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Recipe for Change: Taste of Athens’ Rachel Bailey

Athens, Ga., is the place to be this February, and not just becauseour 18th annual conference and the Georgia Farm to School & Preschool Summit are coming to town. Taste of Athens, the storied food festival that’s been around for 22 years, is Feb. 22. (That’s the day after our conference—If you’re still in town, stick around!)

Organizers are doing things a little differently this year, with a new, scaled-back approach and intentional focus on providing a warmer, more intimate experience that showcases the finest cuisine Athens’ food community has to offer. 2015’s Taste will also feature its first-ever cocktail competition between eight of the best bar programs in town.

We spoke to Rachel Bailey, special events coordinator of Taste of Athens, about the inspiration for this year’s festival and what eaters—and their palates!—can expect.

This is the 22nd year for Taste of Athens and you’re doing things a little differently. What kinds of changes are being made and what was the inspiration for a new approach?Definitely the inspiration for the new approach to Taste this year was the food scene itself. So much talent has sprung up here just since I moved to town in 2005, and Community Connection felt like there was a lot more we could do to highlight, promote and celebrate it.

So for starters, we scaled our event back in size to about a third of the number of guests we had last year – that was a big step made in the interest of giving our chefs a break, making it easier for them to execute food that they felt good about serving, that they felt was a reflection of what they do in their restaurants.

Then we started building out from there, looking at food-adjacent things that Athens does really well that we thought deserved a platform. So we have a cocktail competition with eight of the best local bar programs entering a signature cocktail. We have Stephen James, the resident sommelier at Five and Ten, helping us pair wines with the chefs’ dishes. We have Bloodroot Blades making a knife for the winning chef. We’ve found ways to work in local food-based businesses that don’t serve their products in-house, like snacks in the cocktail room from places like Phickles Pickles, or a baked goods bar at the main Taste event with local purveyors of olive oils and vinegars and jams available to, say, dip that fresh Independent Bakery bread into.

Overall, we are thinking at every step along the way about the guests’ experience and their ability to connect in a meaningful way with our food community, in the broad sense, and then working to make that happen.

Athens, Ga., is the place to be this February, and not just because our 18th annual conference and the Georgia Farm to School & Preschool Summit are coming to town. Taste of Athens, the storied food festival that’s been around for 22 years, is Feb. 22. (That’s the day after our conference—If you’re still in town, stick around!)

Organizers are doing things a little differently this year, with a new, scaled-back approach and intentional focus on providing a warmer, more intimate experience that showcases the finest cuisine Athens’ food community has to offer. 2015’s Taste will also feature its first-ever cocktail competition between eight of the best bar programs in town.

We spoke to Rachel Bailey, special events coordinator of Taste of Athens, about the inspiration for this year’s festival and what eaters—and their palates!—can expect.

This is the 22nd year for Taste of Athens and you’re doing things a little differently. What kinds of changes are being made and what was the inspiration for a new approach?Definitely the inspiration for the new approach to Taste this year was the food scene itself. So much talent has sprung up here just since I moved to town in 2005, and Community Connection felt like there was a lot more we could do to highlight, promote and celebrate it.

So for starters, we scaled our event back in size to about a third of the number of guests we had last year – that was a big step made in the interest of giving our chefs a break, making it easier for them to execute food that they felt good about serving, that they felt was a reflection of what they do in their restaurants.

Then we started building out from there, looking at food-adjacent things that Athens does really well that we thought deserved a platform. So we have a cocktail competition with eight of the best local bar programs entering a signature cocktail. We have Stephen James, the resident sommelier at Five and Ten, helping us pair wines with the chefs’ dishes. We have Bloodroot Blades making a knife for the winning chef. We’ve found ways to work in local food-based businesses that don’t serve their products in-house, like snacks in the cocktail room from places like Phickles Pickles, or a baked goods bar at the main Taste event with local purveyors of olive oils and vinegars and jams available to, say, dip that fresh Independent Bakery bread into.

Overall, we are thinking at every step along the way about the guests’ experience and their ability to connect in a meaningful way with our food community, in the broad sense, and then working to make that happen.

rachel_bailey-580x870What do you think makes Athens such a mecca for talent when it comes to quality food? I think we have a few things going for us. One is that Athens has a culture that draws in a lot of curious, creative people and is able to sustain many of them. Naturally, a lot of those people wind up in kitchens, because there are so many of them in town.

