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City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
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City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
City & State or ZIP

Atlanta Food & Wine Festival shines light on Southern food

SweetWater Brewing Company pours beer inside the tasting tents (photos by Hyosub Shin)

SweetWater Brewing Company pours beer inside the tasting tents (photos by Hyosub Shin)

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.

Nick Seabergh from Giardina in Greenwood, MS, leads a grilling demo on the Loew's conference center patio

Nick Seabergh from Giardina in Greenwood, MS, leads a grilling demo on the Loew's conference center patio

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.

Chef Drew Belline of the soon-to-open No. 246 in Decatur grilling his wonderful lamb sausages

Chef Drew Belline of the soon-to-open No. 246 in Decatur grilling his wonderful lamb sausages

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.

25 comments Add your comment

joann

May 24th, 2011
1:09 pm

Overall, this was a successful event. There were some organizational problems – it was hard to find the welcome center to obtain passes – why was it not in the Loewe’s Hotel? I went Saturday and I agree with the problem of wine and spirit tastings without food!

Another Voice

May 24th, 2011
1:12 pm

When I first saw a “call for volunteers,” I was incensed. This was a for-profit event, and they are asking for volunteers to man booths? What gall!

Of course, they did note that “some” of the proceeds would be donated to charities such as food banks and the Atlanta History Center. While that may have appeased some, I’m not impressed. There is no true explanation of how much is ’some” and how much profit was retained by founders.

Good first effort, but more clarity and transparency – as well as options for those less well-heeled – would improve the event tremendously. They could have Bill Boling demonstrate making a meal out of whatever comes in a random “family of four” box from the Atlanta Community Food Bank, for example.

Steven

May 24th, 2011
1:38 pm

I would love to know the ratio of paid tickets/free tickets. I bet they will hide those numbers.

Atlantan

May 24th, 2011
2:11 pm

Profit is good – it means you are doing something right and giving the market what they want and desire. Profit also pays the bills… Congratulations to the founders on the success of their first event – you have to start somewhere and I’m sure they’ll tweak and improve along the way.

Rodney

May 24th, 2011
2:14 pm

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.

Exactly – I would gladly have paid 100.00 for a day pass, but there’s no way I was paying 500.00 and then, to get my 500.00 worth I’d have to schedule my entire weekend around the festival. I do well for myself but I just couldn’t justify that expense – which was what kept me away.

Lesson learned, I hope, for the organizers.

Westside Resident

May 24th, 2011
2:38 pm

Perhaps I’m in the minority, but after attending Saturday on a day pass (that I was able to scalp for $100,) my wife and I decided we want to go all in on the $500 three-day passes next year. This event was great, the seminars were fun and informative (Chef Currence from City Grocery even gave out his emali address to people who wanted his recipe) and the tasting tents offered unique spins on many southern classics. Was it expensive? Sure, but for the epicures in this town, it was well worth it. I don’t think events like this are meant for everyone, and the price helped keep it enjoyable. As another writer noted, too often festivals of this sort end up overcrowded with people just looking to stuff their faces and get super drunk – the price of admission helped to curb that effect and make this an extremely enjoyable event.

MMMMMMmmm. Foood

May 24th, 2011
2:56 pm

My wife and I wanted to attend, but we have kids and being able to drop $500 for everything was impossible (though we wanted too!). I wish there were more choices.

Kristen

May 24th, 2011
2:59 pm

My husband and I are, admittedly and damn proud of it, a couple of “gullible schmoes with too much disposable income” and huge foodies, so we were more than excited to attend. However, I will agree that for Atlanta – $500 for three days was crazy expensive for the caliber of food and talent found here. For $500, I’ll just get on a place and fly to NOLA for the weekend, thankyouverymuch.

We decided to skip the tent events, and instead attend the Friday night dinner at Serpas featuring John Besh. We paid $150 per head for a seven-course meal and wine that was billed as a rather intimate affair. We arrived at the appointed time, as per a very pointedly worded email received earlier in the day, so that the “proceedings” could start “promptly”, and the hostess at Serpas looked at us as if we’d just arrived from Mars. We had to explain to her what we were there for. Uh…duh? We were brusquely told to exit the restaurant and mill about in the courtyard, and drinks and hors d’oeuvres would be forthcoming. Intimate it was not, because about twenty minutes later, the courtyard was filled to capacity, and the servers looked stunned. We got about two bites of said hors d’oeuvres, and never had our drinks refilled. Once in the restaurant, things seemed to go a little smoother, service-wise. As for the food, the three courses prepared by Chef Besh were outstanding. The two courses from Chef Serpas….not so much, and I don’t even remember the third chef’s name or what he served, but it wasn’t good. It ended up being a wonderful evening solely because of Chef Besh. Which proves my point in the first paragraph.

