When business partners Elizabeth Feichter and Dominique Love decide to venture forth, doors fling open wide and ideas turn into outlined plans. They use their brain power and friendly charm for countless projects that ignite corporate giving and community action. So once they began to envision a culinary gathering to celebrate Southern food and educate fans and foodies, the table was set for an incomparable spread to sustain any appetite. Their creation, the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, serves up its fourth season this month.
How did you each land in Atlanta?
EF: I’m from a small town in North Carolina, and when I thought about growing up and getting a “real” job, I thought about moving to the “big” city. An internship at Atlanta Botanical Garden during college led to a permanent position there after I graduated. Once I got to know Atlanta, I fell in love with the city. For the first few years it felt like summer camp, and I always wondered when I was going home. Until one day I realized I was home. It still feels like summer camp, except with a lot more responsibilities than I had when I was 22!
DL: I’m originally from the South but grew up in Denver, spent a lot of summers in Mississippi and then went to Auburn. After graduation, I returned to Denver. After a year I found myself really wanting to chart my own path, to have success and failure on my own terms. Atlanta was an exciting prospect — I had friends here, the Olympics were coming and it was a big city but still not too big. I thought I would be back to Denver in a year. Eighteen years later, I’m still here and loving it — and still charting my own path.
Atlanta Food & Wine Festival has become the premier foodie event in the South. How does AF&WF differ from the basic “festival” concept?
EF: It has truly been a labor of love and the collective effort of many. Our mission is to shine an international spotlight on the rich food and beverage traditions of the South, from Texas to DC. We’ve built our weekend to showcase our region’s talent and artisans, promote our agricultural products and entice people to visit and learn more about what makes the South so special.
DL: We spend months working with our Advisory Council, an esteemed group of 90 award-winning chefs and beverage professionals, to develop classes and to engage a great mix of exhibitors in our tents so that our guests will walk away feeling full and informed. Since starting, we have taken guests on an exploration of our region’s viticulture, the history of classic Southern cocktails, and African, Latin American and Asian influences. We’ve tackled tough subjects like “Where are the Black Chefs?” — a class focused on why there are not a lot of African-American chefs on the front lines of commercial kitchens. We’ve celebrated women and their role in shaping our food and drink culture, from cookbook writers to wine makers and moonshine distillers. This year we will host 100 classes, three tasting-tent sessions and 13 dinners and events. So we would say we are more like a fun, engaging, entertaining and delicious conference than we are a typical fair or festival.
In addition to founding the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, you are also partners in Corporate Community Outsourcing. What’s the mission of that company?
DL: I founded Corporate Community Outsourcing in 2003 to help corporations and nonprofits maximize their impact on communities. Elizabeth joined a few years later, and since then we’ve been doing some really fantastic projects, ranging from volunteer service days and national cause marketing campaigns (NASCAR Unites and FOOD & WINE’s Grow for Good Campaign are two of ours) to strategically placing executives on nonprofit boards and building global community investment programs. We’ve had the good fortune to work with a lot of Fortune 500 companies and a broad mix of nonprofits, from small arts organizations to larger national groups. It is really fulfilling work.
Tell us a bit about how you met and how you work together now.
EF: We met when I was working at Hands On Atlanta and Dominique was at The Coca-Cola Co. We worked together to develop a strategic and mutually beneficial partnership between our two organizations. The work we did back then is really the foundation for what we do now with CCO. We are really proud of our partnership and consider ourselves incredibly fortunate to have found one another. We each bring unique traits to the partnership: I’m an operations and logistics person, and Dominique is a creative, big-picture person. We balance and complement one another, but we also share a strong work ethic and are driven by the need to do better by our community.
What was the catalyst for developing the Festival? As it has developed, what has surprised you the most?
Bourbon. We drank a lot with Chef Shaun Doty one night, and he said: “Stop taking about it. Just do it!” Two weeks later we were incorporated. Three months later we publicly announced, and 11 months later we hosted the first Festival.
Through the process we learned that there are really no limits to what we can achieve, especially when we’re surrounded by our amazing team and the festival’s Advisory Council and talent. We have also been surprised by how much we — actually most of us — don’t know about the South. There is so much substance and depth to our region’s food and drink culture. Every day is a learning adventure!
For those that have not yet attended Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, can you give us a preview of the AF&WF experience?
Guests can join us for a few hours by attending a dinner, an event or one of our tasting-tent sessions. They can join us for the day, or they can attend all three days. One-day and three-day passes give guests access to our classes, which truly should not be missed. Our talent puts their heart and soul into the creation of their classes, and they are truly amazing.