I used to work with a guy, Bob — he wasn’t even a cook, he was a server! — who spent a not-insignificant part of his down time foraging for everything from chanterelles to wild flowers he could use to make different celli (you know, like limoncello) to serve to our guests. He’s also an artist and a carpenter and a musician. He’s an extreme example, but I think it speaks to the kinds of people this town attracts. And when they wind up in kitchens, they bring the same curiosity and willingness to be playful that results in really good food sometimes.

Another thing is being a university town, a place where young people who can afford to take jobs that don’t pay a ton (like cooks!) congregate while they’re trying to figure out what they want out of life. A lot of those people start working in the food industry to stay afloat and turn around one day and find that they really, really like it. So they slip into the pool of talent in an organic kind of way.

And of course, being close to Atlanta helps, because a lot of talent and palates are forged there and then move to smaller markets like ours.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the footprint Hugh Acheson has made on this town. He really was the progenitor of the Athens food scene and helped whet the palate of the community for forward-thinking food.

How do you think Taste of Athens will affect the community differently this year? What about this event do you think brings people in Athens together? Whenever I feel lonely or disconnected, I find myself thinking about what would make me feel happy and at ease again, and I always come back to finding like-minded people. You know, join a club, go to the dog park and laugh at the puppies with the girl on the next bench, whatever. That’s what I see when I picture the Taste I’m working to deliver: a place where people who enjoy the culinary arts can come together and enjoy sharing pleasure with each other. A shared space and experience for people who care about the same things.

Of course there is also the much larger implications that Taste has for the community, and that is in the sense that it benefits Community Connection of Northeast Georgia. We’re sort of the clearinghouse for information about social services in NEGA. We operate a 2-1-1 information and referral helpline, through which we provided 20,000+ referrals for people in need to a variety of social services last year. We’re developing a comprehensive, digital, searchable database of available social services in northeast Georgia, basically a social services Wiki, where people can easily find pertinent and up-to-date information about how they can get help with problems ranging from homelessness to getting Christmas toys for their children. And we’re using all the information we gather through such initiatives to really map need so we can guide and inform other nonprofits in the area about how to best address it. The money Taste raises each year represents 30 percent of our annual budget.

In your mind, what’s the role of the chef in the good food movement? I think that comes from so many different things — responsible stewardship via making good choices about which producers you work with; translation and curating of the big food ideas floating around the world’s thought centers onto local plates; generosity, especially when teaching and shaping less experienced chefs who work under them; respect for their patrons and their wishes, even when it flies in the face of their ego or ambitions; and finally, seeking and exploiting opportunities to let their gifts work for the good of those who couldn’t afford a place at one of their tables.

Oh, and be nice to your front-of-house staff.

How are farms and farmers involved in TOA this year? Our intention is for farmers to play an increasing role in Taste over the next few years. I’m looking for ways to incorporate things like Three Porch Farms’ lovely floral arrangements or value-added products like their gomasio into the event. I’d love to have the farmers market sponsor a cooking demo. I’d love to, I don’t know, invite chefs to have a knife skills competition by carving flowers out of a local farmer’s winter squash. My hope is to find ways to bring in farms without making their presence there feel trade-showy. I have some ideas that are playful and in the celebratory spirit of the event.

We’ve had to change so much so fast this year that we had to leave a lot of our dreams for plugging farmers into this event until next year. That said, we would love to hear from our local farm community about any ideas they might have for how they could best fit into Taste. My email is rbailey@communityconnection211.org, and I’m open to any suggestions.

You’ve got DJ Mahogany on the 1s and 2s during the first-ever Toast of Athens cocktail competition. What is your ideal song/cocktail pairing? Well, I have to give you two answers, because my love for brunch cocktails rivals my love for dinnertime cocktails.

For brunch, I’m gonna go with a salty bloody mary, extra pickles, and Blackstreet’s “No Diggity,” just one in a suite of excellent 90s hip-hop and R&B that makes a fantastic soundtrack to all brunches ever.

For post-five-o-clock drinks, the Athens classic (the Taste of Athens, if you will!) is whiskey and Blenheim’s ginger ale with a fat wedge of lemon and, uhh, all I really want to listen to lately is Run the Jewels’ “Lie, Cheat, Steal.” I think after a whiskey-Blenheim I might actually have the courage to rap along with Killer Mike’s verse.

 

Considering we’re such a music-centric town, though, it kinda feels like blasphemy not to pick a local band, so for option #2, I’ll say Grass Giraffes’ “Better Alone.” Great band that broke up way too soon for my taste.

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