Strathmore enlisted many of the biggest names in Washington’s scene for its food festival

“Food and eating are very much a part of entertainment now,” Strathmore’s Shelley Brown says. “You see it on TV, you see it in the movies, and when people go out, they also want a good food experience.”

Yet while the North Bethesda arts complex does offer food on site via a restaurant café, it’s never really offered programs or events focused on food and the culinary arts. Furthermore, in 31 years as a nonprofit arts center, set on a gently sloping, park-like 11 acres of land, Strathmore has rarely presented an all-day festival making full use of the property inside and out.

Todd and Ellen Gray of Equinox

Todd and Ellen Gray of Equinox

That gave Brown, Strathmore’s artistic director, an idea. Why not produce a food festival? It was an easy sell to one of the first people Brown approached for guidance.

“Strathmore is beautiful — the perfect facility for a food and wine festival,” cookbook author Ellen Kassoff says. Kassoff, who also co-owns Equinox Restaurant with her husband, star chef Todd Gray, considers the idea a win-win for Strathmore. “It gives them a lot more depth as a cultural institution, bringing on members of the culinary community.” Kassoff also sees it as a positive for culinary artists. “To have Strathmore pull this together is sort-of the ultimate nod to legitimizing us as part of the culture.”

There are no guarantees in life, of course. Strathmore could come to regret boasting in advance that it will host what it has branded “Summer’s Ultimate Indoor/Outdoor Food Festival.” But at the very least, the lineup is verifiably “ultimate.” Many of the most influential people and most successful brands in the Washington region’s gangbusters food and dining scene are represented in this weekend’s event, officially called the “Appetite Festival – A Gastronomic Experience.”

Robert Weidmaier of Mussel Bar & Grille/Brasserie Beck, Carolyn Stromberg of Righteous Cheese, Jill Sandler of the Chocolatier’s Palette and Scott Drewno of the Source are just four of dozens of culinary experts offering demonstrations or pairing workshops — or in Drewno’s case, hosting a pig roast. All are set for Saturday, Aug. 2, in one of Strathmore’s two indoor venues, either the Mansion or the Music Center. Kassoff and Gray are also participating in the festival, including giving a talk based on their joint cookbook published last year, The New Jewish Table: Modern Seasonal Recipes for Traditional Dishes.

Also on tap will be local craft brews served in a beer garden, vendors offering wine and spirits, and various food merchants selling cooking accessories and specialty goods. A free “food truck court” on the Strathmore grounds will offer some of the hottest mobile kitchens around, from Jose Andres’ Pepe to Red Hook Lobster Pound to Woodland’s Vegan Bistro. On Saturday, there will be outdoor performances by several lively local bands, including the 19th Street Band and Chopteeth Afrofunk Big Band, who will try to make you move and burn off some of the day’s excess carbohydrates out on the Backyard Theater stage.

Andrew Zimmern

Andrew Zimmern

But it’s not all local. The festival is bookended by appearances from two national celebrities, who will give full cooking demonstrations from the stage in the Music Center. Food Network host Giada De Laurentiis does the honors Friday, Aug. 1, at 7 p.m., and the Travel Channel’s Andrew “Bizarre Foods” Zimmern closes the festival Saturday, Aug. 2, at 7:30 p.m.

In planning the festival, but especially in securing the De Laurentiis and Zimmern, Strathmore worked in partnership with the original Appetite Festival, now in its second year in New Jersey. “They really mentored us,” Brown says, “to help us figure out how to get to the experts and what we should be focusing on.” Without such mentorship, as well as help from Kassoff and other experts, Brown concedes she couldn’t have done this at all. “It’s an area that’s really stretching us,” she says about Strathmore — and herself. “I have one son in college and one who is a senior in high school, so I don’t do the dining out thing very much,” she explains, laughing, “I’m too busy saving money.”

And while Brown intends for this to become an annual event, she’s also quick to lower expectations, noting that it’s an experiment. “Well, we’ll see how it goes,” she says. “You know, with a new venture, you never quite know.”

If nothing else, putting together the festival has opened Brown’s eyes to the area’s bounties in food and dining — a newfound appreciation she imagines festivalgoers will gain too.

“It really is this great introduction to what wealth and richness we have in the restaurant area here.”

The Appetite Festival kicks off with a happy hour Friday, Aug. 1, at 5 p.m., and continues Saturday, Aug. 2, starting at 11 a.m. Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. A Saturday Day Pass is $50, with other passes and individual tickets for the national headliners available. Call 301-581-5100 or visit strathmore.org/appetite/.

Doug Rule is a theater critic and contributing editor for Metro Weekly.

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