I just don’t think amateur Atlanta is ready for this kind of thing, and I don’t think it ever will be. :-( And I was born here, so don’t give me that line about Delta is ready when I am.

Big Time Tech Fan

May 24th, 2011
3:18 pm

Do you know how many burgers I could get at Swinging Richards for $500?

NorthsideFoodie

May 24th, 2011
3:24 pm

Great job, #AFWF! Overall, I think the event was a success and hope to see them continue (with a few improvements) in the future.

“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.” — I agree 100 percent. I would have loved to receive handouts with recipes and/or tasting notes as I walked into each seminar, too.

Also, I wonder if they would consider holding the event earlier in the spring or later in the fall? I know they can’t control the weather, but it would certainly be much easier to enjoy food, wine & spirits during cooler temps!

ted

May 24th, 2011
3:41 pm

We went to the Friday dinner at Empire State South and had a much better experience. Wonderful meal from Acheson/Smith, Stitt, and the Barkers.

I was fortunate enough to attend on Sat with a buddy who’d helped provide equipment for the festival and had passes. It was a great time, but I admit I’d hesitate to spend that much to get in otherwise. I enjoyed the tamale, canning, and rum seminars. There was so much overlap it was hard to pick which to attend.

I’ll definitely be on the lookout for it next year.

Matt

May 24th, 2011
6:35 pm

I thought it was a great event. I just went the tasting tent route this year and would have gotten at least a day pass if they were about $75-$100 less. I’m OK with the tickets being a bit on the pricey side considering the quality of food/drinks and to thin out the crow a bit, but $550 for me and the wife to go to the seminars and tasting for one day was just too much. I also wish the tasting tents and food trucks were a open little longer. Two hours seemed a bit rushed to try and get through both the tasting tents and the food trucks, another hour/hour and a half would have been great.

Jay Son

May 24th, 2011
8:31 pm

A truly outstanding event. It was great by any measure, and it vastly exceeded any expectations that a rational person could have had for a first time festival. The organizers should be applauded. I’m already looking forward to next year’s event.

Better Procedures

May 25th, 2011
8:14 am

I wanted to get tickets for a Friday night event as a gift. However, based on the “rules” someone not named for a ticket/pass could not pick up. Yes they allowed for name changes, but why should I have to name myself as attendee only to change it later? I called the number on the website and left a message about this and never received a call back. It seems a bit ridiculous to have such crazy rules, particularly if my name was the one on the credit card. Hope next year they consider this and allow some flexibility.

Foodie wish

May 25th, 2011
9:18 am

I loved the concept of it when I heard about it last year. But when I saw the date (um May is HOT HOT HOT-this is not June in Aspen) and then the prices , I knew it wasn’t going to happen for me. I’ll admit a dinner for $150 to see Tim Love is cheaper than flying to Dallas, but still it was a lot and I just couldn’t do it. Hopefully next time.

I heard it was fun overall and am proud of Dominique & Elizabeth for bringing a great event to the City.

Matthew

May 25th, 2011
9:21 am

An amazing weekend, even for a skeptic like me. I loved seeing Atlanta and our south being put on the map and a player along with other prominent festivals around the states like NYC, Aspen & Pebble Beach. I would recommend tasting tents stay open longer, though. The seminars at the hotel were truly amazing, yet I wish I was able to get to them all. As far as pricing, yes it was high, but so worth it to keep the rif raft out. All you people that want that $35 ticket to eat and get drunk, hit another festival, not this one. Thank you to the organizers. I will be telling my friends and we WILL be coming back.

BuHi

May 25th, 2011
12:07 pm

Did the festival have problems? Yes. Could there be some more affordable options? Yes. Was it some half-assed attempt at making Atlanta look like a serious food city? Not at all. I was thoroughly impressed with quality of the event, especially considering it was the first effort – and if you know me, you know what a skeptic I am.

This will never be a one size fits all festival, and that’s not what it’s intended to be.

Kristen: “I just don’t think amateur Atlanta is ready for this kind of thing, and I don’t think it ever will be” – WTH does that mean? A restaurant’s staff was confused and dropped the ball and you damn Atlanta and it’s food scene for eternity? I’ve had service and organization problems in restaurants run by famous chefs in NY, SF & LV. Not sure how you see this as endemic to Atlanta and the festival.

