The Atlanta Food & Wine Festival (Thurs., May 30-Jun. 2) kicks off tonight with a launch party at JCT. Kitchen followed by a weekend filled with foodie seminars, cooking demos, and tasting tents held at and around the Loews Atlanta Hotel. (Check out the festival map and tasting tent directory here.) Inspired by the country's finest food festivals - and the only one to specifically showcase the culinary traditions of the South - it's kind of a big deal. Hungry for more? CL asked festival founders Elizabeth Feichter and Dominique Love about the philosophy behind the festival, what they're most looking forward to this year, and, the money thing.
You mentioned that you were inspired by the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. What exactly is the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival?
Elizabeth: The Atlanta Food & Wine Festival is a celebration of the Southern traditions. It takes place over the course of four days. [Tonight] we'll launch with our Pig Out: Tailgate Style party at JCT. Kitchen. And then we'll officially kick off our daytime activities on Friday morning with a toast at the Loews [Atlanta] Hotel. (Loews is our official host hotel and where all of our Learning Experiences take place.) Our Learning Experiences are our seminars and our cooking demonstrations, any of our in-classroom activities. And then every afternoon we will have our Tasting Tents, which are just about a block to the left of the hotel...So those will happen each day, our learning experiences at the hotel and our tasting experiences outdoors on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
Dominique: In a nutshell, the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival is the first culinary weekend in the country that focuses exclusively on the South. Our ultimate goal was to really put the South on the national stage and to showcase the rich food and beverage traditions of our region in a very meaningful and authentic way.
Can you describe a typical day at the festival?
D: A typical day has three classes. So about three hours of classes then three hours of tents in the afternoon. In between classes, 30 minute intermissions, so that we can turnover the room. Ballard Designs, one of our sponsors, is doing a really cool thing on the Grilling Terrace called Ballard Bites. So [during intermissions] we'll have a chef out there preparing small bites for the class attendees and music.
What has the attendance been like over the years?
D: We started out with about 5,000 people, almost 6,000 people in year one. Last year we had around 7,000 and this year we think we're on track to be at about 9,000. But beyond that we won't grow too much bigger. Our goal was never to be a 50,000-person event. Our goal has always been to be more of an intimate experience and to really to make sure that our guests have access to really great classes where they can interact with our talent, access to them one-on-one.
D: We define "talent" as our chefs, mixologists, sommeliers, distillers, and craft brewers. We have more than 250 coming in for the weekend and with much award-winning talent in for the weekend it is not uncommon for a guest to run into their favorite chef or a master sommelier who they've heard of and they wanted to meet. We really like how that feels and our talent really likes it too. They like interacting and meeting their guests and people who enjoy their food.
The line-up for this year's educational seminars is packed with more than 100 classes. How do you come up with your programming?
D: The programming comes from a lot of hard work and a lot of brainstorming. We really take our cues from our Advisory Council. We push our talent to talk about things that they might not have talked about at other festivals or things that have been on their mind that they haven't quite figured out how to get the messaging out. Each year, we sit with our advisory council and we talk about what's really on their minds. We want our consumers to walk away saying "I heard it first, I tasted it first, I experienced it first at the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival."
Can you give us some examples?
D: This year, we've had a couple of chefs talk about CSA boxes. They love being a part of the culture, but at the same time, they're really challenged because the box is delivered to their home and even as a chef, they don't know what to do with all the ingredients. And so, we have a class called CSA CPR, talking about other ways to revitalize what you're doing with your box each week.
We're finding more and more stuff that we can be intrigued by, like meroir. So instead of the terroir, it's basically a place where oysters come from. Chef Brian Caswell is from Texas and is a huge proponent of the Gulf and Gulf seafood. In Texas, probably about a century ago, oysters used to be designated by a place, and the breed carried the name of the location, the appellation. It's only been in the past five or six years, where people are going back to that practice. Brian is teaching a really cool class called Oysters and Beer, and he's going to be walking people through all those different oysters while also talking about their the appellations of the oysters. He teamed up with a cool professor from Auburn University who is doing some work in the oyster area as well.
Cool. So you consult the experts and push the topics that they want to talk about. What kinds of things are on chef's minds this year? And how have those things evolved over time?
D: In year one, everyone wanted to talk about pork. And, you know, there was a great love affair with all things bacon and pig. Then there was a shift last year where chefs were talking about hunting and gathering and foraging. This year, we have a lot of chefs talking about their Latin roots. One called South by South America with Duane Nutter and Todd Richards compares the foodways of the American South and South America. You'll also see David Guas and Adolfo Garcia, both have New Orleans ties. Adolfo is Panamanian, and David is Cuban. The real direct link is between what they're cooking and what the New Orleans cooking culture draws from their native homes.
E: There's a focus and concentration on women in this year's festival. I love the series that we're doing: Women Grow, Women Shine, Women Vent, Women Temper. It's putting women in the roles of being a chocolate maker or moon shine distiller or a brew master and letting them tell their stories from their side of the stage and letting guests experience that.