Regardless of how guests join us, all guests will experience Southern hospitality at its best. They’ll have a chance to hang out with culinary leaders and food and beverage lovers from all across the country — and a number of other countries. Most importantly, they will indulge in mind-numbingly delicious food and drink.
What is the role of your Advisory Council?
The Advisory Council is by invitation and carries a lot of responsibility. Council members are the backbone of the festival and are responsible for helping shape the weekend. We all work together to figure out the best way to showcase the region and to make guests excited about what’s going on down here in the South. Our council represents the very best of our region — they are nationally acclaimed talents. And, we must say, they’re one incredibly impressive and passionate group.
What are the biggest food trends you see on the horizon?
EF: One of the bigger trends we’ve seen over the course of Atlanta Food & Wine Festival is the idea of paying attention to the past, actually. Going back to our roots.
DL: The new focus is on the whole product — using all ingredients, not just meat, to their fullest to minimize waste. So, we’ll see more chefs leaning on fermentation, making vinegars, marinades and sauces from “expired” food, and more root-to-leaf vegetable preparations.
The crunch time around the Festival has to be intense — do you sleep on cots in the office?
We do have a sofa bed in the office, but haven’t used it since year one. It is chaotic, but neither of us really subscribes to the notion of balance. It’s just not possible for working mothers, whether in a 9-to-5 role or in a high-intensity project setting, to have balance. Life’s demands are never balanced, so you can’t be expected to have a balanced response. We just strive to do our best each day and, as much as possible, to cut ourselves some slack. We also both have incredibly supportive and patient husbands who make a lot of sacrifices so we can pursue our dreams.
Oh, and we also drink a lot of wine!
Troubleshooting a major event can be a comedy of errors. Tell us about your most memorable mishaps.
Oh, lordy! We could write a book! There are some crazy things that happen behind the scenes and with some guests (for instance, one who signed up for a Wild Game dinner and then informed our team upon arrival that she didn’t eat meat!) but we are committed to keeping some things to ourselves.
How can we get the most out of the AF&WF adventure without paying the price for overindulgence?
Pace yourselves. AF&WF is not a drunk fest or a power-eating contest. The slower you go, the more you will ultimately be able to enjoy. It is also a very friendly environment — you’re surrounded by eaters, drinkers and passionate thinkers, so get to know the other guests. Make friends, talk to the talent. Just enjoy!
After you’ve packed it all in for another year, how do you celebrate and unwind?
EF: Heading straight to a friend’s lake house, plopping down on the dock and watching my son play in the water while my friends cook for me!
DL: I go to my parents’ home in Pinehurst, NC, and let my mother take care of me. I should mention she used to have a catering business and is an excellent cook.
You’re both huge foodies, but dish it! What’s your dirty little food secret?
EF: Ooooo, don’t get me near mac and cheese. It’s dangerous comfort food for me!
DL: I have a sick sweet tooth. Let’s just leave it at that!
When clan, clients and cohorts visit Atlanta, how do you show off the city?
EF: There’s nothing better than a springtime visit to any number of Atlanta’s amazing restaurant patios. I love a long lunch or dinner with friends at one of our favorite places to eat throughout Decatur or the Virginia Highlands area. I could stroll around our in-town neighborhoods for hours and wander in and out of shops all day!
DL: Top on my list is showcasing our restaurant scene. I’ll literally spend days planning each meal! Second to eating is architecture. I love driving visitors around our city to look at the great homes and buildings — Philip Trammel Schutze, Neal Reid, Renzo Piano, Michael Graves. So many treasures! And no visit is complete without a trek to Serenbe to enjoy country bliss and the Blue Eyed Daisy.
What’s on your personal reading list?
EF: I made a pledge to read more recently (Dominique will laugh — I think I committed to reading the paper about eight years ago and still can’t get through it!). I’m currently reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, and it’s AMAZING!
DL: Personal reading, huh? I don’t have time to read until June 2!
Name three things you couldn’t live without, other than faith, family and friends.
EF: Bread, cheese and art — the kind of art you find tucked in a secret space or made by an amazing local artist. Give me good food, good art and good friends, and I’m a happy girl.
DL: Obviously, great meals. Next would be knowledge — I love to learn and explore. And finally, solitude. Because my job is so social, some may find it hard to believe that I am secretly a hermit. I really love unplugging and staying in.
Ladies, thank you for giving us a peek behind the scenes of the region’s premier culinary event. Don’t miss the 2014 Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, May 29 through June 1 in Midtown. A variety of event tickets and ticket packages, along with full program guides, are available online at atlfoodandwinefestival.com.
Once again, we thank the talented Cat Maxwell for her amazing photography!