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Chefs as Rock Stars: Behind the Scenes at Sweetlife

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Chef RJ Cooper hangs the restaurant's menu board for the day, which featured festival fare, including corn on the cob, cheese steaks and arancini balls.
Chef RJ Cooper hangs the restaurant's menu board for the day, which featured festival fare, including corn on the cob, cheese steaks and arancini balls.

[Photos: Tim Ebner/Eater.com and Sweetgreen]

It might be a stretch to think of DC's chefs as rock stars, but don't tell that to Rogue 24's R.J. Cooper.

His food went side-by-side with musical acts like Phoenix, Kendrick Lamar and Passion Pit at this year's Sweetlife Festival, an all-day music and food festival at Merriweather Post Pavillion in Columbia, Md. held on Saturday. "Today, I'm one of the performers," Cooper said. "My food is southern rock, mixed with a bit of punk and throw in some hipster," he said. On Saturday, Cooper was sticking to festival food fare, but taking it up a notch with jumbo-lump crab cakes, a two cheese blend of mac and cheese and a variety of arancini balls, fried rice balls shaped into the size of baseballs.

While music may still steal the show, the festival has grown to become a celebration of food, highlighting big names in the region's restaurant and food scene. This year Cooper and Erik Bruner-Yang were two of the marquee names. Bruner-Yang, who might actually be the closest thing to a rock star in the DC foodie world, played piano and keyboard in an indie-pop band called Pash before moving on to cooking. And, just like any good band that collaborates and mixes beats, on Saturday Bruner-Yang was cooking alongside Chef Spike Gjerde from Baltimore's Woodberry Kitchen. Together the pair pumped out one-of-a-kind dishes for the festival crowd.

This live performance of food experienced a few technical difficulties, too. There was a persistent and sometimes heavy rain that made cooking outdoors a challenge, and there were early-morning issues with gas line hook-ups and electrical power at the temporary kitchens. But, as they say, the show must go on, and Eater DC was there to cover it all...

1. "Wet": The one word used by Cooper to describe the day. Downpours and a lot of mud made it virtually impossible to stay dry or clean at this festival. But, the crowds didn't seem to mind. During the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs's performance, an all out dance party erupted on the lawn as a heavy downpour coincided with their song "Heads Will Roll."

For the most part, waterproof boots were the shoes of choice Saturday. Cooper wore waterproof Crocs with skull and crossbones on them. And, he did little to let the rain stop him from grabbing a power drill and hanging sign boards on the Rogue 24 temporary restaurant.

2. VIP status meant eating well: To experience the food cooked by Cooper, Bruner-Yang and Gjerde, festival attendees had to purchase the more expensive VIP pass, priced at $150 each. But, after tasting the pork belly cheesesteak at Rogue 24, it instantly became clear why the VIP pass was a good call.

3. Top Hits from Cooper's Rogue 24:
Three different types of arancini balls:
· A beef stuffed ball with peas, carrots and mozzarella, served with ragu
· A pork option with spicy sausage, broccoli rabe and smoked mozzarella
· And, a veggie version with pesto, basil, garlic, tomatoes and parmesan

4. The best rock concert Cooper has ever been to: Last year, seeing the Allman Brothers Band perform at the Beacon Theatre in New York with his wife.

5. The Top HIts from the Toki Underground and Woodberry Kitchen Collaboration:
· Smoked corn dog, fried, covered with crushed pork rinds and topped with a fish sauce, inspired by Woodberry's "snake oil" sauce.
· Shrimp served around a piece of sweet sugar cane
· Short ribs and kimchi
· An entire roasted pig's head served on a platter for $60
· And, for dessert:Taiwanese shaved ice, a cream based shaved ice, topped with red beans and sweet green beans.

6. On cooking in a temporary kitchen: "The guys went way out of their way to accommodate us this year," Bruner-Yang said about the Sweetlife Festival staff and organizers. The work started on Wednesday as the Toki and Woodberry teams met with staff to set-up two gas stoves, a large cooktop, portable freezer, charcoal grill, deep fryer, and shaved ice machine. The menu collaboration started more than a month ago, and all of the menu items were unique to the day. Even the ramen was slightly different, served with shredded chicken. There were only a few small hitches during the day. Early in the morning Cooper's tent was missing a gas line hookup. And, electrical generators were no match for some of the kitchen tools in Bruner-Yang's kitchen.

7. A Preview of Maketto: Bruner-Yang is expected to open his second restaurant, Maketto, before the end of the year. Construction is moving along at this H Street eatery with the focus on street and market style food. In many ways the food will be similar to the dishes served at Sweetlife Festival. "The way we are doing the food today and how we are doing it is a good representation for where we are going with Maketto," Bruner-Yang said.

8. How Erik Met Spike: Bruner-Yang and Gjerde first met a few years ago at a dinner hosted by Bryan Voltaggio at Volt. "We just kind of hit it off at that dinner. Now, whenever I'm in DC I try to stop at Toki."

