There’s been a trend with food festivals as of late: regardless of location (New York City, Austin, Portland, Hawaii), organizers will invite many of the same big-name food personalities to join in the weekend festivities. This is a logical move; locals pay top-dollar for tickets and so-called “VIP experiences” to rub elbows — and stir pots of elbow macaroni — with some of their favorite chefs they’ve followed on television. Forget Michelin stars and James Beard Awards, food festivals are like fantasy camps for Top Chef and Chopped devotees. And the model is working, with more and more weekend confabs, along with cruises and traveling pop-up restaurants, scheduled in 2014 than ever before.
The Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, which returns May 29 – June 1, also has had its share of big-name participants — including Linton Hopkins, Edward Lee, John Besh and Hugh Acheson. But the focus on the three-day event is fully rooted in the South, to the extent that chef participants are required to operate restaurants in one of 12 Southern states and the District of Columbia. Because as nice as it would be for Chris Cosentino to rhapsodize about Tennessee hams, or Eric Ripert to shuck some Gulf Coast oysters on a big stage, those guys aren’t from the South. So they ain’t invited.
Dominique Love, an Arkansan, founded Atlanta Food & Wine in 2010 with North Carolinian business partner Elizabeth Feichter. After running corporate giving initiatives for Coca-Cola (Love) and a corporate volunteering non-profit (Feichter), the pair launched a successful cause-marketing agency in 2003 that they still operate today. But Southern food — and the culture surrounding food in the South — tended to dominate their conversations, and the pair started hatching a collaboration. It would be food-related, but not simply throwing parties with celebrity chefs attached. They required some steak with their sizzle.
In Atlanta, the festival events are a mix of small dinners and tastings tents — organized into “trails” with sections organized by theme including barbecue, beer, bourbon, breakfast, pork, seafood. There are also interactive classes, where attendees gather at round tables to learn about a specific topic like the art of the Southern biscuit and the merging of flavors of southern Italy and the American South. While chefs prepare dishes and answer questions, the group is served 2-3 dishes, which is unique for a large-scale festival experience. “We’re not doing the dump-and-stir tented demos,” says Love, smiling. Disclosure: I’ve attended the festival in the past and will be moderating one of the classes, South By South Korea, featuring chefs Paul Qui, Cody Taylor and Jiyeon Lee.
You can download the entire class schedule here. Some day tickets and multi-day packages are still available. For details visit: atlfoodandwinefestival.com