Monday, April 23, 2012

Atlanta Food and Wine Festival Returns to ... uh ... Atlanta

Posted By on Mon, Apr 23, 2012 at 7:41 AM

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It's travel week here at Bites. As you start to plan your summer vacations, I'll have recommendations all week long for some fun places for you to go get your eat and drink on. First and foremost is the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival coming next month, May 10-13. I attended last year's inaugural event, and I have to say it was one of the culinary highlights of my year.

Like last year, the event will be based out of the Loews Atlanta Hotel in Midtown, an easily walkable neighborhood with some amazing dining options nearby. In fact, you really shouldn't need a car once you get there, and Megabus will drop you off within a mile of the festival for $20 round trip, so there goes that excuse. Any event that isn't within a short walk should be easily and inexpensively cab-able.

Like many great Southern ideas, the festival was born over bourbon cocktails a few years ago by co-founders Dominique Love and Elizabeth Feitcher. In less than a year, they assembled a Founders Council of 62 renowned chefs, restaurateurs on food providers through a process that they likened to a sorority rush. They wanted to ensure that the organizers were all people that the chefs would want to work with, so they intentionally avoided Food Network stars and Top Chef celebrities as headliners for the festival.

The first year's event was one of the most entertaining and well-organized festivals I've ever attended. You could sense that the chefs who worked together to create special theme dinners and to put on specialized seminars genuinely wanted to be there and were excited to get to cook alongside their compatriots. Organizers intentionally forced Atlanta-based chefs to have to work with chefs from around the region to help stir up the pot a little bit. The results were spectacular and, this year promises to be just as good.

The festival is divided into three major sections with nightly theme dinners, daily seminars at the hotel and nearby locations and a truly spectacular tasting tent. The dinners feature chefs from all over the South, including a special "Shepherd to Chef Dinner" which is already on my schedule. Capitol Grille chef Tyler Brown will be teaming up with Ashley Christensen of Poole's Diner, Hugh Acheson and Ryan Smith of Empire State South, Bryan Voltaggio of Volt and Drew Robinson of Jim and Nick's to present their best lamb dishes featuring the wares of Craig Rogers, a lamb purveyor from Border Springs Farm in Virginia who is reverentially referred to as "Shepherd." The dinner also happens to fall on my birthday May 11, so you know I'll be celebrating.

The seminars are divided into tracks that feature "Old Traditions," "New Traditions" and "Imports & Inspirations." There will be somewhere around 90 classes offered during the three days of the festival, so take advantage of their handy dandy planning tools to make sure you don't get double (or triple) booked.

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The tasting tents are not your typical festival sampling tables. These bacchanalia stations are thematically inspired and overflowing with food prepared by some of your favorite chefs. It was there that I first sampled Chef Christensen's famous fried chicken and honey, and it was her that passed it across the table to me. I shared some wine with Andrea Immer Robinson, the mistress of wine pairings who used to dominate the television wine shows. Craft beers and high-end liquors flow in full pours, not sips out of cups that look like they normally hold tartar sauce. We're talking premium experience here! One-hundred-plus chefs will rotate through the tents over the weekend, so it's certainly worth coming back more than once. Plus, there's no way you could pay all the booths justice in one walk-through unless you pack a Tupperware purse.

I'm especially looking forward to Saturday afternoon's Southern Cocktail Hour, which will showcase our region's cocktail culture and feature some of the South's best mixologists. If you'd like to join in on the fun, you can buy either one-day or full festival tickets at the festival website. Patrons can also purchase tickets to just visit the tasting tents, or you can go upscale and pay extra for the "Connoisseur Experience," which includes access to a special lounge during the duration of the festival and admittance to private classes and seminars that are just reserved for the high muckety-mucks. Tickets to the individual dinners are also available separately on the website and are selling out early, so don't dawdle.

I know of at least a couple of Nashville foodies who are planning to make the trip with me. If you want to go and you want to carpool, give me a holler. I hope you can make it!

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