Devour! Fest hits the west coast
Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
OSOYOOS, BRITISH COLUMBIA — By the end of the third course of Devour! Fest Okanagan, I had proof of what I had perceived for the past few years. The festival created in Nova Scotia has won praise from my friends and colleagues in the culinary tourism industry, convincing me it is one of the most unique events in North America, and perhaps the world.
I have yet to attend the Maritime festival, but I was able to gain an appreciation for Devour! Fest’s charm during its inaugural British Columbia edition in the tiny town of Osoyoos, known for being situated in Canada’s only desert and in the vicinity of some of the best grape-growing soil in the country.
Devour! Fest Okanagan matched chefs, wineries, and filmmakers in a fascinating and fun twist on the dinner-and-a-movie concept.
The six-course event had a different chef preparing each dish, which was matched with a local wine, and a short film that ranged from one to five minutes. The chefs told the approximately 100 diners how the movie influenced the preparation of the food on their plates.
That third course featured “Cheese,” a hilarious comedy about the adventures of a neophyte cheese purchaser who must confront a Soup Nazi-ish cheese purveyor. Written and directed by Hannah Cheesman (whose name is a humorous coincidence), the film is an exaggeration of true events from the creator’s misadventures as a cheese shopper.
The viewing of “Cheese” preceded an eye-opening and tongue-pleasing plate from Felix Zhou, the inspired young chef from Beach Bay Cafe in Vancouver‘s west end. Zhou served goat cheese three different ways, including smoked, and topped it with dehydrated kalamata olives and pickled radish. When a chef takes to the creative challenge that Devour! Fest presents with such gusto, it underscores all of what the festival can do for the enjoyment of food and film, and makes you realize why it is such a hit.
To comprehend how far Michael Howell has taken his idea of a festival focused on films about food, you have to know its genesis.
In 2009, Howell was running Tempest, which was a sensational Nova Scotia restaurant that celebrated slow food and Maritime culture. Despite its popularity, the restaurant in the university town of Wolfville had its down season and Howell wanted to attract more diners in the chilly months that lacked tourists. He aimed for an attraction that would bring people into Wolfville and when those visitors needed food, Tempest would be among their top choices for a table. He had heard of one similar event in Italy and decided to launch the unique festival.
“It started as just a way to get more people into seats at Tempest,” Howell recalls during my conversation with him at the Watermark Beach Resort in Osoyoos, the site of Devour! Fest Okanagan. “I also hoped it to would be an economic driver for the community and a tourism draw for Nova Scotia. But when we started it, we really didn’t know where it might lead.”
Where Devour! Fest has gone is extraordinary. Tourism Nova Scotia has recognized it as one of the pre-eminent events in the province, encouraging visitors to venture on the one-hour drive east of Halifax for the multi-day event that features culinary stars discussing the state of the food world, serving crowd-pleasing cuisine, and viewing films where food is a focus of the story.
“We began as a slow-food film festival, but so many of those movies are about the end of the world coming,” Howell says hyperbolically. “You know, they talk so much about all the things we as a society are doing wrong. We wanted to have more balance. We wanted to add levity, have some Hollywood movies, add dramas to the program, and just have more fun.”
For the 2013 edition, Howell teamed with Lia Rinaldi, who has more than 20 years experience in helping to organize the Atlantic Canada Film Festival. With her guidance and Howell’s continued devotion to creating a one-of-a-kind event, Devour! Fest exploded in popularity. Hollywood Reporter raved about its programming. Anthony Bourdain showed up for the 2014 edition. More than 5,000 attendees turned out in 2015, doubling the population of Wolfville during that fall weekend.
“It’s foodies who are driving it,” Howell says of the festival’s notoriety. “They’re the ones who are making culinary experiences a key reason, if not the biggest reason, why they choose a place to visit. Through food, you can learn so much about another culture. It’s one thing we all have in common.”
More than 300 films are reviewed before Rinaldi and her team select 80 for screening at the Nova Scotia festival.
“People always ask if there’s enough films about food, and when I tell them how many entries we receive they’re blown away,” she says. “And there are more and more every year. There’s definitely no shortage.”
People also ask her and Howell about relocating to Halifax or Toronto, but the duo are committed to the festival’s origins.
“We have a memorandum of understanding with Acadia University where they will donate the use of their facilities to us,” Howell says. “That’s a big deal for us and a very good reason to stay where we are.”
Acadia also has theatres for Devour! Fest to grow into, Rinaldi notes.
As the concept expands and Devour! Fests start to show up in other locations, the organizers are looking to find similarities to Wolfville. That was a reason why Osoyoos was chosen. Ingrid Jarrett, general manager of the Watermark Beach Resort, recruited Howell and Rinaldi because she is a fan of Devour! Fest and wanted “a signature event for the south Okanagan’s spring wine festival.” After years of trying, her efforts to draw Devour! west finally worked.
“It’s like Wolfville here. It is a town of about 5,000 people. It has a great wine scene, a culinary scene, an arts culture,” says Howell, noting that plans are already being made to turn next year’s Okanagan event into a bigger spectacle. “We see plenty of opportunities to grow the festival here, and we want to be coming back here to British Columbia for a long time.”
More About Devour! Fest
Dates: November 2-6, 2016, Wolfville, Nova Scotia
Tickets: A five-day pass — called the #EatItUp Film Wristband — costs $50 and offers access to all films. Screenings often include food, drink and notable people from the culinary world.