The Atlanta Food & Wine Festival showcases regional talent

From Maryland to Texas, chefs share their skills
Kent Rathbun

Photo courtesy of the AFWF

Anyone familiar with the restaurant scene in Atlanta is well aware of the major players—chefs like Linton Hopkins, Anne Quatrano, Kevin Rathbun, and Ford Fry—that will be participating in the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival this weekend. One of the most unique aspects of AFWF, though, is that it brings in other chefs from the breadth of the South and Texas (which is arguably its own region). Offering a taste of what’s to come, we chatted with two participating chefs that represent their geographical bookends: Texas’s Kent Rathbun and Maryland’s Clayton Miller.

Kent Rathbun
Kent Rathbun, brother of Kevin, is participating for the third year in a row. Kent—who owns and operates six restaurants including Dallas’s Abacus, Jasper’s, and Blue Plate Kitchen—will bring his “contemporary global” influences to Atlanta this weekend in the form of chicken fried antelope. He’ll be working alongside Kevin both to host the Rathbuns’ Watch List Party Saturday and conduct a grilling demonstration on Sunday.

You’re a pretty busy guy. Why do you continue to make the time to participate in the AFWF every year?
Kent: I think it’s important to have chefs from all over to give people a good sense of the types of food that are out there. We want there to be a good selection of various types of food at the festival. Be it a taco or a high-end French meal or pizzas: As long as it’s done well, people appreciate it. People want a good experience, so it’s smart to make a diversified menu, so to speak, at the festival.

How will you merge your Texas style here in the South?
Kent: I think you’d be surprised how much of the South is in Texas. We might use more chilies and spices but we cook a lot like Georgia. People will see some nice similarities and some things that are a little different from [what they are used to]. Not everyone has heard of chicken fried antelope. But I’ve served it and gotten an amazing response—chicken fried everything is good.

Chicken fried antelope, huh?
Kent: This year, Kevin and I are not just hosting the Rathbuns’ Watch List Party but we’re doing a dish—a chicken fried antelope with Texas blueberry balsamic, white cheddar, and green chile hominy—to bring a little Texas to the party.

Tell us more about the party.
Kent: Last year was the first year of the Watch List party at Rathbun’s. All of these young chefs come and do a special dish and show off their stuff. It’s a way for us to highlight these young, new, and up-and-coming chefs. We had a lot of people help promote our careers along the way and want to give back a bit and showcase some new chefs.

What else do you have planned for this weekend?
Kent: We’re doing a grilling seminar on Sunday. We’re going to share tips for setting up a grill or smoker for great success: temperatures, the type of wood, the way you prepare and clean and oil the grill, and the type of grill. We’ll talk about seasoning, the way to cook, check your temperatures, and prepare the meat.

It’s interesting that both you and Kevin ended up as chefs. Did you get your start together?
Kent: We grew up in Kansas City on the Missouri side. Our mother was in the restaurant business but not a chef. Our father loved to cook but he was a musician and a building contractor, but if he ever had the chance, he would’ve been in the kitchen [professionally]. My mom was great in the kitchen, too, and my grandma was a great cook.

Kevin and I went to work at a little restaurant called Sambo’s (it’s like Denny’s). I’m older so I started working there first. We learned to cook there—frying, cooking, prepping, and organizing. When I turned 17, my mom was a maître d’ for a high-end French restaurant. I started working as an apprentice. It was a great opportunity to learn. Kevin did the same thing. After that, we split off and went separate ways but both got lucky working under the right chefs. I didn’t have formal training. Kevin went to a culinary program. We learned to keep our heads down and the knife in our hands.

Clayton Miller
Clayton Miller, now executive chef of Wit & Wisdom at the Four Seasons Hotel in Baltimore, began his career working under Gunter Seeger in Atlanta, so it’s only fitting that he return to his “second home” for the AFWF. Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chef in 2010, Miller was a James Beard Foundation semifinalist that same year. He’ll be focusing on gourmet bar fare at this year’s Festival.

What should we expect from you at the AFWF this year?
Miller: I’m honored to be on the advisory council and was able to consult on the event. I’ll be doing a Tasting Trail on Saturday offering a country pork terrine with pickled tomatillo, smoked mayo, and rye breadcrumbs. On Sunday, I will present on bar food beginning with an introduction to batters. I’ll be talking about the different types,from cornmeal to tempura and everything in between, and the similarities and differences of each.

Why bar food?
Miller: Bar food is growing in popularity and is inspiring a more casual form of dining that chefs are fully embracing as an outlet where they can be more creative. If I had one piece of advice to give on bar food it would be to “Embrace the fried.” What I mean is don’t be afraid to fry. Over the years fried foods have gotten a bad rap, but honestly any cooking method can be abused. When used properly, frying is not nearly as bad as everyone thinks it is.

What will you be preparing in your cooking demonstration?
Miller: In my demo, I’ll be preparing smoked and roasted bone marrow, which is a big hit at Wit & Wisdom, I’ll also do a couple of pork belly sandwiches, as well as a few variations of the classic snack, popcorn, with clarified butter. I’ll be doing popcorn with a Chinese XO sauce that uses powdered shrimp, bacon fat, chili, and malt vinegar powder; as well as a popcorn with duck fat, mango powder, salt, and chili powder.

I’ve found the secret to good bar food is to elevate the classics to cater to modern tastes while still maintaining that comfort factor—take, for example, our lobster corn dogs and fried chicken wings with a bourbon soy glaze.