You know that great idea you’ve had for America’s Next Top Foodstuff, the one that’s guaranteed to take the world by storm? That won’t be enough to secure a place on the vendor list at this weekend’s Famous Food Festival, whose charter specifically prescribes "tastebud-exploding foods" both new and otherwise. You don’t get to join the illustrious ranks of Pickle Me Pete, What’s the ‘Dillaz?, Little Porky’s Marinade, Wowfulls, Memphis Seoul, and Karl’s Balls simply by having a good idea. It matters what your creation tastes like, of course, although you can expect a fairly wide berth there. Ours is a world that has come to embrace McGriddles, after all.
But your idea is quirky and different, you protest. News flash: everyone has quirk now. There isn’t a night market in the tristate area where someone isn’t peddling mac ’n cheese wontons, boozy puddings, build-your-own nachos, or more uses for Hennessey, Oreos and Mason jars than you thought possible. If you haven’t been offered an egg roll stuffed with something that’s just wrong lately then you obviously aren’t getting out enough.
So what does it take to score a booth or truck at the festival happening at Tanger Outlets in Deer Park? Intestinal fortitude. That I discovered after spending a few hair-raising hours with three of this year’s new festival participants, all profiles in courage and lunacy.
FRIED LASAGNA MAMA
A few years ago, Janae Bullock happened on a review of the Olive Garden’s lasagna fritta someone posted on Instagram. Bullock was intrigued. Soon, and without ever trying the OG's creation, the 32-year-old began concocting her own version, rolling bricks of raw lasagna in breadcrumbs, dropping them into the fryer, christening them with signature toppings. Now she goes by Fried Lasagna Mama.
"It’s about to thunderstorm," warned a customer in line at the Fried Lasagna Mama booth at last month’s inaugural Uptown Market in Harlem. Bullock had been so busy frying lasagna and recounting her origin story, she didn't even notice how dark the skies had gotten.
"Don’t you say that," she told the customer even as the wind suddenly picked up, nearly blowing the roof off her booth.
"I know how to read my clouds," the customer cried, rushing away like a "Twister" extra. "That’s a storm."
Minutes later, rain was coming down in buckets. The water quickly rose around Bullock, puddling dangerously close to the electrical outlets powering her fryolator. But she would not be deterred. This was a woman heavily influenced by her grandmother, who’d gamely tried to salvage her own restaurant after a fire. This was a woman who until recently was delivering fried lasagna by bicycle, even crossing bridges for Brooklynites on lockdown during the pandemic’s height.
For a moment, Bullock stared up at the angry heavens, then defiantly turned back to her fryolator. The storm soon retreated, and Fried Lasagna Mama was completely sold out two hours before the market ended.
Along with the original, Bullock will fry up three other lasagnas at this weekend’s festival: Mex Flex, Veg, Chicken Parm. Go ahead and snicker, ye snooty food types. That means more of Bullock’s deliciousness for the rest of us.
"Are you waiting for someone to help you?" asked the Capital One employee on 14th St. in Manhattan.
"No, I’m just having a meeting here," replied Quiaufa Royes, her tone suggesting it was totally normal to conduct a taste test for a food critic in a bank lobby lounge.
This had not been the plan. I was supposed to meet Royes, the woman behind Quiaufa’s Kitchen, in the dining area of a Whole Foods Market, which turned out to be closed for renovations. Not missing a beat, Royes sauntered over to Capital One next door.
"Some of the things I didn’t fully put together," said Royes, 33, calmly assembling the two types of vegan nachos she’ll be serving at the festival. Those items aside, her passion is vegan soul food, a passion she acquired —
"I honestly don’t have a really amazing reason," Royes said, laughing. "I wanted to lose weight." Soon she was all in, tricking her family into eating vegan dishes at Thanksgiving. For a while, "I was doing it the illegal way out of my home," Royes said, "and then I found a program online, Why Are You Working Illegally Out of Your Home?" which offered to help chefs get their licenses and Royes to secure a space in a Long Island City incubator kitchen.
"How are you?" It was the bank employee again, and it didn’t sound like a question. Good, we mumbled. "So — we do not allow outside food." OK, the critic nodded.
"This one is the po’boy," Royes continued with complete serenity, offering a taste of a fried shrimp sandwich that on closer inspection turned out to be fried oyster mushrooms dressed with red cabbage slaw and a roasted red pepper sauce. Royes opened another box. "And this is the chopped cheese sandwich," a vegan version of the bodega favorite celebrated by rappers and YouTube videos alike.
Even as my nerves got the better of me, I tried to divine Royes’ moxie. This was a woman, after all, who’d recently learned she was related to pioneering educator and African American voting rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune. This was a woman who, during one month last year, single-handedly prepared 6,000 Impossible burgers and 1,000 full meals for NYC’s front line workers.
"My version of the McRib." Royes said, handing over a sandwich even as a not-having-it security guard approached brandishing a walkie-talkie.
"Before you dig in," he said, stopping me mid-bite, "there’s no outside food."
"We’re going," Royes replied, nodding sweetly. "It’s good," I said, standing up with a mouth full of faux rib sandwich. But Royes had one more sandwich, a vegan crab cake. "It’s groood," I said, mouth now stuffed with rib and crab, eyes locked on the security guard.
"Rebels without a cause," said Royes with a giggle as we strode from the bank, the critic’s mouth still full.
THE WAFFLE CHIC
A few years ago, Karen Davis traded her high-pressure days as an ER nurse for the calm, carefree life of a food truck owner, discovering to her surprise that she’d made a lateral move on the stress-o-meter.
"I get to keep my skills up," joked the Westbury resident from her truck, parked that day at the Long Island Bluegrass Festival in Copiague. "I am used to organized chaos, disorganized chaos, moving in the moment. It’s all customer service. I come alive, whether I’m taking care of patients or serving people here."
Davis, 52, truly does come alive as The Waffle Chic, happily loading anything and everything into the breakfast staple. There’s chicken and waffles, of course, but also a waffle burger, a bacon-egg-and-cheese waffle, fish waffle, pepperoni-and-cheese waffle, dessert waffles with 14 toppings. Davis’s waffling dates to 2017, when she was asked to cater an event for Fancy Frenz, a charity benefiting children and schools in her native Jamaica.
"The day of the event she came with this whole production," said fellow charity member Akilah Rance, now part of the Waffle Chic team. "Everybody was just raving about it. I said, ‘KD, this could be a business.’" Not long afterward, Davis took Rance’s advice, and to hear Rance tell it, Davis’s rise from one-off caterer to hot pink food truck mogul has been nothing short of meteoric.
Shortly, the rain was back, the serving window was stuck in a closed position and the heat inside the truck was intense, but Davis was still her jovial self. This is a woman, after all, who has more than a passing familiarity with triage, a woman who "purchased this truck out of nothing and I give it my all because I’m very passionate about it."
And so, even as South Shore gusts blew in and everyone else was finalizing preparations for Tropical Storm Henri’s landfall, Davis stayed put in her truck, pouring batter into her waffle iron again and again.
"A lot of people never discover their passion," said Rance, watching her. "But when you find that passion inside you, good things happen."
FAMOUS FOOD FESTIVAL
WHEN | WHERE: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.Friday, Sept. 2 -Monday, Sept. 6 at Tanger Outlets, 152 The Arches Circle, Deer Park
ADMISSION $12 adults ($7 advance), $6 ages 8-12 ($5 advance) with a la carte menus from participating vendors.
MORE INFO: 631-387-6291, famousfoodfestival.com