behind the sceneS

Planning food and wine festival becomes second ‘FULL-TIME JOB’ for Emerson, Wilkirson, and Council.

For the novice, putting together a statewide food and wine event could prove an insurmountable task.

Lining up chefs, making sure there’s enough food, renting the tents, getting the permits, finding sponsors is just scratching the surface.

But for the organizers of a major festival coming to Fondren this summer, event logistics are old hat.

The Fondren Renaissance Foundation (FRF) is planning for the first ever Mississippi Food and Wine Fest.

The two-day event is slated for June 15 and 16 and will feature a beer festival, three food and wine dinners on the first night, followed by an open-air grand tasting the following day.

Combined, the events are expected to draw around 1,400 people to the Fondren community. To ensure the event is a success, food and libations have to be top-notch, as does the experience itself.

That’s where FRF Executive Director Jim Wilkirson, FRF board member Jennifer Emerson, and a host of food and wine experts on the event’s advisory council come in.

The group has been planning the event now for several months. For Emerson and Wilkirson, working out the logistics has become a second full-time job.

“I’m sure we’re going to put in over a thousand hours,” Emerson said. “That’s just what Jim and I are putting in, not counting the advisory council.”

Emerson, the co-owner of Walker’s Drive-In, CAET Wine Bar, Parlour Market and Local 463, has pulled together an advisory committee made up of the local who’s who among chefs, food and wine experts.

Among responsibilities, the board is lining up chefs and preparing menus and wine sets for the two-day festivities.

Duties have been delegated, with chef Derek Emerson, also of Walker’s, Local 463 and CAET; Alex Eaton, of the Manship; and Jesse Houston, with Fine and Dandy, organizing the Friday night chef dinners.

Individually, those events will feature courses from five chefs from around the metro area, state and region. Organizers are reaching out to their contacts in the culinary world to bring together top chefs from across the region.


The Saturday night grand tasting, which will feature wine and food tastings and chef presentations, is being pulled together by the rest of the advisory committee.

Emerson said getting other cooks to sign on for the chef dinners has been relatively easy.

“We’re industry people. Derek and I have been in the restaurant business since we were teenagers. We’ve worked with or are friends with most of the (chefs) in town,” she said. “We’re using our connections and theirs and asking our friends in New Orleans, Alabama, and Tennessee, and they’re coming in and helping.”

She said cooks are more than willing to come on board, in part, because the festival will give them a chance to show off their culinary skills.

“Most of the time when we (chefs) get invited to do something, they don’t get to plan (the menu). We’re told to come and serve,” she said. “This gives us an opportunity to come together and plan the event ourselves.”

Many of the chefs are also excited about being able to collaborate on meal offerings with their friends and colleagues. “We want to get together and hang out,” she said. “We’re really excited about doing an event where there are five, six or 10 chefs under one tent.”


While foodies are focused on the food, Wilkirson has his attention on the other logistics – renting the tents, getting city permits, hiring security, making sure there’s enough parking and working with businesses and churches in the area to minimize disruptions.

The food and wine dinners will be held at CAET, Brent’s and a third location that had not been settled on at press time. The beer festival and the grand tasting will be held on Duling Avenue.

Due to the size of the beer fest and grand tasting, Duling will have to be temporarily closed to traffic.

“You do have to go through the city’s special events committee, so we’ll be going in front of them. We’ll also work closely with all the businesses and churches to make sure we don’t conflict with things on their calendars,” Wilkirson said. “We try to work with everybody and be a good steward.”

Fondren also will be hiring security, renting tents and tables, and bringing in additional lighting and electrical means to accommodate guests, chefs and the like. Food, wine and beer will have to be kept cold, so coolers and ice will also have to be on hand.

“It’s putting on a full production,” he said.

Wilkirson is also working to set ticket prices and find sponsors. The event is expected to cost between $80,000 and $100,000 to put on. Bankplus is the event’s primary sponsor.

The foundation is now looking for additional sponsors and will provide special incentives for regular donors to participate.

The festival is a fund-raiser for FRF and food-related charities. In 2018, leader events for the festival raised funds for Mississippi Farm Families, the Mississippi Backpack Program and Extra Table.

The advisory council had not determined what charities would benefit from this year’s event.

Emerson expects beneficiaries to be chosen in the next month and a half. The council is slated to have its next meeting on February 28, where it will nail down more details for the chef dinners and grand tastings.

“After that, we’ll start talking about how people can send in nominations for charities,” she said. “We’ll try to … help as many people as we can.” 





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