Fort Worth Food + Wine Festival Rolls on Just as the Co-Founder Envisioned

March 21, 2023 | John Henry | Fort Worth Inc.

Russell Kirkpatrick’s wife Jennifer made her solemn vows earnestly in agreeing to have and to hold, for better, for worse, for richer, poorer, in sickness and health till the cloaked skeleton wielding a large scythe comes a-knockin’ at the door.

However, she did not agree to listen to her husband’s great ideas ad nauseam.

So, a couple of shots of liquid courage later, and a prompting from the missus, Russell, the general manager at Reata, finally went to talk to his boss, Mike Micallef, about bringing a food and wine festival to Fort Worth.


“Oddly enough we were at a co-worker's birthday party one afternoon and, I had just enough cocktails, and my wife's like, ‘Mike's here. You're here. Go pitch it to him.’ And so, I kind of sold him. I was like, ‘I think this would work. I think we could get this thing off the ground.’ And really what I needed from him were some names in his Rolodex because, you know, Mike knows everybody in town.”

The Fort Worth Wine + Food Festival has been a smashing success, everything the co-founder, Kirkpatrick, believed it would be as an event celebrating Fort Worth’s culinary scene. This year’s event, March 30-April 2, is the 10th since takeoff in 2014. It will be conducted mostly at the Heart of the Ranch at Clearfork, with a few events taking place elsewhere.

The festival, according to its website, has raised more than $325,000 for grants and scholarships for culinary students from Fort Worth, as well as a service-industry relief fund for employees out of work during the pandemic shutdown.

As importantly, the festival gives local chefs a boost in exposure.

For nine years, the Fort Worth Food + Wine Festival has featured the edibles and grapes that, to borrow a phrase, maketh glad the heart of man.

And woman, too, it goes without saying.

“The thought was if we create something that then the money raised can go back toward culinary scholarships or something within the industry that can help support our industry and, you know, try to get some kids in the kitchen. ‘Hey, let's put them through culinary school and get them back to Fort Worth.’”

It’s all the brainchild of Kirkpatrick, who wondered why Fort Worth couldn’t do something similar to the Buffalo Gap Wine & Food Summit. Its co-leadership consortium consisted of Tom Perini of Perini Ranch Steakhouse, the late Fess Parker of Fess Parker Winery and Vineyards, and Richard Becker of Becker Vineyards in Stonewall.

“It’s 500 people in the middle of a dirt field, 30 minutes south of Abilene,” Kirkpatrick says, the two of us sitting a table in a private dining space at Reata. “But you look at the participants out there, for early years it was us and Grady [Spears] and Tim [Love] and Jon [Bonnell]. I mean, half the participants were Fort Worth chefs.

“And this thing would sell out. So, obviously there's a huge demand for the talent in Fort Worth. I don't think I recreated the wheel.”

It was a thing, the food festival, that caught fire across the country. And it certainly became a thing here.

The Noche Del Sol will kick off this year’s event with celebrity chef Tiffany Derry and Fort Worth’s Juan Rodriguez collaborating on a multi-course menu that will showcase their individual styles while constructing recipes of Southern spice, Mexican flavor, and heritage cuisine. That one-night only event will take place at the Fort Worth Club.

There’s good and bad news. The bad news is it’s sold out. The good news is it’s sold out. There are, however, still general admission tickets left to events Friday through Sunday. Check the schedule and ticket availability here.

Kirkpatrick, a son of Austin and graduate of Southwest Texas State who moved here because his Fort Worth-born wife wanted to return, and Micallef got this thing kicked off with a seed event in 2013, “20 at The Tower,” held in a corner spot in the refurbished Bank One Tower. A corner spot that fronted Taylor Street, now the Mercury Chophouse, was vacant.

The landlord wanted to lease the space and what better way to lure a potential chef than by letting him or her try out space over the course of 20 days.

Twenty chefs, one different each night (the nights were Sunday and Monday), over 20 days. John Tesar, Graham Dodds, and Matt McCallister from Dallas and, of course, all our big ones, were among the chef participants.

A ticket cost $75, but you had no idea which chef would be working that night.

“That gave us enough seed money to basically rent the ballroom at the Worthington,” Kirkpatrick says.

In other words, the Fort Worth Food + Wine Festival was on in 2014, kicking off at Billy Bob’s with events at the Worthington and Bass Hall, among others.

More recently, organizers have worked to include lesser-known chefs who find the cost of participation prohibitive.

This year, the Fort Worth Food + Wine Festival Foundation has raised enough money to give every participant $500 cash.

“That will help you whether it’s to get some guys to help you laborwise or foodwise. We really wanted those smaller independents that might not get the opportunity to get in front of 1,000 people because that can really change a business model for you.”

Off the top of his head, he lists Pearl Snap Kolaches as one example of a business being changed by getting in front of a Food + Wine Festival audience. Pearl Snap Kolaches, its bread  won Burger of the Year a few years back and went from dabbling in burgers to serving them every day because of the exposure and demand.

Today, the festival has two full-time employees, including Julie Eastman, the executive director, and a bevy of eager-beaver volunteers.

Kirkpatrick has taken on the title of “Chair Emeritus” of the board, as well as chair of the chef committee.

Emeritus is a word with roots in Latin to describe “soldiers who had completed their duty.” English laid claim on it to describe one who is retired.

That does not sound like the word to describe the co-founder of the Fort Worth Food + Wine Festival who is most definitely still getting his hands dirty.

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