More than 30 chefs from 25 Madison restaurants participated in the inaugural YumYum Fest.
The first YumYum Fest, a benefit for the Madison Parks Foundation, was held on Sunday in Madison's new Central Park. Our finest chefs presented what's essentially a rejection of Taste of Madison and its typically middlebrow offerings and huge crowds in favor of a smaller-scale event promoting innovative menus, daring and boundary-pushing explorations of the limits of pop-up food, and risky culinary choices that were exciting even in failure.
This event, driven by the new Madison Area Chefs Network (founded last year), felt exclusive, like a large but still private party. More than 30 local chefs from 25 Madison-area restaurants came to the event at the new park armed with a ton of ideas and a focus on working the edges of modern local food. Sourcing was labeled and highly local, to the point that I learned the marigold from Grampa's Pizzeria was grown in a nearby backyard on Willy Street. This was in defiant opposition to Midwestern food-on-a-stick tendencies. The result was a glow of community-oriented good spirits on a gorgeous, hot, cloud-dappled Sunday afternoon.
Despite the Wisco theme, I was immediately drawn to the Maryland crab cocktail with grapefruit gelée, sea scallops, and sea urchin mousse with dashi by Grampa's. Owner Gil Altschul served me one of the first, and said "We're still deciding how much we like it. The portions are perhaps too big." He needn't have worried. The smoked avocado and tender, flaky scallops with crisp daikon set an study of contrasts -- tart grapefruit against tender crab was at the bottom of this loving cup, a final layer of intrigue in a stunning dish for a situation this mobile and a meal in itself. This was a highly ambitious concoction that perhaps did not find its perfect form, but right away took a stand.
Osteria Papavero, one of my favorite restaurants, did not disappoint with plentiful slices of spiced cold beef over fat slices of cucumbers, explosively flavorful heirloom tomatoes, and red onions. This cooling, Thai-inflected dish felt perfect as the sun started to heat the park up.
A huge line preceded Salvatore's Tomato Pies from the minute Yum Yum opened. Chef Patrick DePula made tacos with local pork carnitas, habanero fruit salsa, poblano peppers, and roasted tomatillo melon hot sauce, sourcing the ingredients from Harmony Valley Farm, Becker Family Farms, and Lundeen Farm.
Tables for standing and sitting were smartly laid out around the central area, which situated a ticket booth in the middle. Five dollars got you a ticket good for any food plate or glass of alcohol (a nice, easy, convenient system, as it turned out). I met new friends and old friends in this pleasing and utilitarian German beer tent-style arrangement. "Is this seat free?" I asked, to a table of friendly glances. "Of course!" someone said. "And by the way, good choice."
He was referring to my plate of lamb and noodles. Tory Miller (of L'Etoile, Graze, and the brand-new Sujeo) roasted a whole lamb, and we were treated to a small piece of it in each plate: Tender, sweet, rich, sweating with fatty juices. That wonderful dab of meat made a solid anchor for perfectly cooked udon noodles, watercress, squash, and sheeps milk cheese. Five dollars? Steal.
Daniel Bonanno of A Pig in a Fur Coat brought burrata with tomatoes, red onions, and microgreens from Elderberry Farms. Elizabeth and Tim Dahl of Nostrano made Italian gelato using ingredients from Sassy Cow Creamery.
A tented wine cave and beer stands were stocked with impressive yet practical craft adult beverages. A cheese tent was less successful -- or, at least I wouldn't know, as I was put off by the requirement to give up a ticket to get in for an undefined reward -- cheese, surely, but in what capacity? This concept could be thought through more clearly.
Chef Matt Pace of Bassett Street Brunch Club offered "toast," but it's probably not what you're thinking: The bread was topped with Italian peppers, ricotta, homemade chorizo, heirloom tomatoes, and avocado.
A friend ordered a skewered whole Gulf shrimp from Merchant, which he described as lightly spiced and... crunchy. "It's the whole animal," I suggested, and he nodded, mouth full of plump crustacean flesh. "Yes, and yum," he said.
Jack Yip of Red Sushi Grill created a "Wisconsin Lakes" sushi roll with white fish tempura, eel sauce, and avocado. Casey Trumble of Brasserie V produced a traditionally-minded Belgian beer sausage over braised cabbage with egg, working with Fox Heritage Farms and Crossroads Community Farm.
Mixologist Hastings Cameron had a cunning plan to deploy rosé slushies, but was delayed in this endeavor by setbacks that required the unleashing of a generator and many apologies for the delays -- in the grip of a hotter-than-expected afternoon, a good percentage of the throng evidently thought a wine slushie sounded like just the thing. Cameron has a great knack for matching beverages to situations.
Other than some unneeded complexity at the ticket line, the event was almost entirely frictionless. Four Fists featuring POS and Astronautalis, Lizzo, Orgone, and Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires entertained the crowds. The music nicely matched the deepening afternoon. The crowd swelled, the food dazzled, and Pinot Gris was fine in plastic glasses under the panorama of subtly shifting cloud patterns in Central Park.