It was too expensive. $500 for three days? Who’s going to pay that?
It was too commercial. Whoever was running this thing was just trying to make a buck off gullible schmoes with too much disposable income.
It was too elitist. All these fancy chefs and fatuous foodies swanning about Midtown talking up wine and truffles. Would this event relate in any way to real people and the way they like to eat?
As is our wont, Atlantans were ready to rip the inaugural Atlanta Food & Wine Festival before it had kicked off on Thursday night. There’s a narrative about Atlanta that too many of us buy into — namely that our talent doesn’t match our ambition.
But then the festival took place, and it was kind of magical. The streets of Midtown and the 14-floor conference rooms at the Loews hotel were filled with visitors and locals alike who were as giddy from the excellence of the programming as they were from the ample shots of bourbon and peach wine slushie in the outdoor tasting tents. This was a festival that could have only happened here, one that claimed Atlanta’s role as the capital of the South, not only in terms of its business but also its culture and spirit.
Festival co-founders Dominique Love and Elizabeth Feichter made a brilliant decision in leaving the programming to a “founder’s council” of chefs, sommeliers, restaurateurs and food artisans. Atlanta’s stars — Anne Quatrano, Linton Hopkins, Kevin Gillespie and dozens of others — figured prominently. But top talent from Texas to Washington, D.C., came on board for sessions that were deep, rich and got right to the heart of why Southern food is a beacon for American food culture.
As the charismatic New Orleans chef John Besh kept a huge audience rollicking with multiple tequila shots during a shrimp bisque demonstration, Miller Union’s Steven Satterfield engaged a smaller crowd much differently with an expert demonstration on pickling and preserving. Hopkins joined forces with Charleston’s rock star chef Sean Brock to break down a whole pig, while Kyma chef Pano Karatassos tasted guests on Greek wines.
The tasting tents smartly focused on iconic Southern comestibles, from fried chicken, to bourbon, to sweets, to barbecue. There was nothing comprehensive here, but enough good bites to help you understand why these foods hold such a draw on our imaginations and appetites. I finally got the whole fried-chicken-and-honey-thing in my soul after trying North Carolina chef Ashley Christensen’s cornmeal biscuits topped with a fat slice of fried chicken thigh — laid sideways so you saw the layers of meat, fat, skin and crunch — and a lacquer of rich inkberry honey.
There was a “connoisseur” level ticket to this event that included special tastings and access to a pimped-out lounge area with goodie bags and food. Of course it was elitist, but it also provided a respite for the big-name chefs and talent who were always hanging about and giving real face time to their fans.
It made me realize the festival succeeded so well because it was a for-profit venture. This is Atlanta, after all — a city that’s all about money and access. This is part and parcel of our ambitious nature; this is how we succeed. On the flip side, the organizers had reduced priced tickets for those under 30, a balancing move.
But these first-time organizers did make some mistakes. For starters they did an ineffective job of communicating just how deep the talent pool was. The festival program was little more than a spreadsheet schedule with presenter’s bios attached. It should have read like a college course booklet, with summaries of each event.
On Friday morning, things cranked into action with programming that relied heavily on wine and spirits. Those who did attend these poorly populated sessions found themselves staggering around Midtown at lunchtime looking for the food that wasn’t being served. I overheard Love say that that next year the festival wouldn’t kick off until Friday night.
Love and Feichter understood too late that $500 really is a lot of money for Atlantans, but that we’d be much happier with day passes and individual admissions to the tasting tents and some sessions. We like our food à la carte, and hundreds waited until the last days to buy in at whatever price points they were able to meet.
A couple of other details seemed like they needed work. The dinners in restaurants around town gave all the chefs — both local ones and visiting grandees — a chance to strut their stuff with six-course tasting menus with wine pairings. But several attendees said they would have preferred a less expensive option with less food. There was also a “street cart pavilion” on Peachtree that was kind of cute but really just served to show how much we fetishize street food these days. In this context it was just more precious bites and drinks. It didn’t feel like real street food.
But despite the slow start on Friday, there was a charge in the air come Saturday — a buzzy feeling of engagement and hunger. Atlantans got their first taste of our hidden gems, such as Kristen Hard’s brilliant bean-to-bar chocolate from Cacao. Out-of-towners got to see why the Holeman & Finch burger was such a special thing.
And for that we owe Dominique Love and Elizabeth Feichter a round of applause and our gratitude. Because of the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, our city has emerged as a major American food destination.