Housemade morcilla (blood) sausage by John Castellucci of Atlanta's Bar Mercado
If you’ve never attended the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, you could be forgiven for not expecting the event to be as impressive as it is. Atlanta doesn’t always get the credit it deserves when it comes to culinary prestige, even in the South.
Cities like New Orleans, Austin, Charleston and even Savannah are seen by the foodie elite as premiere destinations for serious Southern fine dining. Yet no one can deny Atlanta’s firm positioning as the de facto capital of the South, or as one of the most influential places in the world, where local culture routinely goes global. This is why the eighth annual Atlanta Food & Wine Festival (AFWF) was about bringing the flavors together of a unified South.
This year’s AFWF was led by an all-female advisory council that included some of the most prominent women in the food and beverage industry. Some of Southern Kitchen’s favorite female bosses were among the 56 advisory council members, from Deborah VanTrece and the ladies of the Cast Iron Chronicles, to Virginia Willis, and Vivian Joiner and Stephanie Tyson of Winston-Salem’s Sweet Potatoes! restaurant.
As always, the festival took place in Atlanta’s midtown district, and included a variety of cooking demonstrations, programs, classes and special events. It began with Destination Delicious, an “ultimate Southern road trip party,” at which 12 states were represented through food and drink. From there, attendees could learn how to avoid food waste, whether through the workshop “Down to the Ash,” which featured Chef Jennifer Hill Booker and focused on whole-animal cooking, or the VIP-level Connoisseur Dinner Series “Edible Ends,” where attendees learned from Steven Satterfield about using all parts of produce.
Those looking for insight, resources and support in their F-and-B-based business endeavors had the option of attending the Entrepreneurs Program, which offered professional development, brand-building and value-creation information for restaurateurs, with this year’s focus being packaged goods.
The 2018 Festival did a great job at keeping things interesting and fun with local personalities and talent, particularly when it came to drinks. Eric Crane, who serves as Director of Training and Business Development for Empire Distributors, and is both an Advanced Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator, led a seminar called “Gaufrette Yourself,” in which waffle-cut potato chips were paired with wine, caviar and other elevated edibles.
Beverage geniuses Greg Best and Paul Calvert, partners in Atlanta’s Ticonderoga Club restaurant and bar, which was named one of Esquire magazine’s best bars in America for 2018, were part of a discussion of cocktail recipes. And Atlanta Journal-Constitution beer writer Bob Townsend led seminars on juicy, hazy and fruity IPAs, as well as on Southern farmhouse ales. Other prominent ATL pourers leading panels and discussions included Kellie Thorn, who serves as beverage director for all of Hugh Acheson’s restaurants, Jerry Slater (another SK favorite), Miles Macquarrie of the James Beard Award-nomintated Decatur restaurant Kimball House, and Eric Simpkins of Bon Ton.
And then there was food. Lots of food, as well as plenty of topical conversations that ranged from seasoning to sustainability, soul food, and how the South connects to South Africa. For the latter, Atlanta restaurateur and former professional South African soccer player Justin Anthony talked about how Southern epicurean culture connects to his home continent, and he hosted a “Backyard Braai” at a private home. There was also a seminar called “Ugly Vegetable Culture,” which featured Chef Whitney Otawka of Cumberland Island, Georgia and Kentucky restaurateur Annie Pettry, and helped educate guests on the value of less-than-beautiful produce.
But one of my favorite discussions was with Todd Richards, owner of Atlanta food stand Richards’ Southern Fried in Krog Street Market, who spoke with the editor-in-chief of Southern Living and author Nicole A. Taylor on their views of the state of soul food on the national plate, and where it’s headed as Southern cuisine becomes more and more mainstream.
Beyond that, there were house parties, private off-campus get-togethers, food samples, endless beverages, deejays spinning Steely Dan tunes, and a diverse array of some of the South’s biggest names outside Atlanta. Everyone from Edward Lee to Travis Milton, John Currence, David Bancroft and Vishwesh Bhatt (yes, men were still invited!) lead classes and roamed the Loews Hotel, meeting and greeting friends and fans.
And of course there were the Tasting Tents, which are always a merry madhouse of exceptional bites and pours from all over the region. This year’s “Best of the Fest” winner was East Atlanta Village restaurant Poke Burri, whose chefs Seven Chan and Ken Yu won over the crowd with their tempura-fried bacon with butter syrup and their salmon and tuna poke shooters.
With its eighth event in the books, the AFWF has indeed cemented itself as one of the city’s — and the region’s — favorite get-togethers of any sort. Festival founders Dominique Love and Elizabeth Feichter continue to put on a fantastic program that’s as educational as it is entertaining, reestablishing Atlanta’s culinary credibility at a regional and national level, and allowing everyone to come away feeling not only fed but fulfilled.