Here’s the thing about large outdoor summer gatherings with more than 1,000 people in attendance: at some point, it just becomes a cattle drive. This is fine at most festivals, where organizers are only responsible for moving the human livestock from stage to stage (or at least providing them with safe passage) and are largely not responsible for the feeding and watering of their herd.
Dig-IN, on the other hand, is a music festival model, except instead of filling our ears with melodies, they filled our bellies with gourmet food, beer, and wine. We’re not talking food trucks (although many were present), but the head chefs and chefs de cuisine of some of Indy’s finest restaurants sweating it out in a shared prep space. We’re talking less civilized conditions than those enjoyed by folks slinging funnel cakes at the State Fair, but with more cucumber gel and rabbit terrines.
One of my favorite, more subtle aspects of the organization of Dig-IN is that it is the chefs who come first—literally, their names are the largest text on the signage at each tent. You don’t get to know a restaurant, you get to know a chef, their signature style, and their flavors. You can also tell, based on the dishes, how much business a chef gets from their Dig-IN day versus the rest of the year.
For example, Roanoke restaurant Joseph Decuis didn’t waste a square inch of their booth space, and built a nice shading tent in front of their booth that they filled with awards, photo albums, menus, and gave us some cooling time in exchange for a little creative advertising. Then they served some of their signature ultra-marbled, ultra-rich wagyu beef in an miniature empanada, and I had to just take a seat and let the sensation wash over me. I will definitely be making the trip, after seeing those folks put in such an effort.
The one thing that seemed to have fallen through the cracks were the cooking demonstrations done by some of Indy’s most famous chefs. It all went down on a concrete slab with a folding table (no tablecloth), with a fridge and stove just hanging out in the background on the landing of one of the park’s buildings. What an incredibly cool idea, I thought, totally sunk by set design apparently coordinated by your meth-addled Uncle Donny. This is something I will definitely look for next year, though.
Despite that small hiccup, it was obvious that the Dig-IN coordinators are vastly improving the event with every pass. This year, there were more entrances, more exits, and a lot more access to water. Of course, some lines were long and stayed long all day (looking at you, The Indigo Duck from Franklin), mostly from the destination joints that seemed to be on everyone’s “Go Someday” lists. Otherwise, everything moved right along; tents were well-staffed and everyone seemed prepared for the onslaught.
The only thing that could have made it better that the organizers had no control over? The weather. Of course it rained in the morning and of course the sun came out and transformed White River Park into a convection oven. Ladies trudged around frustratedly in their rubber wellies while their feet sous-vide in a bath of sweat (100 degrees, 300 minutes), and every single representative of NUVO was decked out in head-to-toe black.
So technically, we got our wish of no rain and plenty of sunshine for the event, but only after everyone showed up prepared and more than happy to brave the rain for their tasting plates. I tapped out at just over 20 plates (barely half, much to my chagrin), and watched as festival goers dropped like flies in tree-shaded clusters.
This year’s Dig-IN was pretty fabulous all-around, without any of the hiccups of year’s past—plenty of water, plenty of food, and not too much waiting in line. It was like a dinner party thrown by all your favorite cooks, except during the daytime. In public. With about four thousand of your closest friends. The simplest way to sum up the experience is to borrow some immortal words from Coffee Talk’s Linda Richmond: it was like buttah.