other chefs and cooks featured at the music, wine and culinary event, she’s been prepping food for days, but this is the Santa Rosa resident’s first time working a food truck at BottleRock.

She was expecting to make up to 900 meals a day over the three-day event from her food truck, Jam’s Joy Bungalow.

“My fear is just getting overwhelmed,” she said, preparing a bowl of glass noodles with shiitake mushrooms. Other menu items on order were banh mi sandwiches with hoisin pork and coconut-brined fried chicken with tamari sauce and sriracha.

Food has always been a major focus of the 7-year-old Wine Country festival. Tapping into the culinary prowess of Napa and Sonoma, BottleRock has differentiated itself by offering tweezer- perfect food from world-class chefs. Seventy restaurants have set up mobile kitchens for the long weekend, with fare ranging from kimchi french fries and locally sourced grass-fed beef to imported New Zealand salmon and hamachi crudo and risotto.

With projected total attendance at 120,000 this year, the 50-plus food vendors in the general admission area expect to do upwards of 1,500 meals per day. Inside the festival’s VIP area, chefs are planning for 1,100 meals daily. In premium areas and skyboxes, the food is exclusively created by Meadowood, a luxury resort in St. Helena.

Seeing stars

By 11:30 a.m. sous chefs Juan Carlos Acosta and Jared Lopez of Estate Events by Meadowood had already served a breakfast of avocado toast with arugula, freshly made buttermilk waffles with fried chicken, a Waldorf salad and just-pressed juices inside the Platinum tent.

The exclusive experience is limited to 450 people, and costs upwards of $5,000 per ticket. A 30-person culinary staff caters to the guests, with three meals per day, along with a taco bar, passed hors d’oeuvres and desserts. The menu includes Wagyu ribeye steak, Spanish paella, risotto with uni imported from Japan, lobster rolls, raw oysters, vegetables picked from the resort’s estate gardens.

Operating from several catering tents, Acosta and Lopez on Friday were managing a full-fledged mobile kitchen with two refrigerated shipping containers, a full bar staff, grills, refrigerators, freezers and prep tables. A juicer whirred constantly in a back tent, creating batches of fresh juices for specialty cocktails. Everyone was in chef’s whites or starched aprons. It appeared to run like clockwork.

“It’s organized chaos,” said Acosta, who has worked the event since 2013. He was serving 300 for breakfast, 500 for lunch and 500 for dinner. The staff had just finished shredding 150 pounds of chicken for tinga tacos served at the taco bar. Most of the food is pre-cooked in the St. Helena kitchen and assembled in the onsite kitchen.

“Come back at 2 p.m.,” Lopez said. “We’ll really be going then.”

But just moments later he added, “You should eat,” and offered up a plate of saffron yellow chilaquiles that was served to the staff with fresh avocado and baby greens, then returned to the kitchen for the next meal.

VIP plates at the ready

John Stewart and Duskie Estes, best known for Sebastopol’s Zazu restaurant, brought their Black Pig food truck to the Napa County Fairgrounds last Sunday, when Stewart said the VIP area was a mud pit from recent heavy rains. It was dry Friday, but the storm fallout stalled construction for several days, according to organizers. A small city of tents, luxury boxes and temporary kitchens were built around the truck, Stewart said. With their daughters, the couple will be serving an estimated 1,100 meals each day of the festival. They’re doing pulled pork, kimchi fries, cheese sandwiches and BLTs with their housemade bacon.

It’s their first year at the festival, and they’ve had an extra hitch. After their restaurant, Zazu Kitchen & Farm at The Barlow, flooded in February, the couple decided to close the popular eatery. Without their own prep kitchen, they’ve had to use a commissary kitchen at Siduri Winery. They’ve already done two other catering events from the kitchen, but not at the scope of BottleRock.

“Everything is prepped and staged,” said Stewart, “but really, you’re just guessing at the numbers. All food service is just crisis management.”

In a nearby tent, John Toulze of The Girl and the Fig in Sonoma was moving pizzas around in a mobile wood-fired oven. It wasn’t even 70 degrees outside, but the heat radiating from the 800-degree oven was nearly unbearable. The air shimmered around it. Toulze shoved a few more pizzas inside, barely breaking a sweat.

“We got this,” he said as VIP guests began trickling in.

Chefs take the stage

Celebrity chefs walked onto the Williams-Sonoma Culinary stage Friday afternoon and the crowds went wild. Throughout the weekend more than a dozen chefs will perform with television personalities, musicians and sports figures doing sumo wrestling, making cocktails and carving entire suckling pigs. Big names include Padma Lakshmi, Andrew Zimmern, Duff Goldman and Queer Eye’s Antoni Porowski.

One of the first chefs in the spotlight was Nic Jones of St. Helena’s Goose & Gander. He’s an old pro, having performed at BottleRock once before. Cooking isn’t much of a spectator sport, but his “wow” moment was pulling an entire pig from his portable barbecue. He started it at 3:30 a.m. and had to stoke the coals every 20 minutes.

“I just took catnaps,” he said. He began work at the restaurant at 6 a.m., preparing for the more than 1,500 burgers his staff would be flipping throughout the day at the Goose & Gander tent.

He said the stage pig was brined for a week and flavored with Korean chili flakes, toasted nori and koji, a Japanese yeast, to create a strong sense of umami.

“It turned out perfect,” he said.

Garden of Eating

The most trafficked food area inside the event was a horseshoe of 16 restaurants called the Culinary Garden. It’s open to anyone at the festival and includes well-heeled Napa restaurants La Toque and Morimoto along with more casual spots such as Cook Tavern, Eight Noodle House and Chef Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc and newly-opened La Calenda. Keller, who founded the French Laundry and Bouchon, along with dozens of other restaurants around the world, expects perfection even in his fried chicken.

Behind the Ad Hoc tent, six fryers were bubbling at 300 degrees. Pieces of brined, seasoned and coated chicken were dropped into the boiling oil for 12 minutes, dusted with salt and rosemary and served sizzling hot. Chef de cuisine Matt Alba oversaw the process in a starched white chef coat, checking each piece of chicken before it left the prep line. Throughout the weekend, they expect to serve 4,000 pounds of chicken, using 100 gallons of buttermilk and 2,500 pounds of the flour and spice blend.

In the next tent, Chef Kaelin Ulrich Trilling of Keller’s La Calenda said everything on order from his booth was prepped at the restaurant and assembled onsite. The new Oaxacan eatery will serve up an estimated 650 pounds of guacamole, 600 pounds of carnitas and 1,500 ears of corn throughout the weekend.

Keep Truckin’

Back at Joy’s Jam Bungalow early in the evening, the line stretched seven people deep. Nixon’s first day had been a little harrowing, but she had kept up the pace over the past six hours. She still had another six until the festival closed, then it’s back to Santa Rosa to restock and get ready for Saturday and Sunday.

“It’s been amazing, but we’ve gotta keep going,” she said through the window of the truck.

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