On the final afternoon of last year’s Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, comments began popping up on Twitter. “Goodbye to a great food city and the festival that brought it to the world. I’ll never miss this one again,” tweeted Josh Ozersky, a food columnist for Time magazine. Raphael Brion, national editor for Eater.com, posted, “Atlanta is a great food town and has an equally great food fest.” I felt something between pride and vindication. Craving respect is encoded in our city’s DNA, and this four-day event, in only its second year, was emerging as the culinary ambassador that we’ve long needed.
The Atlanta Food & Wine Festival—held this year between May 30 and June 2, at and near the Loews Atlanta in Midtown—is part bacchanal and part conference. In the mornings and early afternoons, attendees choose between hour-long seminars. On Saturday at 10 a.m., for example, you can explore the differences between pink, brown, white, and royal red wild-caught shrimp; discover ways to use chocolate in savory dishes; study beer and doughnut pairings (!); or meet some of the South’s most talented up-and-coming cooks, presented by dashing Louisiana chef John Besh. Based on feedback, festival cofounders Elizabeth Feichter and Dominique Love are organizing the classes as roundtable discussions, with nibbles or sips at every session.
Afterward comes the gluttony. Tents open that include “tasting trails”—fourteen stands grouped in themes like barbecue, Southern wine and spirits, tailgating, and Southern Grown, spotlighting produce to mercifully offset some of the pork and booze. The vendors in the tents change each day to avoid repetition.
What truly sets the festival apart is that, to teach and feed the crowds, Feichter and Love invite the most accomplished chefs and artisans from around the region—culinarians from Maryland to Texas whose cooking most engenders a sense of place. The event positions Atlanta as the South’s cultural hub, while giving the city the attention as a food town it absolutely deserves: Nearly 9,000 attendees are expected this year (a quarter of whom will be from outside of Georgia), up from the 5,800 who showed up in 2011 and the 7,000 who came last year.
Thinking of it as a conference helps justify the price of admission: three-day passes—including nine learning sessions and access to tasting tents Friday, Saturday, and Sunday—are $500 per person, and $2,000 connoisseur passes include the above plus three days of breakfasts, dinners on Friday and Saturday nights, and entrance to a tailgating party at JCT Kitchen on Thursday evening. You can also buy a one-day ticket for classes and the tasting tents ($185) or just the tents ($100).
Steep, yes, but the cost is on par with similar events held in South Beach, Florida, or Aspen, Colorado. And Feichter and Love are so convinced of their event’s appeal that they sent an envoy to London in March to drum up international interest. Does that sound far-reaching? It isn’t. The South nurtures one of the world’s most soul-satisfying cuisines. And now we have the festival to show off its breadth to the world. atlfoodandwinefestival.com
This article originally appeared in our June 2013 issue.