New Orleans does festivals right, and over the last 20 years or so, the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience has emerged as another bright spot on our city’s festival calendar. Most of our festivals put music front and center, and those that focus on food tend to hone in on a down-to-earth dish or ingredient, be it the po’ boy, the oyster or the mirliton. But at the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience, our city’s fine dining and gourmet delights are the main dish. This year the festival is being headed up by a Baton Rouge restaurateur. “We may live and work in Baton Rouge, but my partner and I value the city of New Orleans and its importance to the state’s tourism and culture,” says Kevin Kimball, who in addition to being the president of NOWFE is a managing partner at T.J. Ribs, a two-restaurant outfit that’s an institution in the Capital City. “As New Orleans goes, so goes the state of Louisiana.”
For the last 12 years, Kimball has been coming to the Wine and Food Experience and has become a big fan, so much so that for the last four years, he’s been on the volunteer board. In general, the publicity and marketing for the festival had been focused on either New Orleans itself or on big cities around the country. As a board member, Kimball pointed out another market that was being overlooked.
“I kept saying an opportunity was being missed in Baton Rouge,” he says. “We enjoy food and wine up there as well, but people there didn’t know about the festival, and the city’s only an hour away.” NOWFE is gradually expanding into a regional presence, but New Orleans will always remain central.
For those who indeed don’t know about the festival, NOWFE is a five-day bacchanalia of food and wine with a variety of events, from seminars to sitdown dinners. Highlights include the Friday and Saturday grand tastings at the convention center. There, guests can sample wines from 175 different wineries and taste morsels from 75 chefs, local and national.
During the Royal Street Stroll, the antique shops and art galleries of Royal Street open their doors and invite some 30 wineries to set up tastings areas. Pedestrians ambling up and down the street turn out in seersucker suits, sundresses and broad-brimmed hats. It’s a big street party about wine, arts and camaraderie that adds to the only-in-New-Orleans flavor of NOWFE. While there are many wine and food festivals around the country, NOWFE is unique. Tickets to the Royal Street Stroll and other NOWFE events aren’t free, but proceeds from the nonprofit festival go to charitable causes. Almost $100,000 has been raised annually in recent years. Many beneficiaries, like culinary institutes and the Louisiana Wildlife & Fisheries Foundation, are tied to the food world in some way.
“The Wine and Food Experience is a great way to give back to community,” says Kimball. “We see people get a group of friends, with everyone interested in wines and culinary arts, and they come out together. Anyone who enjoys the lifestyle of fine dining has no excuse not to support the event.”
Kimball himself clearly loves this lifestyle that’s so big in New Orleans and Louisiana. He wandered into it by happenstance when he got a part-time restaurant job at an Italian place called Gino’s when he was a student at Louisiana State University. His bosses were out for a week, and Kimball found himself stepping into a management role, even going so far as to hire a bartender on his own. His bosses looked at him funny when they returned, but everything he was doing was working for the restaurant, so they had him keep on going.
Kimball moved on to other management positions in the Baton Rouge restaurant world, and for about a decade, he was at a private dining space called the Camelot Club. “I was able to work closely with the chef, do wine pairings and get involved with putting on special culinary events for club members,” he says. “The hours weren’t as long as in the restaurant world. My sons were young, so I was glad to have the time to spend with them. But they’re older now, 10 and 12, and I began to miss the restaurant industry.”
He joined T.J. Ribs just about a year ago through a partnership with Burke Moran, who is the son of T.J. Moran, a famed Baton Rouge restaurateur. One of the first things Kimball did at T.J. Ribs was expand the wine list to about 30 or 40 wines. “It’s a lot for a rib joint,” he says, “but just because you’re having ribs, it doesn’t mean you don’t want to have nice glass of wine.”
If not for his college job at Gino’s, Kimball might have followed through on a career track into law and politics. His mother is Catherine “Kitty” Kimball, the current Chief Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court, and his father, Clyde Kimball, served as a Louisiana State Representative.
“In the political realm, you’re forced to take a stand on one end of the spectrum or the other, even if you see things in shades of gray,” Kimball says. “But in the restaurant world, I’m not forced to take a stand. And Democrats and Republicans, they all eat.”