Festival features local lessons

Sean Brock (right) joined Atlanta chef Linton Hopkins for a presentation on corn.

Like every other multiday event devoted to eating and drinking, the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival features a tasting tent and slate of costly dinners. But it feels like the heart of the 5-year-old affair is located somewhere on the 18th floor of the midtown Loews Hotel, where 82 hourlong classes are held.

While a smattering of the classes could potentially be dismissed as lightly disguised marketing opportunities — sponsor Four Roses sent its quality manager to lead a bourbon tasting and blending seminar, for instance — the vast majority of the sessions reflect the genuine interests and passions of participating chefs, distillers, restaurateurs and cookbook authors.

Among the classes offered at the most recent festival, which unfolded on the last weekend in May, were an overview of a collaboration between a food bank and local food hub in Chattanooga; a chocolate-covered insect tasting; an introduction to shio-koji; and a panel discussion of how music influences chefs.

Many of the best classes were beverage-themed, partly because they were led by sommeliers and bartenders who are in the habit of performing for crowds. But the classes also were helped by an audience that’s learned a great deal about wine since the festival began: It was notable this year how many attendees chimed in with tasting notes and informed questions about barrels and brix.

The Atlanta Food & Wine Festival aims to represent the entire South, so its lineup included a sizable Charleston contingent: Presenters included Andy Henderson and Cameron Read of Edmund’s Oast; Scott Blackwell of High Wire Distilling Co.; Frederick Corriher of Frederick Corriher Wine; Sean Brock of Neighborhood Dining Group; and Brooks Reitz of Jack Rudy Cocktail Co. And even when there wasn’t a Charlestonian on the schedule, many of the classes were highly relevant to the Lowcountry. Here, a few which had particular regional relevance:

Chef Frank Lee teamed up with Vishwesh Bhatt, corporate chef of City Grocery Restaurant Group in Oxford, Miss., to explore the meaning of rice, and share a few preparation tips nicked from the global recipe box.

“The primary grain for 70 percent of the world is rice,” explained Bhatt. “It’s just amazing that this one little grain has affected so many cultures, and not just food cultures, but how we live.”

Bhatt prepared a puffed rice salad that riffed on jhaal muri, a Bangladeshi street snack with onions, chilies and peanuts. “I’m going to have it on my menu by mid-next week,” raved Lee, who presented rice prepared in Persian fashion, which means he draped a towel over the pot before setting it to steam.

“It didn’t cook to mush,” Lee said of the 40 minutes cooking over low heat. “It didn’t burn, and the towel didn’t catch on fire. I was pretty impressed by that.”

When cocktail historian David Wondrich started poking through 19th-century archives in search of pictured bartenders, he found images that nearly conformed to his expectations.

“They had big bushy moustaches,” he said. “But they were black. It’s a history that’s important because this is the history of the American bar. It wasn’t always white guys.”

Before and after the Civil War, it was common in the North for white bartenders to wait on white drinkers. “But you go down South, and everything changes,” Wondrich said. In researching African-American bartenders for a story soon to be published by The Bitter Southerner, he learned that black caterers and tavern keepers from Richmond to Louisville were celebrated in the local white press and asked to mix drinks for the most important visiting dignitaries.

Cato Alexander in 1780 was born into slavery in South Carolina. After gaining his freedom in 1800, he made his way to New York and opened a saloon a few miles north of the city (about where modern-day 57th Street intersects with Third Avenue.) Renowned for his juleps, Alexander “was one of the pioneers of mixing drinks. Anytime you walk into a bar today, there’s a little bit of Cato there,” Wondrich said. “Even if it’s TGI Friday’s in the airport.”

Drinkers in the Atlanta airport reliably head to One Flew South, where Tiffanie Barriere is in charge. For the session, she mixed drinks, including a Bayou Sour of bourbon, lemon, Peychaud’s bitters and Poirier’s cane syrup. An African-American woman, Barriere says she encounters surprisingly little racism and sexism when she’s standing behind her bar. “There isn’t a difference when you’re thirsty,” she said

One attendee asked what One Flew South guests are thirsty for. Barriere said men gravitate toward bourbon, while women drink Champagne, old-fashioneds and beer.

Barriere said she considers service her heritage, acknowledging the contributions of bartenders cited by Wondrich, such as Dick Francis, who in Washington, D.C., mixed flowerpot punches for politicians from both parties; Tom Bullock, the first African-American bartender to write a cocktail book and John Dabney, also born into slavery, who eventually owned property around Richmond and sent his children to college.

“These guys, in conditions that were terrible and tough, triumphed in some way,” Wondrich said. “They need to be written into the history.”

When The Grocery receives banded rudderfish, chef Kevin Johnson is apt to smoke the fish and stir it into creme fraiche, since the bar snack is a better seller than a fillet. Anchovies, a personal favorite of Johnson’s, are more likely to show up as seasoning than the star of a plate.

“We use them in more things than our guests realize,” Johnson says.

Years after chefs and ocean advocates first started talking up sustainable seafood, many diners are still reluctant to experiment with fish that doesn’t look like meat. Whether called trash fish, bycatch or by its proper species name, for the sake of healthy fisheries, it’s essential that eaters diversify their diets, according to Johnson, chef Bryan Caswell of Houston and fisherman PJ Stoops.

At Reef, Caswell has served 92 different species, although he’s had to make a few concessions to customer squeamishness, including plopping a cherry tomato in a fish’s eye socket.

“We do a whole roasted fish, and if it’s pink snapper, beeliner snapper, we sell 30 a night,” Johnson said. “The Spanish mackerel, one of my favorite fish in the whole world, we’ll probably sell five.”

Frank Lee, seated in the audience, grumbled, “I’ve been fighting the Spanish mackerel battle for 30 years.”

Johnson said, “A chef can be into it, but really, in the end, it’s down to the paying consumer.” But the panelists hinted that restaurant customers aren’t solely responsible for the fate of fisheries: Chefs could promote more mingled fish dishes, such as the pile of crisped little fish that Stoops prepared for attendees, and lawmakers could create incentives for increased domestic aquaculture.

“No one expects to eat wild cows,” Stoops said.

Caswell added, “The only wild animal we eat on a regular basis is fish.”

Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560 or hraskin@postandcourier.com.