9. What "Tokiberry" Means: Gjerde and Bruner-Yang have hosted a high-end version of their Sweetlife collaboration before. They like to refer to themselves playfully as "Tokiberry." Because the two kitchen have crossed over a few times now. Gjerde says there are menu items at Woodberry Kitchen inspired by Toki. Ramen has been on the menu before, kimchi is used frequently in dishes and Woodberry experiments with different types of noodle dishes. "It's about bringing together Asian flavors and techniques and melding them with the Woodberry Kitchen approach, especially in the care for the ingredients," Gjerde said.

10. New Late Night Menu at DGS Delicatessen: This was the debut performance for newcomer DGS at the Sweetlife Festival. The Jewish-style delicatessen served all beef hot dogs topped with pastrami chili. Between the meaty chili and pickled jalapeno, owner Nick Wiseman said the dish was musically like "a 90's hip-hop" track. Also, new to the Dupont Circle restaurant this month is a late night menu, offered from 9-11 p.m daily. It's called the "working mensch special" and comes with a half-pound pastrami or corned beef sandwich and a draft beer for $15.

11. 20,000 loaves of bread: That's how many buckwheat bread loaves Rockville-based Bakery de France produces each month to fill every Sweetgreen salad bowl with one slice of bread.

12. 1,000 lobster rolls: Last year Luke's Lobster sold out of lobster rolls at 6 p.m. This year they came prepared to make 1,000 lobster rolls. They also came prepared with their beer of choice. The staff drank Natty Lights in company-themed koozies.

13. Luke's Lobster Philly is next: The restaurant will add a tenth retail location this week in Philadelphia. D.C. manager Morgan Jezierski says the biggest growth for the D.C. region has been in catering and delivery.

14. Foodie joke and concert souvenir of the day: Taking a riff off of a popular Kendrick Lamar lyric, Sweetlife concert t-shirts read "Beets don't kale my vibe." The actual song lyric is a bit more direct and mean.

15. DC food trucks and pending regulations: Some of the longest lines of the day were at popular DC food trucks, including Takorean, The Big Cheese and Pepe Food Truck.

In the days leading up to the festival, TaKorean owner, Mike Lenard, had more than just the concert on his mind. In addition to prepping his mobile kitchen for thousands of concertgoers, Lenard testified in-front of the DC Council on Friday asking them to rethink proposed regulations on city food trucks. He called Friday's hearing a win for food truck vendors because the rules are now being reexamined. Lenard, who previously served as a board member on the DC Food Truck Association, played a role in the Save DC Food Trucks campaign, a grassroots campaign started by the food trucks to stop the regulations. He said city officials are working to clarify some of the ambiguous language behind rules expected to govern where food trucks can sell across the city.

16. Keeping things environmentally-friendly: Gelato chain, Dolcezza, served frozen treats that were zero waste products. The shop served stracciatella, a cream based gelato with melted chocolate chip, salted caramel and champagne mango sorbet. Because the desserts came in cones, Dolcezza eliminated trash for the day. Other vendors served dishes that came in compostable or recyclable material to support Sweetlife's conservation push.

17. Food deal of the day: Rappahannock Oyster Co. served four oysters for $5, a good deal especially at a concert venue. The oysters made the four hour drive north from Virginia with the Rappahannock Oyster staff. Chef Pete Woods said they were expecting to shuck and sell 5,000 oysters on Saturday.

18. DC Brewers well represented: Yes, you could pay $8 for a Bud Lite at Sweetlife, or you could splurge and enjoy a local brew for $10. Chocolate City, DC Brau and Flying Dog were on tap across the festival grounds.

This was the first event outside of DC for Chocolate City. The brewery brought 16 kegs of Cornerstone Copper Ale to the music festival. Jay Irizarry, co-founder, said the company is looking for a second facility either in Maryland or Northern Virginia because brewing is at capacity in Northeast, DC. "Tank space is the big thing," Irizarry said. Under current production the brewery can produce about three to four beers a year. For summer, Chocolate City is rolling out the First Coast Bohemian Pils, a first run, pilsner. The beer will be available through summer and made with rye and dry hops.

Meanwhile DC's largest brewer, DC Brau, says it is now selling six canned beers. Three are new: El Jefe, Armageddon and the Penn Quarter Porter. But, the three flagship labels: Public, Citizen and Corruption are still the most popular, said Chris Graham, DC Brau's lead brewer. Production and territorial reach are growing too. At the current pace, the brewery produces about 150-240 barrels per week, and beers are now available in Richmond with future hopes of expanding to Maryland, Graham said.

19. Sweetgreen's takeaways: Organizers estimated that about 20,000 people attended Saturday's festival. Sweetgreen co-founder Nicolas Jammet called it a "party with a purpose." A portion of the day's proceeds supported Sweetgreen in Schools, which brings healthy eating programs to DC schools in collaboration with DC Farm to School. This is the fourth year the trio has organized Sweetlife Festival, an event which takes about nine months to plan. Just this year the Sweetgreen salad and frozen yogurt shop received $8 million in investment funding, which should help them grow, Jammet said.
—Tim Ebner
· All Previous Coverage of Sweetlife [-EDC-]

DGS Delicatessen

1317 Connecticut Avenue Northwest, , DC 20036 (202) 293-4400 Visit Website

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