Charleston Wine + Food fest is more than an opportunity to eat and drink your way across the city — every crafty cocktail sipped from your lanyard-bound glass and every bamboo plated dish precariously balanced in one hand has a story behind it. More accurately, it's the people behind the provisions who have a story to tell, and you, the attendee, are a participant in that ongoing narrative.
Foodways are an ever-evolving, perpetual conversation. "We are an organization that believes that human connection is the most powerful force on Earth and shared stories are the catalyst for this connection," the festival's website declares. "Stories define us, connect us, and give us a sense of place + purpose in life."
But the story doesn't end when the culinary village takes down its tents, new friends part ways with a promise to keep in touch, and chefs return to their home kitchens. In an effort to advocate for the city's ongoing culinary excellence year-round, WFF has extended their programming to include off-season events held in their Test Kitchen.
Created in 2018 inside the fest's Rutledge Avenue HQ, the Test Kitchen is sleek and intimate, a workspace featuring state-of-the-art equipment, open industrial ceilings, a lounge area, and classroom-style seating for attendees. Everyone from cocktail connoisseurs to renowned chefs to food-focused podcasters have been invited to host workshop events within the space. It's dressed in a chic, neutral color palette and has ample surface area — including a large island for gathering.
"When we were designing our kitchen, we knew that having a very large island where people could gather was important. It anchors the space and allows for guests to get proximate with the talent they are here to learn from," says Alyssa Maute Smith, WFF marketing and communications director.
Every detail is intentionally designed to keep the focus on the conversations and creations that occur within it. "In a world where we are constantly consuming so much information digitally, people are longing for face-to-face human connection more than ever. The Test Kitchen is the physical space that allows us to produce more opportunities for this type of connection; storytelling is the natural result," says WFF executive director Gillian Zettler.
As an extension of the festival's home office, the Test Kitchen brings to mind the kitchens of homes where friends and family gather to create their own stories.
"I believe that a kitchen is the place where the best stories are shared in a home, so to have a kitchen as the focal point of our office feels like a natural way to share the stories of Charleston Wine + Food," says Zettler. "It allows our staff, our hospitality community, and our guests the opportunity to always feel connected to the organization."
"Often the most memorable moments a person has are anchored in food and the sharing of that food with a loved one. The kitchen is the heart of the home and the place where the most interesting and authentic conversation occurs," adds Smith.
A recent Test Kitchen event featured the Cocktail Bandits, Johnny Caldwell and Taneka Reaves, who hosted "Apéritif vs. Aperitivo," a cocktail workshop where guests sipped on and discussed the difference between the two. Spoiler alert: It's as simple as one's French and the other is Italian.
Before diving into the class, the Bandits greeted each guest with a Carolina Shandy (a simple, refreshing blend of Palmetto Brewery's Lowcountry Lager mixed with lemonade) and asked everyone to describe the cocktail that best fits their personalities — a game which drew lots of laughter as dirty martinis distinguished themselves from skinny margaritas.
Guests quickly became a part of Caldwell and Reaves' story: After meeting at College of Charleston more than 15 years ago, they became the Bandits when they realized that Charleston's bars had a shortage of women behind them, especially women of color. They started attending events, crafting their own cocktails using local ingredients, and blogging about their escapades. They quickly gained recognition as two of Charleston's reigning cocktail queens.
In 2018, the Italian Trade Commission invited the two to take part in a seven-day spirit safari across the Italian countryside. During that week, they became intimately acquainted with the country's affinity for aperitivo hour, an experience they were able to tie into this workshop.
All event attendees went home with a metal straw (because environment), an Aperol cup, cocktail recipe cards, and new connections with each other and with the Bandits. The intimate size of the class made getting to know the folks around you inevitable, exemplifying the festival's mission: to forge connections rooted in cultural foodways.
Looking ahead, the Test Kitchen will feature several holiday-themed events included Roasting + Hosting on Tues. Nov. 19. Chef John Zucker of Cru Café will teach guests how to roast a chicken to perfection while Marika Vida, aka The Mom Somm, talks wine pairings.
Keep an eye out for opportunities to join in on Tasting Notes — in-person recordings of local and national food podcasts. Prominent hosts like Lindsay Collins of Effin B Radio and Kerry Diamond of Radio Cherry Bombe are slated to stop by, with every recording featuring an interactive element like a cooking demo or cocktail tasting.
Tasting Notes is free to the public, though space is limited. If any of this stimulates your appetite, snag your tickets and join the conversation.