The annual TerraVita Food and Drink Festival is much, much more than food. For the past nine years, the Chapel Hill-based festival has become a weekend of education, community, and sustainability.
I met up with Colleen Minton, the festival’s founder, one morning at Lucettegrace in downtown Raleigh. For two hours, over a table of croissants, French bread, and the most delicious Black Forest Cake, we talked about what the past nine years of TerraVita has meant to her.
Terra Vita: How It All Began
Colleen was no stranger to big events — she hosted a number of them in her then-home city of Atlanta, but after the end of events, she noticed something odd. Event after event, it kept happening. What she thought was simply nerves, turned out to be a long, strain of inexplicable panic attacks. Colleen pivoted from hosting events to becoming an event consultant, allowing her to keep doing what she loved while also giving her time to focus on her mental health.
Months later, life brought Colleen and her family to Chapel Hill. The opportunity to host TerraVita came about and like with everything, Colleen dived into it with all she had.
In the beginning, Colleen wanted to create festival that brought together farm-to-table chefs from around North Carolina. That first year brought well-renowned chefs, including Eastern North Carolina’s Vivian Howard. The event was a success but Colleen wasn’t sure she wanted to host it again.
Months later, Colleen spent the day volunteering on a friend’s farm in Saxapahaw, North Carolina. In conversation with another fellow volunteer, she discovered that this couple moved to Chapel Hill (instead of another location in the Triangle) from New Orleans for one reason: TerraVita. Until that moment, she didn’t realize what an impact her festival had on the community, and in such a different way that she’d planned. This single meeting and realization led her to the second year of TerraVita.
TerraVita, Year Two and Beyond
Year two marked the first year of the ticketed “East Meets West Dinner.” It was also the first taping of Vivian Howard’s PBS show, “A Chef’s Life”. In fact, part of the 11th episode of the first season was filmed at the festival. (You can watch it on Youtube for $1.99.) From what started as a simple celebration for regional chefs and the food they created, transformed into a weekend of community. At TerraVita, chefs, food artisans, and beverage professionals came together and worked together, and along the way, discovered lifelong friendships.
Over the years, TerraVita has evolved into so much more that what Colleen set out to do. Participants, chefs, and attendees alike often comment that this is their favorite festival of the year. Colleen has created a true space for community, for family, and for education. She looks back at one year in particular, during the Hillfire dinner. Her then-small son walked around and introduced himself to all the chefs. The chefs loved it and in Colleen’s young son, saw their own children and families. TerraVita is truly a family affair, and so many of the chefs and participants are reminded of their own establishments.
A favorite memory of Colleen’s was the night they celebrated Bill Smith. A pioneer in adding his own flair to traditional southern cooking, Bill Smith and his restaurant, Crook’s Corner were nominated for a James Beard Award in 2009 and 2010. What Colleen loved about that night was that Bill was the center of the event, surrounded by his friends, family, and all those who admired and respected him.
Sustainability at the Forefront of TerraVita
TerraVita is unique in that the festival offers education around sustainability. Food and drink are only served in and on compostable materials. The festival also offers the Sustainable Classroom — what started as one expert talking about one subject around sustainability has grown into a handful of experts offering their insights on a common topic. This year Colleen is especially excited about one class in particular, “the Carnivore’s Conundrum”. A unique talk around how our meat eating habits are affecting the environment and what we can do about changing the way we buy and think about meat to lessen the impact.
These classes are memorable and Colleen’s goal is for the festival to leave an impact on attendees. She hopes that they are taught lessons they can carry into their community and their own lives. When I asked her what’s one thing people can do to be more sustainable, she said simply, “Make one change.” One small changes leads to other small changes and those changes can truly affect how you think about the food you eat and where it comes from. For Colleen, it all started with the organic strawberry. Strawberries, she told me, are one of the most toxic fruits because we eat the entire fruit. The Environmental Working Group is a great resource for everyone interested in learning more about sustainability and agriculture.
The Tenth, and Final Year of TerraVita
This year, 2019, marks the tenth and final year of the TerraVita Food and Drink Festival. From October 16-19th, Colleen will do what she’s done for the past nine years. She’ll bring together chefs and beverage professionals from around the region to create a weekend of true community.
This year she will also honor Karen Barker of Magnolia Grill. The award winning pastry chef passed away in January of this year after a tough fight with cancer. The event, A Sweet Life: Tribute to Karen Barker will celebrate her life and contributions. In her honor, the dinner will be served family style. Participating chefs from all over the Southeast will cook in celebration of her and her impact on their lives. Even more special, the servers will all be former employees of Magnolia Grill.
Tickets for TerraVita Food and Drink Festival Saturday events are still available through the TerraVita Food and Drink Festival site.
Follow Colleen Minton on CurEat to find all of her North Carolina food and drink recommendations.