Devour! Through The Years

In recognition of the upcoming 12th installment of the festival, The Grapevine asked Devour! managing director Lia Rinaldo and festival founder and executive director Chef Michael Howell to reflect on over a decade of Devour!

The Grapevine (GV): Devour! The Food Film Fest has been bringing the best of cinema and cuisine to Wolfville for over a decade now. Looking back at the early days of putting the festival together, did you anticipate that it would grow to this size [100+ events, attracting over 14,000 food and film lovers to Wolfville]?

Michael Howell (MH): From the first year of the festival in 2009, when this was simply a project of Slow Food Nova Scotia, I don’t think anybody anticipated that it would become this large-scale festival. It was meant to do a little bit of economic development in the shoulder season and also to espouse the principles of Slow Food to a wider audience.

Lia Rinaldo (LR): I’m not sure either of us could have imagined the trajectory this festival has experienced from its start. Michael was the original founder and I joined in on the second edition. Much of our success comes from the combining of two decades-long careers in our respective fields of food and film with much crossover…along with a wealth of experience, contacts, and built up good will. Not sure we would have found ourselves in this place if we were starting from scratch. We’ve worked hard to get that Devour! brand recognized globally and at home and are now feeling the benefits of that sweat equity.

GV: What has surprised you over the years?

MH: I’ve been surprised by the enthusiasm of culinary travellers. People coming back year after year and bringing friends with them. I’ve also been pleasantly surprised by the success of our VIP program that sees people buying full access to the entire event

LR: Both of us are creative, hard-working events managers and entrepreneurial in spirit within the confines of being a not-for-profit cultural organization. We have spent a lot of time fundraising at all levels of government and with corporate partners and donors and I never quite pictured that side of things or how much time and relationship-building it would require, and that I would like it. That whole idea of selling something you love really rings true to me now.

GV: Do you have any favourite moments from festivals past? Proud moments for the festival?

MH: Obviously it was a highlight for me as a chef to meet and bring Anthony Bourdain here. While it wasn’t without its issues, it was a seminal moment in the development of Devour! and for me personally as a chef. And more recently we’ve developed a wonderful friendship with Jacques Pépin originally because of his visit to Wolfville where we blew him away with the sophistication of our event. That has now turned into a long-term multi-event relationship which we cherish.

LR: So tough with so many to choose from but here’s one: a number of years ago, we screened a film called The Path of Stone Soup about a community in Oaxaca who were preserving a traditional soup-making method on riverbanks where hot rocks cook fresh fish. It’s much more than that, of course, but the filmmaker and family members from the community started a Kickstarter campaign and raised money to fly themselves to the festival with suitcases of rocks to cook the soup following their screening. Most audience attendees were moved to tears to see them and have the soup.

GV: The festival has navigated all the challenges that the last few years have presented. Are there innovations developed during that pandemic that you’ll be continuing? Have there been any silver linings to the experience?

MH: Producing more events outside and learning to understand that through the pandemic people were more willing to be outside has helped us grow the festival during this time.

LR: Our silver lining was that we were able to produce events through the whole pandemic when many festivals could not. A small window opened up the last two falls and we safely hosted small hybrid events in person and streamed online. Still shaking my head that we pulled it all off. I can’t imagine what kind of energy it would take to start an event again after two years. We did focus on the streaming and recording of our event that we have wanted to be able to do for some time, and the pandemic kind of pushed us online. I’m grateful for that.

GV: What brought about the theme for this year’s festival? Why is it timely?

LR: We have had fun from a curatorial perspective adding in a theme to our event over the years from celebrating women in gastronomy to regional focuses like Italy and Scotland to hard-hitting issues like climate change. We spend a fair amount of time researching and staying atop trends, films, industry, and chefs as we plan each year, usually outlining themes years ahead, but this one came to us from a chef colleague, Peter Dewar who is faculty at the NSCC Culinary Management, School of Business and Creative Industries, and it felt so spot-on and timely, we set aside what we had already been planning to make way for what we have coined “The Future of Food: Plant-Based Cinema & Cuisine” for our 12th edition in October of 2022.

GV: What is one highlight not to be missed with this year’s festival?

MH: I’m very excited by the fact that we have yet another culinary school from across Canada joining us. In addition to PICA from Vancouver and George Brown from Toronto we also have Centennial College joining us from North York Toronto in addition to all of the NSCC students. We are going to feature those students across the program this year.

For more information about Devour! and The Future of Food, visit devourfest.com.