How One Wife's Threat Started the Fort Worth Food and Wine Festival

A happy wife leads to a happy life. And, if you're Russell Kirkpatrick, a pretty successful food festival.

Often, great ideas are met with support; Russell Kirkpatrick’s was met with a threat. 

Several years ago, Kirkpatrick — the general manager of downtown restaurant Reata — came up with an idea for Fort Worth: Let’s have a food festival. Not just a little, one-day, one-event kind of festival, like Taste of (insert name of suburb here). But the type of food festival that big cities with big restaurant scenes have. Multiple events held over multiple days. A cross section of cuisines. Local celebrity chefs and up-and-comers. That kind of thing.    

Kirkpatrick’s ambitious idea, he says, turned him — and his wife Jennifer — into bona fide wrecks. Mulling over how to pull it off, he’d toss and turn all night, keeping Jennifer up. He’d prattle on about it all day, bending her ear until it practically fell off. He was, by his own admission, a nonstop, 24-hour annoyance.  

“I was getting up at 4 in the morning, putting thoughts down on paper, talking her ear off, driving her nuts,” says Kirkpatrick. “It got to the point where she said, ‘You either need to go talk to your boss about it or not talk to me about it again — ever, ever again.’ She was serious so I talked to [Reata owner] Mike [Micallef] that night about it, and he said, ‘Do it.’ And we were off and running.” 

Kirkpatrick’s idea — and Jennifer’s threat — evolved into the Fort Worth Food + Wine Festival, which this year celebrates its fifth anniversary. Held April 5-8 throughout the city, the festival will spotlight the handiwork of area chefs while raising money for local culinary students. Proceeds from the festival go to the Fort Worth Food + Wine Foundation, a nonprofit organization that raises funds for local grant programs and culinary scholarships. 

It wasn’t that long ago when a food and wine festival in Fort Worth might not have been met with much support. 

“Ten years ago, I’m not sure we could have put this together,” says Kirkpatrick, who co-founded the festival with Micallef. “But five years ago, the timing was perfect. There was so much happening — Magnolia Avenue was really starting to take off. So many new places were opening all over the city. Fort Worth’s attitude toward food was really starting to change — for the better.”

To organize the original festival, an advisory board was put together, made up of local chefs, food writers and restaurant-industry types, all of whom knew food but not necessarily festivals. 

“That was the funny thing — all these food people came together, and then we were like, ‘Well, what do we do now?’”  

For starters, Kirkpatrick and other organizers checked out similar festivals in locales like Austin, Aspen and Charleston, taking note of what they liked and what they didn’t.  

“We pretty much patterned our festival after the one in Charleston, but on a much smaller scale,” he says. “Theirs is absolutely huge. It takes over the entire city. I’d love to see ours turn into something like theirs, but that’s way down the road.” 

For now, the FWFWF is made up of six main events and a handful of smaller events. Kicking off the fest this year is the brand-new Tacos + Tequila, taking place April 5 at the BRIK Venue. This taco and tequila pairing will feature chefs such as Salsa Limon’s Keith Grober, Sarah Castillo from Taco Heads and Del Norte Tacos’ Chris Garcia.

The festival’s centerpiece remains the Main Event, taking place April 6 at the Pier 1 Imports building. Local top-tier chefs brandishing bite-size samples of their cuisine include Molly McCook from Ellerbe Fine Foods, Jon Bonnell of Waters and Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine and Ben Merritt of Fixture. 

Following the Main Event will be the late night Desserts After Dark, happening at a new venue this year: Firestone & Robertson’s Whiskey Ranch. A dozen local pastry chefs, including fest newcomer Liz Lanier of JOY Macarons, will drum up their finest sweet treats, while mixologists concoct sweet, boozy sips. 

Saturday will bring two events: the brunch-inspired Rise + Dine in the afternoon at Pier 1 and the Burgers, Brews + Blues burger competition in the evening at Heart of the Ranch at Clearfork. 

The festival will wrap Sunday with the annual barbecue competition and showcase, featuring pitmasters near and far duking it out for a best ’cue trophy. The event has a new name, Pitmasters Picnic, and a new location, Heart of the Ranch at Clearfork. 

On opening night, there’s also a wine dinner taking place at Reata, featuring a half-dozen former Reata chefs, including Tim Love and Grady Spears. 

“It’s sort of the first step in overlapping events,” Kirkpatrick says. “Some people may not want to walk around eating tacos,” he says. “They may want to go to a nice sit-down wine dinner. Some people might rather go to a champagne tasting than a burger tasting. That’s the kind of stuff we want to do and where we’d like to be in another five years.”

All food photos by Nancy Farrar.