Steven: “I would love to know the ratio of paid tickets/free tickets. I bet they will hide those numbers.” As John pointed out “the festival succeeded so well because it was a for-profit venture”. They can do whatever they want with those numbers – it’s not your business to know. If they determine that they charged too much or need more options, I’m sure they’ll figure it out.

JK: “There’s a narrative about Atlanta that too many of us buy into — namely that our talent doesn’t match our ambition.” Too true my friend. Far too many people are happy with “can’t”…

(Full disclosure – I was a presenter at AFWF – my compensation was a pass to the festival).

Westside Resident

May 25th, 2011
1:25 pm

@BuHi – very well put on all points. I’m really hoping the organizers don’t overreact next year and drop ticket prices too far. Part of what made this event so enjoyable was that the ticket required enough of a commitment that people simply looking to stuff their faces with food and booze were kept out and people in attendance (at least most of them) really wanted to be there to appreciate the festival for what it was intended to be.

@Foodie Wish – I’m with you on the scheduling, early May/late April might be a better option next year. That said, it really wasn’t too terrible inside the tents.

Kristen

May 25th, 2011
2:56 pm

BuHi – You’re not sure how you see this as endemic to Atlanta? Well I do, because I’ve got experiences that tell me so. This past April, I went to NYC. I ate at Babbo, Daniel, and Gramercy Tavern. All three restaurants were packed as I dined, et the food was top notch, as expected, and the service was fantastic, not a single misstep. I’ve had the pleasure of eating at John Besh’s August in NOLA – exquisite meal, service was golden. My husband has dined at Tim Love’s Lonesome Dove in Fort Worth on several occasions – again, service as friendly and spot-on as could be, food was amazing.

Every time my husband and I go out to a chef-driven establishment in this town, save Canoe, it sucks. Rathbun’s? Steak was overcooked, lobster was rancid, and service was excruciatingly bad. Miller Union? Bland food and even blander service. Even Restaurant Eugene – our server was an uppity little pr**ck, the food was poorly presented and tasted…again…bland. It was so bad, we’ve never returned, even though it continues to receive awards. Could they have had an off night? Sure. But would you want to drop another $500 there? Are we picky? Yes. Yet we’re also extremely sympathetic, because we know how hard it is. What happened on Friday night at Serpas was inexcusable and mind-blowing. They didn’t know what was going on? Chef Besh was five feet away from us prepping on the line, for Chrissakes!

I didn’t expect the festival to be without it’s hiccups, but what we experienced was just ridiculous. When you’re going to charge people this much for an experience, you need to deliver, whether it’s a festival or a restaurant.

Let me sum up my amateur status comment – Richard Blaise has a burger stand here, and even he wants out. He’s too good for little old Atlanta. And again, I hate saying these things – I am a native! There is no reason why Atlanta cannot be food destination, but some reason, it just can’t step up to the plate. Hah.

As for the scheduling, I think they were right on the money. Lots of yummy things in season right now, and the weather, while a little warm, was not as volatile as it was earlier in the spring.

Kristen

May 25th, 2011
3:00 pm

BuHi – You’re not sure how you see this as endemic to Atlanta? Well I do, because I’ve got experiences that tell me so. This past April, I went to NYC. I ate at Babbo, Daniel, and Gramercy Tavern. All three restaurants were packed as I dined, et the food was top notch, as expected, and the service was fantastic, not a single misstep. I’ve had the pleasure of eating at John Besh’s August in NOLA – exquisite meal, service was golden. My husband has dined at Tim Love’s Lonesome Dove in Fort Worth on several occasions – again, service as friendly and spot-on as could be, food was amazing.

Every time my husband and I go out to a chef-driven establishment in this town, save Canoe, it sucks. Rathbun’s? Steak was overcooked, lobster was rancid, and service was excruciatingly bad. Miller Union? Bland food and even blander service. Even Restaurant Eugene – our server was a pompous jerk who wanted to pick a fight over the wine, the food was poorly presented, and tasted…again…bland. It was so bad, we’ve never returned, even though it continues to receive awards. Could they have had an off night? Sure. But would you want to drop another $500 there? Are we picky? Yes, yet we’re also extremely sympathetic, because we know how hard it is. What happened on Friday night at Serpas was inexcusable and mind-blowing, I don’t care if it was a first for them. How could they’ve not known what was going on? Chefs Serpas and Besh were five feet away from us prepping on the line, for goodness sakes!

Let me sum up my amateur status comment – Richard Blaise has a burger stand here, and even he wants out. He’s too good for little old Atlanta. And this coming from a native.

