A Look Ahead At The Atlanta Food & Wine Festival 2012

The Atlanta Food & Wine Festival founders sure do know how to throw a party. Last night, co-founders Dominique Love and Elizabeth Feichter hosted at Joey Campanaro's Little Owl venue space heralding the upcoming festival in May (10-13). The menu featured chef Kelly English's (Restaurant Iris) tempura fried okra filled with pimiento cheese, and cassoulet of fried chicken thighs with red beans, rice, and andouille; Ford Fry's (JCT Kitchen) chicken oyster "Shake-n-Bake" with sweet onion dumplings; and Tandy Wilson's (City House) Nashville hot chicken salad. Bourbon was flowing, the Lee brothers hosted, there was lots of Southern hospitality, and there were wines chosen by Blackberry Farm's sommelier Andy Chabot. Wait, did the festival start already?

If you missed last year's festival, Atlanta's inaugural event, you missed out on a lot of fun (check out last year's coverage). The festival in Atlanta was a true embarrassment of riches: 136 chefs, sommeliers, mixologists, and industry experts were involved. And there were about 200 events, demos, and discussions. With as many food festivals as there are now, Atlanta really stood out in its first year precisely because of the attention to the content behind the events (read a pre-inaugural interview with the founders). It did also help that the charming and lovely co-founders, Love and Feichter, definitely know how to party.

Well, the festival's second year is no less ambitious. This year, they're planning on involving some 220 chefs, mixologists, and industry experts. So in its anticipation, co-founder Dominique Love graciously took a break from planning the events in May to answer some questions about Atlanta Food & Wine's first year, as well as what to expect in 2012.


We set a very ambitious goal of shining a national spotlight on the food and beverage traditions of the South with a weekend of smart and entertaining programs, carefully-curated tasting tents and delicious dinners and events. The highlight is that we successfully pulled it off! We had an incredible weekend that drew the region's top talent and our guests ate and drank great Southern food to their hearts' content.  


By all accounts, last year was a great success, but there are always highlights and challenges to hosting events. What was last year's high point? And what do you think was the biggest lesson that you learned from 2011 that you've applied to this year's festival?
We're quite proud of our year one accomplishments. The highpoint was the incredible energy and enthusiasm our talent brought to our guests. Everyone was so excited to finally have a stage to talk about the South and the innovative things our chefs, mixologists, and sommeliers are doing. Our challenge last year was that we were all chomping at the bit to share the true culinary South with the world and we ended up with an especially full weekend of activities. This year, we're focused on enhancing the experience for our guests. We've fine-tuned the learning experiences, expanded our tasting tent footprint, and increased the tent timeframe by an hour. We're also starting our dinners and events on Thursday evening to allow more opportunity for guests to indulge.


What do you expect to be this year's highlight?
We have once again set the bar high when it comes to delivering a great experience for our guests and talent. Last year, we touched upon a number of topics, from the evolution of the African-American chef to whole animal cuisine and craft beer, among others. This year, we're making our learning sessions more interactive with chefs, mixologists, sommeliers, and beer experts collaborating on classes. We'll be talking a lot about sustainable seafood, wild game, greens, and farm fresh items, and really decadent Southern cakes, pies, and chocolates. We've got a technique lab that will teach guests the fundamentals of Southern cooking — cast-iron cooking, biscuits, grits, and cornbread. We're also really excited to explore cocktails in a big way. We've got a really cool program called "The Southern Cocktail Hour" that includes a mixology competition followed by a tour of sorts through the cocktail culture of Houston, Nashville, Louisville, New Orleans, D.C., and Atlanta. 


Last year you said Linton Hopkins and Serenbe made the best fried chicken in Atlanta? Still true?
Yes, still true, but through the festival, I discovered the amazing Asha Gomez and her Kerala-inspired fried chicken and rice waffles. Her chicken, which devotees call "crack chicken" was a favorite of the Fried Chicken trail in our tasting tents. Asha will tell you the exposure she got at the festival was a major factor in her move to open her new restaurant, Cardamom Hill, where the fried chicken is a staple on the menu.


What's the biggest challenge that a second-year festival faces?
Our biggest challenge is how do we narrow all the talent, classes, topics, dinners and events to fit into only four days. The ideas our chefs, sommeliers, and mixologists have could easily yield a month's worth of programs.

How many visitors are you expecting this year?
We're anticipating up to 7,500 guests. Tickets went on sale Feb. 14 and we've been blown away by the response. One event sold out in four hours. We have early-bird pricing through March 31.


Last year you noted Miller Union, Empire State South, Abattoir, and the Brick Store as restaurants that first-time visitors to Atlanta had to visit. Can you give us three others?  
You know these questions kill us! There are so many great spots in Atlanta and our surrounding area that it is tough to give just a few. But, we'll tell you that our office has been enjoying a few places recently: Todd Richards at The Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, No. 246 in Decatur (Ford Fry and Drew Belline's new place), Robert Phalen's One Eared Stag in Inman Park, Antico Pizza in Midtown, and Cardamom Hill in Berkeley Park. We're also really into Paul Calvert and his cocktails at Pura Vida


Mary Mac's, Varsity, The Colonnade — what other classic Atlanta spots are checklist destinations?  

Waffle House, Busy Bee, Carver's Country Kitchen, Thumbs Up Diner, and Buford Highway. Sweet Auburn Market is a cool place to go, too.      


What new talent will be participating this year that you're excited about?
Last year we had 136 chefs, sommeliers, mixologists, and industry experts involved. This year, we're at 220 and counting! We've expanded the culinary trails in our tasting tents, which will allow us to feature more than 100 chefs in the tents and the lineup changes daily. We've been working closely with our advisory council to identify a broader range of talent — chefs who are on the radar but not yet as known as some of our region's more established chefs. We've got Tandy Wilson from Tennessee, Aaron Deal from Virginia, and Alon Shaya from Louisiana, to name a few. We also have six master sommeliers, including TEXSOM founders Drew Hendricks and James Tidwell from Mississippi. And, of course, we have some amazing mixologists joining us this year, including Gina Chersevani from D.C., and Bobby Heugel from Texas.


What new events are you featuring?
We have a very special Blackberry Farm dinner at a gorgeous Buckhead estate and the brothers Rathbun have an event called "The Watch List" in the works. They'll be showcasing rising Southern culinary stars. We're also excited about our pop-up restaurant and this year's PIG OUT event at JCT Kitchen. John Besh gave us the great idea of turning this event into a true Southern backyard bash. We'll have Chris Lilly from Big Bob Gibson's Bar-B-Q cooking his award-winning barbecue, and all of our talent will be there as hosts. We'll have two bands and some other surprises. 


Which new Southern restaurant should more people know about? 
The Catbird Seat in Nashville, Tenn. — they've got delicious food and take an innovative approach to Southern hospitality with their layout. We're also all eager to try Aaron Deal's soon-to-open restaurant in Roanoke, Va. Our team had the chance to eat his food at a recent event and we were blown away. He is a smart, engaging chef and is going to shake up the dining scene in Roanoke.  They're lucky to have him.

Arthur Bovino is the senior editor for The Daily Meal. Click here to follow Arthur on Twitter.