Memphis chef Kelly English celebrating the fast-food breakfast sandwich during his cooking demo at last year’s Atlanta Food and Wine Festival.

It’s difficult to believe that this year’s edition of the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival will be the fifth iteration of the popular gathering of Southern chefs, mixologists, sommeliers, artisanal food suppliers and their fans. In only four years, the festival has earned a reputation for attracting top-shelf talent and creating a jam-packed program of activities over the course of four days that rivals just about any other similar food event in the country.

AFWF cofounder Dominique Love has plenty of reasons to be excited about the 2015 festival being held in Midtown Atlanta May 28-31, and not just because it’s a major anniversary year. “Sure, we’ll celebrate our fifth birthday, but the spirit of the entire weekend has always been celebratory as we recognize the old and new traditions and inspirations of the food of our region,” she says.

Not satisfied to rest on her laurels, Love and her cofounder, Elizabeth Feichter, continue to evolve the festival’s programming and engage new talent. Taking direction from an Advisory Council of the South’s top chefs, the organizers are constantly on the lookout for the next generation of notable food and drink personalities from the broad geographic region stretching from Texas to Washington, D.C.

Health and wellness are themes at this year’s festival. But you can still expect bacon, ham and sausage breakfasts.
As Love, Feichter and their team of festival organizers began to plan the slate of popular educational seminars, key topics began to emerge arranged around themes of health and wellness as well as a focus on specific regional cuisines. Love is particularly excited about a class session titled #EatWellBeWell, in which Florida chef Dena Marino will demonstrate how her hybrid menu of Southern and Italian food doesn’t necessarily have to all be fried, or fritto. Not only will students have the opportunity to taste Marino’s cooking, but they’ll also go home with tips on shopping for and using fresh seasonal ingredients in their home kitchen.

Another health-based seminar explores the curative benefits of an unexpected source: corn likker. In Moonshine and Medicine, Atlanta-based homeopathic-medicine expert Anna Russ will regale students with stories of  ’shine in the early 1900s as a popular cure for ailments such as arthritis and colds. And sobriety. Medicinal use of alcohol was the loophole that kept many major distilleries afloat during the dark ages of Prohibition and allowed them to hit the ground brewing when the states finally came to their senses and ratified the 21st Amendment.

While the focus of the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival has always been the cuisine of the entire region, for 2015 organizers are narrowing their spotlight to a laser point. Arkansas chef Rob Nelson will illuminate the “high South” food traditions of the Ozarks stretching across Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. Chefs Greg Baker, Vivian Howard and Kelly Fields will share samples of their native regional cooking styles in a cooking demonstration called Cooking Between the Lines. Expect rustic Florida “cracker” cuisine from Baker, veggie-centric rural North Carolina treats from Howard and some sort of delicious Louisiana pastries from Fields.

Individual Southern states are also carving out specific spaces in the seminar calendar and as separate “foodways” in the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival’s popular tasting tents. Alabama, South Carolina and Mississippi will each have their own sections of the tents to showcase the rich culinary heritage of each state.

The festival’s various classes include demonstrations on cooking and presenting large cuts of meat.
Always a highlight of each year’s festival is the roster of special dinners that pair local Atlanta chefs with guest toques from across the country. The festival kicks off with a large event they’re calling Pig Out: Market Style at the soon-to-open Ponce City Market. The dinner will be hosted by three James Beard Award-winning chefs who are planning to open new restaurant concepts in the new market: Sean Brock, Anne Quatrano and Linton Hopkins. Five hundred guests will be among the first to sample the wares of these chefs and other vendors from Ponce City Market, along with guest chefs including Nashville’s Tyler Brown, Bill Smith from Crook’s Corner in North Carolina and Justin Devillier from La Petite Grocery in New Orleans.

Other AFWF traditions include the Rathbuns’ Watch List Dinner, where chef brothers Kevin and Kent Rathbun introduce attendees to the latest batch of Southern chefs and beverage professionals making their mark on the culinary scene. The Fourth Annual Tribute to Southern Growers Dinner, presented by Blackberry Farm from Walland, Tennessee, will recognize the farmers, ranchers and purveyors that make Southern cuisine so memorable. The dinner will also be a coming-out party of sorts for new Blackberry Farm executive chef Cassidee Dabney as she replaces the recently departed Joseph Lenn. There’s nothing like cooking for a crowd of connoisseurs willing to shell out for a high-dollar dinner to make your mark, but Dabney should be up to the task.

The overall mission of the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival is to shine a national and international spotlight upon the food and beverage of the region. On a micro level, though, the AFWF offers amazing opportunities for food lovers to interact with the heroes of Southern food on a very individual basis as part of educational and entertaining programming. If this sounds like something you’d be into, tickets are still available on the event website, and Delta is ready when you are.

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