Atlanta Rising: Redefining Southern Food

Though during last weekend’s Atlanta Food and Wine Festival last I saw plenty of fried chicken, barbecue, and pork-laden collards, what surprised me most was how much southern food wasn’t just the stereotypical fare many people imagine it to be. Chefs all over have altered the course by using heritage vegetables, hyper-local ingredients, and incorporating Asian flavors that have emerged as Atlanta’s Korean population grows.

For example, at South City Kitchen, chef Chip Ulbrich makes a spicy collard green kimchee that he pairs with smoked pork belly, and at the festival he combined this dish with spicy pan-fried chicken livers with sesame. At Empire State South chef Hugh Acheson serves his striped bass in a dashi broth, adds kimchee to the rice grits, braises octopus in a fennel broth, and gives the smoked duck a leek and blood orange marmalade.

Acheson not only uses Asian-inspired ingredients found on the famous Buford Highway, but he has also been reaching out to farms to get traditional vegetable and fruit varieties that are Georgian staples, including heirloom beans, different types of mushrooms, and olive oil made in the state. He told me in an interview that these crops are being revived as being important essentials southerners don’t want to let go—and, if they keep them in demand then farmers will keep growing them.

At Miller Union, which I wrote about last week, chef and owner Steven Satterfield has also been embracing the bygone foods of the South. “I am a huge fan of historical recipes and heritage ingredients because for me a lot of the food that was made in that time period, pre-industrialization, it was when food was real and people had to live off the land,” says Satterfield. “It was more real and more sustainable, not because it’s trendy, but because it had to be.” At his restaurant, the chef uses Anson Mills heirloom hominy, works with a farmer to get heritage summer squash, and cooks with plenty of native Vidalia onions.

As the other chefs have taken local food and Asian ingredients while keeping a southern spin to it, chef Ann Quatrano’s dishes speak more to the local organic movement that continues to blossom in the city. At her restaurant Bacchanalia she works foods mainly sourced from her own farm and serves dishes like Georgia rainbow trout with fresh garbanzo beans, wood-grilled steak with hakurei turnips and spring onions, and wild forged snails with leeks. Another chef making waves to bring southern food from it’s fat, lard laden reputations is Linton Hopkins, who tied with Acheson for the James Beard Award for Best Chef Southeast. What he is doing at Restaurant Eugene is sourcing local foods from dozens of farms, a list that gets printed on the menu. It’s not so much Portlandia as it might seem; rather, it’s a way take southern food to new levels in the culinary word and let the true nature of the cuisine shine.

“To be the properly defined as southern food it has to have a reverence for ingredients that are really, really there,” Acheson told me over coffee at his restaurant. “The food that doesn’t have that reverence is just crappie American food, it’s not southern food.”

And to that, can I get an amen?