Josh Ozersky

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.

22 Responses to “What I Saw in Atlanta, and Why It Matters”

  1. [...] I am ready to say that there is only one indispensable event, and that is it,” Ray wrote on her blog. “The reason is obvious: the South is the new capital of gastronomy in [...]

  2. Norm Bruce says:

    DUH, it doesn’t take a genius to know that the south is a culinary bastion. And what gives with the reference to Sherman’s march?

  3. Brad Kaplan says:

    Spot on. Glad you enjoyed Atlanta and the festival, we’re blessed with many passionate chefs (and bartenders, and farmer/growers, and… ) who understand the importance of place, of the South.

  4. Melody says:

    One correction in the last paragraph. I believe the restaurant that you are referring to is “Bocado’, not “Bocato.” I love that place and want them to get the credit they deserve.

  5. thinker says:

    Its not necessary to criticize Oakland to compliment Atlanta. This blog post smacks of simplistic generalizations and not especially interesting observations. If the South is finally getting some footing in the culinary world it is only in the far behind footsteps of great cooking in the rest of the country.

  6. karol says:

    you should try http://www.theatlantanosh.com if you haven’t already…it is amazing!

  7. ATLien says:

    Bocado, not Bocato

  8. Mr. Wee Wee says:

    Mr. Wee Wee sez “yOu gO girl” and STAND FIRM BEHIND Barack!

  9. Sucheta says:

    CH wasn’t there on Sunday, but the salted caramel fried chicken at White Oak Kitchens was my favorite! Here’s my review of it
    http://www.goeatgive.com/atlanta-food-and-wine-favorites/

  10. It’s The burger at Bocado, not Bocato. But yeah, it’s amazing. And so was Art’s dish… I’ve never had a good experience at the restaurant but I’m willing to give it another shot now. I also loved the schnitzel put out by Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill -something I would normally pass on.

  11. James Oxendine says:

    Thanks to all of the folks who ,through their time, talent and tenacity, made the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival the success that it was for the visitors as well as the participating culinary talent.

  12. ZRS says:

    Should be “Rathbun” rather than “Rathburn.”

  13. John says:

    Great job chef Anthony!!!!

  14. [...] returning from last weekend’s Atlanta Food and Wine Festival, Josh Ozersky took to his weekly column on Rachelray.com and made some grand, and complimentary, observations about the festival and about [...]

  15. Jona says:

    to clarify: writer Josh Ozersky posted this article on Rachael’s blog.

  16. Whitney says:

    Any time you want to cook some pig ears let me know. Glad you liked them! Chef Whitney (farm 255)

  17. [...] don’t have the gift of words that folks such as Bill Addison and Ozersky have, so be sure to check out their odes to the festival that was. What I do have is photos, and [...]

  18. [...] things like this that warrant the glowing praise our fest received from Josh Ozersky of TIME and Every Day with Rachel [...]

  19. [...] excellence. All of this was also enough to impress Rachel Ray, celebrity chef, who recently blogged about the event and called the south “the new capital of gastronomy in [...]

  20. [...] of delicious dishes. The festival has grown in popularity so much that this year it attracted Rachel Ray, celebrity [...]

  21. Jason says:

    It’s Bocado, not Bocato.

  22. Tamika D. says:

    Wish my sis and I could have made it to the fest this year… Being Southern belles we can tell you that Atlanta has some of the most divine eats & fab hospitality. The South has risen!

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