The Foodie Hell Experience

What the ill-conceived and poorly executed Great GoogaMooga Festival says about urban food obsessives.

Great Googa Mooga.
The crowd at the Great GoogaMooga 2012 at Prospect Park on May 20, 2012 in Brooklyn

Photograph by Mike Lawrie.

What is there left to say about the Great GoogaMooga, the haute-bourgeois food festival that pitched its painstakingly art-directed tents in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park last weekend? Saddled with an embarrassing name and an annoying premise—to gather chefs from New York’s most overexposed blogger-approved restaurants in an orgy of food worship—the festival invited ridicule from the outset and subsequently took every single opportunity to justify that initial disdain.

The Great GoogaMooga took its cues from giant music festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo, where young people gather in distant fields to hear bands they already know play songs with which they’re already familiar. The organizers invited almost every single New York-based vendor you’d expect, as if the invitee roster had been determined by taking a quick look at Andy Cohen’s credit card statements. There was Crif Dogs, which sells in-your-face hot dogs in Brooklyn and the East Village; Red Rooster Harlem, run by celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson; Momofuku Milk Bar, which is perhaps the best-known dessert place in the nation; Mile End, a Brooklyn delicatessen that features 28 major-media write-ups on its website’s “Press” page.

It’s worth asking what the point of this was. At music festivals, the bands hail from around the world, and the fun comes in watching bands that you might not otherwise get a chance to see live. But New Yorkers don’t need to wait for the stars to align to visit most of the restaurants that were featured at GoogaMooga. They’re already accessible—in fact, the distance between the East Village locations of Luke’s Lobster and South Brooklyn Pizza, to name two of the festival’s well-known vendors, is less than the distance between their respective GoogaMooga tents. What’s more, the tent-based version of their food is almost guaranteed to be worse than the restaurant version. It’s hard to make restaurant-quality food in a park; near impossible to do it quickly, consistently, and in sufficient quantities to satisfy thousands and thousands of judgmental foodies.

Perhaps the idea was convenience—there’s something to be said for being able to hit all these places at once, sampling one dish after another in rapid succession, in a true smorgasbord of the best of the New York food scene.  But between the main festival and the VIP “Extra Mooga” section, access to which cost $250 (which the festival organizers are now wisely refunding), there was little convenience to be found. The food on offer was so meager and scarce that, at one point, patrons nearly came to blows over a piece of fried chicken. Both sections were filled with fake-outs: vendors that were out of paella or “umami burgers” by the time you reached the head of the line; a kiosk labeled “Free Bread” offering rolls that were free of gluten, corn, soy, and sugar, but which cost $3; quickly tapped kegs of purportedly unlimited beer. At some tents, the lines were so long that it would’ve been quicker for hungry patrons to leave the park and take the subway to the chef’s actual restaurant.

Tellingly, about the only attraction for which there wasn’t a line was Coolio, who was there signing copies of his new cookbook, Cookin’ with Coolio. (Coolio also had a tent where he was selling his “Soul Rolls,” which are essentially turkey burgers stuffed inside egg rolls and deep fried.) Coolio told me that the hardest part about writing a cookbook was coming up with appropriate names for the recipes. “We named [a dish] one thing, then we went back and said ‘I got a better name,’ ” he recalled.

I suspect that Coolio might not have actually spent all that much time working on his cookbook, which might explain why GoogaMooga patrons mostly left him alone. But there’s something to be said for the Coolio approach—or, at least, something to be said against thinking about food so much that it becomes a fetish.

Because, in concept and execution, it was fetishization rather than convenience that motivated GoogaMooga. So much of the festival seemed designed to congratulate those self-satisfied consumers who act like they deserve a Congressional Medal of Honor for spending $10 on a bratwurst. It was an amalgamation of everything hate-worthy about ingredient nerds: misallocated priorities and a misplaced faith in the transcendence of food prepared by semi-famous people.

You can conceive of a food festival that might actually prioritize the discovery of new, underexposed cuisines or cooks, rather than focus so intently on the overexposed celebrity chefs whose reputations have been made on their telegenicity and marketing savvy as much as on their cooking prowess. Imagine a GoogaMooga with vendors selected from the ethnic restaurants of Flushing, Queens; or from around the country, not just from New York. That would’ve been something worth waiting in line for.

But GoogaMooga’s organizers eschewed this approach because, no matter how good the food, anonymous restaurants in charmless settings challenge the unspoken foodie assumption that every meal has to be an experience, and every chef has to be an artist. This was a recurring theme at GoogaMooga—huge signs informed patrons that they were entering the “Hamburger Experience,” or the “Pizza Experience,” or the “Coffee Experience.” At a beer-and-bacon pairing (that was short on both beer and bacon), country ham expert Allan Benton was greeted like he was Albert Schweitzer; a crowd gathered to watch celebrity chef April Bloomfield butcher a pig, as if she were Hemingway diagramming a sentence.

“Food is the new music” and “chefs are the new rock stars” are the sorts of things often said by dull people in the habit of comparing dissimilar things in order to sound sophisticated. It’s a terrible comparison. Music is populist. If you’ve got ears and a Spotify account (or a radio), you can enjoy a song—doesn’t matter who you are or where you came from. Fancy food is different. The least expensive entrée at April Bloomfield’s restaurant, The Breslin, costs $21. Bloomfield makes food for rich people to excrete.

The trend toward locally, ethically sourced ingredients prepared thoughtfully is a good one, and you can hardly fault conscientious eaters for preferring and celebrating that sort of food. But foodies’ focus on ingredient and chef pedigree has morphed into an aesthetic cult for the wealthy in which status trumps sustainability. Any obsession becomes silly if taken too far, and the misguided Brooklyn food culture that birthed the Great GoogaMooga is silly to the extreme. Maybe GoogaMooga was a fitting name, after all. This certainly wasn’t the “food and drink lover’s wonderland” that attendees were promised. But it may have been the one they deserved.