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?

Miller Union Kicks Off 2012 Atlanta Food and Wine Festival

It’s not so steamy in Hot-lanta right now, which makes eating and drinking at this year’s food and wine festival much easier. To kick of the weekend’s merriment, last night I went to the popular, sold-out dinner at Miller Union in Westside where three award-winning chefs tapped into their childhood memories and created a six-course feast of pure, heirloom deliciousness.

When we reached the packed space nestled into what used to be the Miller Union Stockyards, the mustached bartender handed us a happy cocktail made of fresh strawberries, gin, and sparkling wine. At this point, I had eaten only the tiny bags of pretzels Delta dished out on the plane and the bubbles in the drink electrified my head, no matter how many tiny, herb butter-laced radishes I kept popping into my mouth. After much shuffling around the tight bar and the admiring of toe-peeking shoes, we sat down at a large, farm-style table.

The owners of Miller Union, chef Steven Satterfield and Neal McCarthy, opened the restaurant as a way to serve food that nurtures solid partnerships between their chefs and farmers. While they run a weekly heritage dinner, tonight’s feast featured not only Satterfield, but also Sean Brock of Husk in Charleston, Frank Stitt of Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham, Alabama. Each dish the chefs constructed reached back to their heritage as Southern men—as well as Southern cooks.

First up, the tattooed Brock served pokeweed fritters with killed lettuce and onions. The concept behind this dish stems from Brock’s mother and her love of picking pokeweed on the side of the road, which she would then clean, chop up, and fry into fritters with cornmeal. The killed salad incorporates fresh greens that get delightfully wilted by hot bacon grease, a technique that makes me rethink the whole hot salad notion. They paired this with a lovely round Chateau des Annibals Rose Cinsault, a cool wine that complimented the bold green of the pokeweed and richness of the salad.

The next course of Carolina rice, fresh English peas, slivers of Benton’s ham, and clams came from Satterfield and played to his love of heirloom rice. The combination sang together well especially when chased with a glass of smooth Henry Natter Sauvignon Blanc Sancerre Loire. Plate number three was Brock again and this time, he took his mother’s tomato gravy and laid next to the best black-eyed peas I have ever had. He topped this mixture with a piece of delicately fried catfish, which, according to the chef, you catch by placing chicken liver in pantyhose and dropping it in the water. Um, yum?

That’s not all, next we had Miller Union’s Justin Burdett’s version of chicken and dumplings, which consisted of a meat terrine and tiny little bites of dough that came with a spicy Alain Gras Pinot Noir. Next, the 1995 Rocche dei Manzoni “S Stefano” Nebbiolo Barolo Piedmont that came with our last course stunned the table and paired lovingly with Frank Stitt’s spring lamb. This dish came beautifully executed with fresh mint, adding an herbal quality that cut the opulence of the meat. Finally, they let us eat cake, and a damn good, one too. Strawberries are in season so Miller Union’s pastry chef Pamela Moxley made a tantalizing strawberry layer cake that brightened with a dollop of lemon curd. I downed that with a glass of pink Moscato and waddled back to the 20th floor of my hotel, full and knowing that that’s just the beginning of the festival.