On Day One of Arroyo Seco Weekend, a massive music festival held recently on the grounds outside of the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, culinary stars were competing with such stage performers as Jeff Goldblum, Alabama Shakes and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers.
“Oh yeah, there’s music here, too,” my friend said as we ate vegan ramen from chef Ilan Hall’s Ramen Hood, soft serve ice cream from the NoMad Truck, lobster rolls from Slapfish and other stellar eats made by some of Los Angeles’ best restaurants and food makers.
The person behind this SoCal music/food festival phenomenon is Nic Adler, whose upbringing has all the hallmarks of a classic Hollywood tale. He was raised by famous parents — music producer Lou Adler and actress Britt Ekland — in an environment soaked in the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll scenes of Los Angeles in the 1970s and ’80s. Needless to say, it wasn’t a typical childhood. Now 44, Adler is calm and deliberate, the father of an infant and a 4-year-old, and a Westside resident who jokes about living in a boring neighborhood.
His primary role now is Culinary Curator of Goldenvoice, a concert promotion company that grew out of the L.A. punk scene decades ago and mounts large events such as the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival every spring in Indio and the recent Arroyo Seco Weekend.
“Whenever I tell a story about somewhere I’ve been or something in my life, I instantly pair it with food,” he said.
It all started with the after-school-to-evening hours he spent at The Roxy Theatre and the Rainbow Bar & Grill, his father’s venues on the Sunset Strip, where the music and food connection became “ingrained in me.” “I’d get hungry, grab some food, get bored, go see the band, then go back and hang out in the kitchen,” he recalled.
Adler came back to the Roxy as an adult, spending 15 years running it and getting involved with other entertainment ventures.
About four years ago, a conversation with Goldenvoice President and CEO Paul Tollett at the Rose Bowl proved to be life-altering. Adler’s cumulative experiences as a music and food festival producer and attendee, and as a vegan with limited food choices, gave him a distinct perspective. Tollett was receptive to hearing about how and why the food options at Goldenvoice’s major events, specifically Coachella, could benefit from a major upgrade. The annual Outside Lands festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park already was making food and drink an integral part of its programming, too, so Adler suggested it was time for SoCal events to step up.
“We had both grown up around the Roxy in the ’90s music scene. There was this kind of community with all the bands,” Adler said. “I saw something similar happening with all the breweries, and it was happening in the food world.”
Adler started producing food festivals while he still was immersed in the club and live music business but still saw the two as somewhat separate realms.
His work with Goldenvoice to make Coachella’s food and drink scene as much of a draw as its music and art was a game-changer. In that environment, “there are hundreds of thousands of people, and there’s a discovery mode,” Adler said.
He noticed another parallel, in part a result of heavily food-populated social media feeds. Much as “bands were moving away from albums and singles, I saw that a little bit in the food world,” he said.
Adler invited chefs, restaurants and smaller-scale purveyors to serve versions of their greatest hits on-site at Coachella. Also part of the festival roster is Outstanding in the Field, a sit-down restaurant venue serving four-course (and pricey) meals from different chefs.
The offerings have changed the image of typical crowd-pleasing food. There are still pizza, hot dogs and burgers. But new choices include Micah Wexler’s pastrami, wines from Jill Bernheimer’s Domaine LA shop and Broken Spanish’s ceviche. Adler focuses on added value, too, such as small environmental and design details, and special collaborations among chefs and food producers.
“I’m trying to create a storyline at these festivals that food and beverage are part of your experiences,” he said. “The more I can pack into that, the more of that kind of texture that I can put around the conversation around food, the better it tastes.”
The Vegan Beer & Food Festival, now called Eat Drink Vegan, is another Adler project also held at the Rose Bowl. Recently, one of his six younger brothers from his father’s subsequent relationships, Cisco, opened the Malibu Burger Co. restaurant in their native neighborhood, and Nic curated the beer list.
Meanwhile, Adler’s father — who has attended the last five Coachella festivals — remains a constant inspiration and resource, spurring his son to think about crowd control and management and which food vendors will be a hit. “My dad would always look for places where there were a lot of trucks. He knew [truck drivers] traveled all across the country and they weren’t going to waste a good meal.”
Adler said his father also insisted that his kids spend time with their grandmother, Josie, whom Adler acknowledged was a stabilizing force during his unconventional childhood.
“ ‘Call your grandmother; Go see your grandmother; Go get her some matzo ball soup; Bring her some flowers.’ My dad was always pushing me to spend time with her,” Adler said. “We had a very special relationship.”
The wider Adler family worldview, he said, includes understanding how “things can be around forever and be respected and culturally relevant.
“What’s still more relevant than ‘Up in Smoke’ and ‘Rocky Horror’ and Monterey Pop and Carole King?” he said. “Those things are as important right now as they were when they came out.”
So, thanks to Nic Adler, the best live music you ever heard and some of the tastiest food you ever ate might become simultaneous experiences.