Well, there is one aspect that I do have to ask about. It feels like sometimes when people talk about the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival it's been characterized as inaccessible and maybe too expensive. What is your response to that?
This year, single day passes are $185 and include 3 seminars, entry to on afternoon session in the tasting tents, festival gift bag, and a one-year subscription to Food & Wine magazine. Daily "Connoisseur" level tickets start at $700. Entry to individual tasting tent sessions are $100 and three-day all access festival passes range from $500-$2000.
D: Well I think you have to look at the overall value. Certainly we did hear that in year one, and we do have some expensive tickets. (Our Connoisseur ticket is not inexpensive, but we also bring in some really great talent and certain ingredients. We are doing a whole Southern caviar tasting in the connoisseur lounge, so those things are the value you get for the ticket.)
When you do look at it, to get three hours of classes and also three hours of tasting tents for $185 (and if you bought it during the early-bird time, it was $150) it's a really great value. I know that a lot of single dinners around town that have out-of-town talent run $200 sometimes. Sometimes up to $300 or more. So you're getting a whole day's worth of really, really smart programming and the value is definitely there.
E: I'll also say that every year I have enjoyed those moments when you randomly catch someone as you're walking behind someone or as your walking off an elevator. I've heard time and again, "I had no idea what this was going to be, I only bought a ticket today and I'm coming back next year all three days," or "I'm bringing my ten friends," or whatever it might be. Time and again, I got to hear those little snippets of conversations where people are really truly surprised and didn't expect it to be what it was.
They will certainly be enjoying it again in a so much larger way, so I feel like that is justification, continuing to press forward with planning such strong programming and really putting thought into classes and tasting experiences. We want to be something that is really carefully crafted and that you can experience almost one-on-one with the talent.
D: I totally agree with Elizabeth. We definitely see our guests coming back year after year.
OK, so what activities are you personally looking forward to this weekend?
E: Um, all of them!? I'm looking forward to how we changed up our large day demonstrations. It's much more of an interactive experience. I'm looking forward to seeing how creative our talent gets with taking that experience our guests usually have at a festival to the next level... It's different than your typical pairing class. It's the chance to have a bite of something while the chef is talking about what inspired him/her to cook it.
D: Liberate Your Lettuce with Edward Lee, because everything he is cooking is with lettuce. I just think it's a fun approach, and Edward is hysterical and really smart. I love that combination. He is just a very strong chef, and to go out on a limb and do something with lettuce? I think it will be very fun and engaging, from pickling lettuce to making a lettuce soup, stir-frying, and more.
Another one is with Norman Van Aken and it's called Conch Culture. I'm really interested in it, because we do forget that Florida is a part of the South and a lot of what goes on does influence the region and vice versa. There is a debate. My Mississippi father doesn't believe Florida is in the South. Some people think it's in a separate region. But anyway, the class is about the foodways in the Florida Keys. [Van Aken] just wrote a book about it and he'll be doing some pieces from his book.
How will this year's festival be different from the previous ones?
D: We want everything we do to be very cohesive. We want whatever is happening in the classroom to also be experienced either in our tasting tents or at our dinners and events. This year we're exploring the food of the Southern tailgate. So we have our party Thursday night at JCT. that is showcasing the food with a Southern tailgate. And then you'll also find a class on both Saturday and Sunday on our Grilling Terrace called Foods of the Southern Tailgate. And then we have a section in our tasting tents that also reflects some of the foods of the Southern tailgate. We tried to make things pretty comprehensive or cohesive.
Anything new with the tasting tents?
D: We've expanded our footprint a little bit more because there's a lot to see and a lot of people were in there last year. We have also reconfigured our Tasting Trails just a tad. We've added a Southern Grown area to showcase more of the agriculture of our region and have more veggies and non-meat items. Our fried chicken trail has always been a huge hit, but this year we decided not to limit chicken to the fryer. We wanted to showcase it in other ways as well. So you will see some fried chicken in the trail, but it's now called "Chicken."
OK, so straight from the mouth of the organizers and founders: Do you have any tips for festival-goers to make their experience better?
E: Hydrate, rest up, and maybe don't eat on Thursday.
D: Haha. Master Cleanse.
E: Yes, Master Cleanse before and after...
D: Pace yourself and really, enjoy. This weekend was built for people to stop and enjoy, to experience the classes. We are proud of our tasting tents, we think they are very different from the big festivals in the country, because of how we curated the food, but it doesn't give you a full snapshot of the weekend. Going to a class can really give you some broader exposure, so we have opened up the classes. They will be open for individual classes to be purchased - for that consumer who just wants to dip their toe in and get a better sense of what we have to offer. They are $50 a class.
Any final thoughts before the weekend?
D: My hope is that the people in our city are really proud of what is going on, and they should be. We've got this amazing food culture, and it would not have happened had it not been for the amazing chefs of our community who are really hosting all of these people from out of town and making sure everyone is being taken care of. The city really shines during this weekend, especially midtown. Midtown street is just really alive, and it's really fun to just feel that energy and to feel so many people so excited to be in our home and our backyard.
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