March 14, 2013
If National Lampoon needed a script for European Vacation part two, they missed a perfect opportunity to find one. The recent Atlanta Food & Wine Festival’s London Promotional tour was not lacking in humor, mishaps and an important message of love — love of Southern food and drink.
With four chefs (John Besh, Ashley Christensen, Kelly English, Duane Nutter), a chocolate maker (Kristen Hard), a mixologist (Neal Bodenheimer), a publicist (Tara Murphy) and a recent culinary graduate (Syrena Johnson, the first scholarship recipient of Chef Besh’s ChefsMove program), we ventured to London to host three events in three days for more than 200 people and to spread the “gospel” of Southern food and drink.
The hilarity included everything from trying to “import” more than 60 lbs of Anson Mills grits, rice and Sea Island red peas in our luggage; transporting via taxi more than 200 lbs of beef, pork, and seafood and 30 cases of bourbon, Virginia wine, rum, and Sazerac from one location to the next; and trying to explain collard greens to our host chef who happened to be French and quite confused. “What are deez co-laird greens? I do not know zeez.” But the fun didn’t stop there. Imagine a six-foot-eight chef trying to sleep in his European twin bed, or all the chefs trying to prep their meals in a 12 x 12 kitchen, or simply the impact of serving bourbon to our tea-drinking British cousins. As one guest put it, “this bourbon is lovely, but I would say quite strong, dears.”
When we started the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival in 2010, our goal was simple: we wanted to shine a national spotlight on the rich food and beverage traditions of the South from Texas to D.C. We also had a secondary goal of positioning Atlanta as the gateway to the epicurean South. As reviews came in following our second Festival in May 2012, including one by award-winning writer Josh Ozersky with TIME and RachelRay.com that called us the “only indispensable food event in the country” and the South the “new gastronomic capital of America,” we knew we were well on our way to achieving our goal.
But as determined entrepreneurs and proud Southerners, we couldn’t help asking ourselves, “is spreading the ‘gospel’ of Southern food and drink domestically enough of a goal?” Of course, we answered with a resounding “No, ma’am.”
Driven in part by good business sense (the UK is a leading source of tourists to the U.S., our hometown partner Delta Air Lines had increased its UK presence with the acquisition of 49 percent of Virgin Atlantic, and dozens of international journalists come to our region each year to cover our food and beverage culture) and in part by ego, we set our sights on creating a promotional tour in London: a Southern invasion, if you will.
Working in collaboration with the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Services, the U.S. Embassy in London, Delta Air Lines and Hilton Hotels Worldwide, we managed to pull off what in hindsight seems like an insane feat of three events in three days, including a cocktail reception at the home of the Deputy U.S. Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, who happens to be Southern, a luncheon for British food, beverage, travel and lifestyle media, and a party at a private club for American ex-pats and prospective Festival attendees. We were also able to squeeze in a little cultural exchange between chef Syrena and the students of British Chef Jaime Oliver’s Fifteen Apprentice program.
Despite a little chaos and navigating foreign surroundings, Southerners should be proud of what our chefs accomplished. They served beautiful, delicious and inspired dishes, each expressing a special Southern element. From Chef Christensen’s white North Carolina sweet potato soup with pickled “co-lairds” and a quenelle of chicken liver butter, or Chef English’s Mississippi catfish hush puppies, to Kristen Hard’s chocolate cake with chocolate bourbon ganache and peanut brittle glass, unique and enticing dishes were served to perfection. Each meal was accompanied by a wonderful New Orleans-style cocktails by Neal Bodenheimer, including a classic Sazerac and a Four Roses salted sorghum old-fashioned, or lovely wines from Virginia.
And the feedback was just as we had dreamed. Our guests gobbled each bite with oohs and aahs and brief pauses to comment on how “surprising” the food was. “After all,” as one guest remarked, “I thought the South was only fried chicken and barbecue.” And, when they weren’t eating or drinking, they listened carefully as we extolled the treasures of our region – our exceptional agricultural products, our centuries-old traditions, our unwavering devotion to keeping our region’s food and beverage culture alive and vibrant. We encouraged them to experience a broader view of the South at the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival.
From dish to commentary, we triumphed. We came, we saw, we ‘Southernized!’ And if all goes as planned, the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival and the rest of our region should be prepared for a British invasion in May.