With nearly 70 food vendors and over 200 dishes, Jazz Fest isn’t simply a music destination, it’s a foodie paradise. But that makes vendor selection and organization an arduous task.
Fortunately, just the right woman is leading the process. Michelle Nugent has been the Jazz Fest Food Director since 1999 and has a culinary résumé befitting a world-class chef. She spent 17 years working with chef Susan Spicer, first as an apprentice, then as Bayona’s sous chef, and finally as the executive chef at Spice Inc.
With a palette like that, it’s no wonder the food at Jazz Fest is so beloved. Michelle explains what she’s looking for in a potential vendor.
“You have to be able to devote three weeks of your life to it,” Nugent says. “They basically don’t sleep very much. You have to be able to hire a large staff, you have to be able to bring in all of the supplies you need, and you have to be able to cook a lot of really delicious food really quickly in any kind of circumstance."
Nugent was a Jazz Fest fan long before becoming its Food Director. For her, festival days have always non negotiable. “My first festival, I was 11 and I was hooked,” she says. “For all the years I was cooking (in New Orleans), I had to make a deal with my chef that I could go one day out of the seven. It was my sacred little thing. Whenever I would move out of town, that would be the first thing I would say, 'I’ll do anything you want, but this is when I take my vacation.'"
Nugent also says that an intimate knowledge of Louisiana cuisine and the ins and outs of Jazz Fest are crucial to her position, “You can’t call yourself a Louisiana Heritage festival if you don’t know anything about the heritage."
When it comes to introducing new dishes at Jazz Fest, Nugent says even the most skeptical festival goers will be won over by taste. “This year, for instance, we have a new duck and shrimp pasta dish that’s going over really well. I think there were a few raised eyebrows at first, but once they taste it they love it and go back for seconds."
After heavy rains on Thursday the grounds of Jazz Fest remain muddy, but Nugent says the food vendors are ready to weather the storm, "Most of them have been out here twenty to thirty years. They know what to do. They come prepared. They wear their rain boots, they have rain suits, and we just roll with it."
When the weather is damp, Nugent suggests seeking comfort in one particular dish, "Any of the gumbos. That’s breakfast of champions as far as I’m concerned."
Although the culinary landscape of Jazz Fest is vast — Nugent acknowledges there are some limitations on what she can realistically offer — at least until the rest of the world catches up with Louisiana.
“I would love to have turtle soup. I’d love to have daube glacé. There’s old fashioned dishes like that that I’d love to do, but they’re a little obscure and I think it would be too much work.”