As for scheduling it when they did, I thought it was great. There’s lots of yummy things in season at the moment, and the weather, while a bit warm, was less volatile than in the earlier spring.

BuHi

May 25th, 2011
3:49 pm

Kristen: One thing I will agree with you on is the lip service given to chefs simply because they are well known – however that does not just happen in Atlanta. I’ve eaten at 3 different Wolfgang Puck restaurants in 3 different cities. Wouldn’t feed the food (or the experience) to my biggest enemy. Emeril Lagasse served me gumbo that tasted like dirty cardboard and after I sent it back told me to my face he was “Glad I enjoyed my meal”.

So what does that mean? I don’t know, but to say that Atlanta will never improve is a bit melodramatic, don’t you think? When I moved here in 1989, I felt Atlanta was scratching for decent food. Over the years I’ve seen it improve – and I have some great meals here (along with great service). YMMV I guess.

Matthew

May 25th, 2011
3:53 pm

@ Kristen – I am not sure if you are angry in general or angry that your native Atlanta isn’t stepping up on the food front and you wish they would?

My wife and I hit all the restaurants around town OFTEN and let me say that everyone has their “bad night”. My first visit to Rathburns my steak was over done and it was horrible. I swore I would never go back, but did. The second time back and ever since, the service and meal were outstanding. Chalk it up to a bad night.

Can you honestly say that every single time you go to dinner at a nice restaurant in your hometown of Atlanta your service is always bad and the food horrific? It may not just be the restaurant or waitstaff. I would take a look in the mirror.

And by the way, Richard Blaise head has become way to big for him way too fast. If he wants out of Atlanta, then good riddens. There is plenty of other amazing talent growing up in Atlanta and all over the south.

As for your horrible experience at Serpas, I am not sure what to say. I had friends that went and said it was a bit of a cluster in the beginning, as you stated, but ended on an amazing note with music and fun all around. Not sure about you, but when I have a bad experience, if it ends well, the bad part is forgotten. Again, you sound like you want this to be a good thing for Atlanta but you are completely frustrated by your experiences.

And to those commenting on it being a “for – profit” event, well good for them – IF they even made any. More than 50% of new business’s in the first year usually lose money. Not sure if they did or not but I will tell you one thing: it took a hellva lot of guts to start something like this…especially for how picky us southerners tend to be.

Kristen

May 26th, 2011
9:57 am

Matthew, you’ve really hit a nerve now, because I pride myself on being a chef/wait staff’s dream. Do you know me? No, you don’t. Have you ever been to dinner with me? No, you haven’t. How dare you suggest I look in the mirror. When my husband and I go out to dinner, it is an event. We love food, and to us, food is love. We dress the part, we arrive on time if not early, we are polite to the hostess, and we establish up front with the wait staff that we are friendly, enthusiastic people who love food, and want this to be a wonderful experience all around. We get irritated by other customers who arrive late for reservations, or show up without one at all and expect to be seated immediately and then throw fits if they’re not, we cringe inwardly when we overhear customers berating waiters because of some minor issue, or more likely, because they’ve already had way too much to drink at the bar and are just looking to pick a fight. Our hearts sink when we see the disappointed look on a server’s face when he sees the tip, or lack thereof, on a bill for a table that he just spent three hours on. Not to brag, but to give an example, the last time we were at Canoe, where we’ve NEVER had a bad meal or bad service, my husband tipped 50% of the bill because it was such a lovely night, ok? We’re consummate diners, you understand? So how dare you.

Lately, yes, Matthew, every time I dine out at a lauded restaurant here, I am sorely disappointed. And yes, I do have high expectations. You’ve won a James Beard award? I expect the food to be flawless, and consistent. You are correct on the point that I am frustrated that Atlanta is not stepping up on the food front. There is NO REASON why it can’t compete with the other cities I’ve mentioned – or maybe there is. Perhaps the clientele here are just not as evolved as diners in other cities, and therefore, the chefs feel like they don’t have to step up their game? Providing diners like me with a more refined palate with a disappointing experience time after time after time. Perhaps you and your wife are used to meals at less well-known establishments and have lowered expectations, and you feel like you’ve won the lottery with a mediocre steak at Rathbun’s? You want to play dirty, let’s do.

babs

May 28th, 2011
4:35 pm

Jon,
could you please post the health department score when you write about a place? I went searching for a hamburger place on S. Cobb Drive. I think actually some of your commenters recommended it, USA Burgers or something like that. I walked in, checked its scored, it was rated in the 80s. I walked out—fast!

babs

May 28th, 2011
4:36 pm