Last year’s inaugural Atlanta Food & Wine Festival was many things. A gracious plenty of cooking demonstrations, panel discussions and wine seminars. A chance to gather for dinners prepared by groups of the South’s most lauded chefs in the city’s top dining rooms. The lure of sun-shaded tasting tents filled with folks walking through a Dixie dreamscape of barbecued pork, fried chicken, craft beer and bourbon. So much bourbon.
More than anything, the festival served as kind of a coming-out party for today’s Southern food culture and for Atlanta as its capital city. With a program designed by an advisory council of chefs from across the South, it distinguished itself from the country’s other large food festivals with its intense focus on culinary interaction and instruction.
The festival returns this weekend, starting with dinners around town Thursday night and then proceeding through three days jam-packed with events, food and liquor. (It’s not too late to buy tickets for some or all of the festival.) But it won’t be a full reprise. Festival co-founders Dominique Love and Elizabeth Feichter have learned from their (few) mistakes and (many) successes of the first year and have adjusted the programming.
“We have the same philosophy from last year, ” Love said, “with our focus on learning experiences, tasting experiences and events. But there have been some refinements.”
Most notably, they have greatly reduced the sheer number of choices guests must make. That gracious plenty seemed at times more like a galumphing surfeit. With 124 programmed events starting first thing Friday morning, attendees found themselves contemplating dozens of possibilities — some packed, some with only a handful of takers. Plenty of volunteers were on hand to guide, but there were no event descriptions. This year, there will be 88 programmed events. Guests may attend at most three each day, and they’re encouraged to read through the descriptions online and reserve places ahead of time.
The organizers have also scrapped the fun-but-not-all-that food truck park, where a half-dozen trucks couldn’t compete with the much more robust — and much more crowded — tasting tents. Love and Feichter hope to alleviate those crowds by keeping the tents open for three hours each session instead of two, giving the many day-trippers ample opportunity to come and go.
But they will keep the curated “tasting trails” throughout the tents, which give consumers a chance to, say, try eight different takes on fried chicken side by side. Love, who has just returned from Pebble Beach Food & Wine (one of many festivals she visited over the course of the year) thinks this feature really distinguishes AFWF.
“This trip really underlined our feeling that we’re on to something, ” she said. “We’re doing something bigger. We’re teaching, we’re showcasing our culture and traditions.” They also serve a lot to eat in these tents — not always the case at other festivals where the wine tastings and cheeseboards outstrip the chef-prepared food.
“At other festivals, ” Love said, “I’ve heard people walk away from the tent saying, ‘I’m still hungry.’ That won’t happen here. That can’t happen here.” As much as last year’s festival tried to represent the variety of Southern gastronomy, the programming did seem to circle back quite frequently to a couple of favorite items.
“Last year the topics seemed to be bourbon, bourbon, bourbon; pork, pork, pork, ” laughed Love. “It’s true.” The advisory council of chefs devised the programming, and that’s what most excited them at the time. This year, a lot more programming will explore sustainable seafood, sustainable sourcing, Southern history, Southern family traditions and cocktails. At one point, the conference center at the Loew’s Hotel promises to turn into a warren of competing cocktail bars, with experts to pour, discuss and pour some more.
Like last year, all these people will spill out into the streets of Midtown, and for four sybaritic days, Midtown will be alive with that special excitement that comes from great food and drink. Atlanta Food & Wine Festival Thursday – May 13. Loews Hotel Atlanta. 1065 Peachtree Street N.W. www.atlfoodand winefestival.com