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What I Saw in Atlanta, and Why It Matters

There are a lot of food festivals these days. There is a very classy one in Aspen; there is a rocking one in South Beach, which hosts a hamburger contest you have probably heard of. I even do a big food event myself. But having just got back from Atlanta, I am ready to say that there is only one indispensable event, and that is it. The reason is obvious: the south is the new capital of gastronomy in America. Food has to come from somewhere; the great chefs in capitals like New York or San Francisco or even Portland generally come there from somewhere else; they draw their inspiration and their authority from a tradition rooted in experience and agriculture. Maybe it’s Italy, or maybe it’s Indonesia. But it was Oakland that Gertrude Stein was speaking of when she said, “there’s no there there.”

No doubt, the bay area has its own terroir, its own folkways. But not like the South. The place is practically a continent of its own, a settled territory, a country within a country. And Atlanta is its capital. So if, like me, you believe that, within the crescent of black soil and isolated towns, each with gifted chefs operating in hothouse isolation from each other, the best chefs in America are now being grown, Atlanta is the place you have to be.

I should say here that I am favorably disposed to the festival. They flew me down there and they put me up. I had insider access, like all writers, so I didn’t have to wait in lines, and I am friends with a lot of the chefs, so don’t take my experience there as representative or objective. As an event founder, I thought it was run really well. But that’s not the point. The point is that I stood in the tents and tried five kinds of fried chicken, from four different states, each with its own vector on fried chicken. (The best one, by far, was a local southern Indian restaurant in Atlanta called Cardamom Hill, which served a perfect slice of cardamom-infused breast.) There wasn’t a single celebrity chef present; there wasn’t even a big-time restaurateur. All the chefs were actual working chefs, whom the festival had given a platform. “We made the decision to say no to celebrity chefs,” festival CEO Dominique Love told me. “It isn’t about the personality; it’s about what goes on in the kitchen.”

You could see it in the tents, normally a clearing house of lukewarm leavings plogged onto soggy toasts. These were organized by theme, and each one serving dishes as fresh, in most cases, as what you would find in a restaurant.   There was a pig tent with a pig-ear tacos from Farm 255 in Athens, a place I have never been, using a cut of meat I like but never really enjoyed much if the truth be told. Sean Brock is the best known southern chef, and may well be the best for all I know. But he’s not the only one that has found a way to elevate their chewy and cartiligineous pieces of pork; these guys have their own method, and their pig ears taste nothing like Sean’s. I went to the Rathburn Watch Dinner, which gives a platform to the Southern chefs who didn’t have big reputations even  in the south yet; and what an inside track that gave me in my never-ending war on my rival food writers. I will say here that the best thing I had there, by far, was a pork jowl, long cured, confited for 36 hours, seared off and served with some beans in a little cardboard bowl. It was served by Anthony Gray, Art Smith’s chef at Southern Art, a restaurant I didn’t know about and a man I had never met.

It doesn’t sound like much, does it? And yet it was magical. I had eaten 18 other dishes before it at the same event, and sampled a much buzzed-about hamburger at Bocato on the way. And yet that jowl stuck with me in a way I can’t entirely explain. I think the entire cuisine of the south is like that, at least in its current iteration. Whether it’s lardcore heroics like Gray’s or the celestial charcuterie handed to me by Kevin Outzs from The Spotted Trotter, the experience cemented the conviction in my mind that the South was where American cooking, in its most vital sense, is happening. If only there was a giant southern food festival every month I could go to to try all this food! Once a year is not enough. But Atlanta opened my eyes, and I won’t wait a year to go back. March to the sea, gastronomes! The South has risen.

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