A temporary tent in a downtown Tampa park is not the first place one might look for haute cuisine from one of Tampa's finest restaurants. Especially when it's surrounded by nearly 10,000 fans and four stages of live indie rock.
But as Greg Baker said: "I've got kind of a soft spot for music. I was a punk-rock kid."
And so it came to pass that in 2013, Baker — the co-owner and three-time James Beard Foundation Award-nominated chef of The Refinery — got talked into dishing out Thai Pulled Pork Tacos at the second annual Gasparilla Music Festival in Curtis Hixon Park.
"It presented a bit of a challenge to say, 'All right, what's going to represent The Refinery, but what's also going to be festival food?' " He laughed. "Well, we figured it out. By all accounts, last year was a great success. This year it's bigger and better, so why not be a part of it?"
It's a familiar story. For two years, the Gasparilla Music Festival has turned skeptics into fanatics who are near-evangelical in praising what has quickly become Tampa's brightest, boldest and most community-oriented annual concert.
Six thousand fans came to GMF in 2012; that figure swelled to 9,700 in 2013. This year, the festival will expand to two days, Saturday and Sunday, bringing in more than 40 artists, including its biggest headliner yet, the Flaming Lips. If the weather holds up, there's a good chance 10,000 fans will pack the park — and after that, who knows?
"We're not resting on our laurels," said executive director Ty Rodriguez. "I think we could control our own destiny, and only be limited by our own imagination, if this year goes well."
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The Gasparilla Music Festival can be traced back to a core group of young professionals who simply wanted to see something cool and local in their hometown. That's not uncommon. What was unusual was how doggedly they stuck to their ambitious vision, and how passionately they sold it to their peers and fellow businesses. GMF, they hoped, would portray the modern culture of Tampa in an all-new light, as appealing to outsiders as it would be to locals.
Take the food, for example. The Refinery is one of Tampa's most acclaimed restaurants, having received kudos from publications including Bon Appetit, New York magazine and the Washington Post. Nothing about it screams "festival food" — and yet that didn't stop Rodriguez, a restaurateur himself, from pitching GMF to Baker. "That's kind of ballsy," Rodriguez admits.
And yet Baker bit, because the way Rodriguez sold it, GMF really did seem like an entirely new kind of thing. "Nationwide, these music fests are popping up everywhere that are looking to pair music and good food," said the chef. "They happen in New York quite frequently. It's kind of a groundbreaker here."
In its third year, it still feels like an outlier on Tampa's cultural calendar. The lineup always brings a diverse blend of indie rock, folk, world rhythms and New Orleans funk, yet until now, they've never relied on a marquee headliner to help sell tickets. No event makes better use of Curtis Hixon Park's landscape and stunning sunset views. Even during the biggest sets, there's plenty of room for both blankets and dancers on the lawn, while the rarely used Kiley Gardens amphitheater is frequently packed for intimate songwriter sets.
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Both years, GMF has garnered rave reviews and even turned a profit, Rodriguez said. "We do get a lot of love, and we're extremely, overwhelmingly humbled by it," he said. But if it grows yet again in Year 3, it'll be because organizers refuse to get complacent. As soon as each fest is in the books, organizers "pat each other on the back," Rodriguez said, and then immediately sit down for a postmortem: What went right? What went wrong? What should they have done differently?
"Every single year we beat ourselves up," Rodriguez said. "I think that we have a good product, but I don't think it's perfect. … As soon as that year is done, we have a whole 'nother year to prepare how we're going to up the ante."
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Greg Baker will miss the first day of GMF '14 — he's working the Charleston Wine + Food Festival in South Carolina — but says he'll come straight from his plane to Curtis Hixon Park on Sunday to catch Jason Isbell and Trombone Shorty as his Refinery tent serves this year's offering, Smoked Pork and Gator Sausage with Southern Slaw.
Whenever Baker travels the country for festivals like the one in Charleston, he finds himself preaching the gospel of Tampa's recent cultural evolution.
"We're selling Tampa just as much as we're selling The Refinery when we go to these things," Baker said. "We really, really want to support this type of thing in the community, because these type of things put Tampa on the map. We love it here, and we want to sell the world on what a great place it is. Things like this make it much easier to say, 'Hey, look, we've got this great festival.' It's got our full support, and we want to throw ourselves in it in any way possible."
More than in any previous year, organizers will be watching how GMF is marketed and viewed outside the Tampa Bay area. Rodriguez said attendance will always be limited by Curtis Hixon's capacity, but the festival still has room to grow — witness this year's expansion from one day to two — and its evolution could hinge on how it much attention it gets in Orlando, Miami and other Southeastern markets.
"This is our year," Rodriguez said. "I don't know how else to say it. If we don't get some sort of national attention, or statewide attention after this, then someone's just turning a blind eye. I know that sounds extremely confident, but if we get the grace of God with the weather and the people, I really feel like this is it."