CINCINNATI -- Put on your bibs and loosen your belts. The Asian Food Fest has return to Washington Park this weekend with a supercharged lineup of food and entertainment -- the biggest in its seven-year history.
This year, the Asian Food Fest is partnering with the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber to take the homegrown festival to new heights. The festival ran solely on volunteer power in previous years, but 2017's projected crowd of 30,000-plus demands a bigger team.
"The first year, Asian Food Fest was at the Kolping Center. We were hoping for two to three thousand people," said Bao Nguyen, one of the festival founders. "It was closer to a church picnic than a festival."
The Chamber brings field-tested large-scale event expertise to the partnership. After all, this is the same group behind Oktoberfest Zinzinnati and Taste of Cincinnati, events that each attract more than 500,000 people.
"We handle operations very well, and on the sponsorship side, we can leverage off our other events to gain sponsors," said Cynthia Oxley, director of sponsorship and corporate and community events at the Chamber.
The partnership developed organically. Asian Food Fest marketing director Tessa Xuan and the Chamber's director of corporate relations, Tom Fernandez, are former colleagues at Procter & Gamble.
They've also worked shoulder-to-shoulder as Asian Food Fest volunteers, so Fernandez knows first-hand how the festival hinges on the help.
"The volunteer network within Asian Food Fest has been so successful," said Fernandez, who also oversees the Minority Business Accelerator program at the Chamber. "(The partnership) fits with our strategy to be an inclusive Chamber."
The commitment and enthusiasm of the volunteers also made an impression on Oxley.
"(Asian Food Fest) is led by such passionate volunteers," she said. "I don't know how they do it, having full-time jobs and producing this awesome event."
'Love and pride for Asian food and culture'
"Asian Food Fest was created in 2010 by a diverse group of friends who wanted to share their love and pride for Asian food and culture with the Cincinnati region," Xuan said.
That mission and desire has not waned. Even as the team aims to grow the festival, the members recognize the importance of retaining its cultural authenticity.
With the Chamber managing logistics, festival volunteers have been able to better focus on lining up quality food and entertainment.
"In the past, I feel like we put 75 percent of our efforts into what the Chamber is (now) doing," Nguyen said.
Thirty food vendors will participate this year, a dozen more than last year, and 15 of the vendors are new to the festival. The cuisine, beer and entertainment showcase a broad swath of Asian cultures, including Cambodia, China, Hawaii, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam.
Organizers vetted the menus to avoid overlap, and festival goers can anticipate dishes ranging from dosas to laksa curry to sticky rice.
The Secret Menu will return with more homestyle dishes prepared by amateur cooks and aspiring entrepreneurs. Secret menu cooks receive additional coaching on food preparation, budget and logistics. Offerings will include son-in-law eggs (Thai), spicy wontons with chili oil (Chinese) and ghee-roasted chana (Indian).
Last year's Secret Menu participant, Kuya Ed's Lechon Atbpa, will return this year as a full-fledged vendor, a testament to the festival's role as a launching pad. Other successful restaurants that got their start at the festival include Pho Lang Thang and Huit (now Lalo and Neuf).
Dances, drums and martial arts, too
The entertainment program is flush with performances that include cultural dances, martial arts, tai chi and taiko drums. This year, the festival landed headliner J.R. Aquino, a Las Vegas-based singer-songwriter who was a contestant on Season 3 of "The Voice."
A portion of the proceeds will go toward the nonprofit Asian American Cultural Association of Cincinnati, which aims to spread Asian-American culture throughout Cincinnati through various cultural events.
The partnership between the Chamber and Asian Food Fest organizers has sparked newfound excitement and possibilities.
"Our goal is to make this the largest Asian food event in the country," Oxley said. "We run the largest German cultural event -- why can't we run the largest Asian cultural event?"
7th annual Asian Food Fest
When: Noon-9 p.m. May 13-14
Where: Washington Park in Over-the-Rhine
Price: Free admission; donations encouraged. Small plates $2-$6.
Information: For the full list of food vendors and the menu, check the website: Asian Food Fest
Grace Yek writes about food for WCPO Digital. She is a certified chef-de-cuisine with the American Culinary Federation, and a former chemical engineer. Questions or comments? Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek