Labor Day Weekend’s AJC Decatur Book Festival showcased hundreds of authors selling and presenting their books in one of Atlanta’s funkiest neighborhoods. As one of the largest book festivals in the country, the annual event features a wide variety of genres and has something for just about anyone who likes to read. But I was there for one and only one reason – the Food & Cooking stage.
As a free event, the festival totally exceeded my expectations. In a matter of just a few hours, I met both Hugh Acheson and Cat Cora – and also had time to grab an amazing lunch in one of Decatur’s many local restaurants.
Top Chef’s Hugh Acheson was scheduled to present at 10am, so it was an early Saturday for me. Upon arrival near Decatur Square, I was able to easily park at a lot about a block away for $3. After an easy jaunt over to the food stage, I was delighted to see Hugh’s face already up there prepping for his demo. He was joined by Steven Satterfield, executive chef and co-owner of Atlanta’s Miller Union.
Since it was around 9:45, I wasn’t able to sit right up front, but had no issues finding a seat just a few rows back with a perfect view of the stage and the two chefs. Already in awe that I was able to so easily get this close to Hugh, my excitement went off the charts when I realized that the emcee for the Food & Cooking stage was former long-time AJC food critic John Kessler!
I think Mr. Kessler thought I was a bit crazy when I approached him for a photo during one of the breaks and explained that he was like a celebrity to me, but he was as friendly as could be and even asked about my little ol’ blog. Since he’s now living in Chicago, he made a comment about checking out my posts to stay informed on the Atlanta dining scene – now wouldn’t that be something!
As Hugh and Steven began to present, Hugh’s snarky sense of humor was immediately evident. Steven was a lot more reserved, but held his own against Hugh’s commentary. While Steven made heirloom tomato panzanella, Hugh prepared a more complicated dish of chicken alongside a ragu of sea island red peas, leeks and pickled peppers topped with parsley and pea shoots. Both provided some great cooking advice as they went along.
The insight from Steven that stood out to me is that he toasts his bread crumbs really well to make them extra crispy before adding them to the panzanella. He complained that a lot of panzanella he had tried at other restaurants had been soggy and not very good to him. I also found it interesting that he said he does not really like putting raw onions into his dishes because they overpower the other flavors and the taste often lingers for hours (I tend to agree), and that he liked to do a quick pickle on his onions before adding them to the panzanella. For some reason I always assume that chefs will pretty much eat anything, so it was interesting to hear about Steven’s dislikes.
Steven also recommended heirloom tomatoes for panzanella because, unlike some other kinds of tomatoes, they actually give off enough juice to macerate the salad. Besides the tomatoes, onions pickled in sherry vinegar (plus the extra vinegar), and sourdough bread cubes toasted well with olive oil, salt and garlic, Steven’s panzanella also includes celery and cucumbers – which Hugh took issue with, calling Steven a weirdo (jokingly…I think…). It was also finished with chopped basil. The recipe can be found in Steven’s cookbook, Root to Leaf: A Southern Chef Cooks Through the Seasons.
Hugh has the type of humor where you wonder if he really believes what he is saying or just doing it for comedic effect. In between his zingers, he also provided some helpful cooking tips. For example, he taught us how to cook chicken breasts low and slow skin-side down, pressing them down with a gloved hand in the beginning so they don’t curl up. He also said that they should be cooked 80 percent on the skin side and 20 percent on the other side, all the while basting with the oil and juices, and adding in some aromatics like bay or thyme if the mood strikes. I kind of suck at cooking meat, so I will definitely be trying this technique.
As he cooked (and kept Steven on his toes with some off-beat questions), Hugh also mentioned his kids a few times – two daughters named Beatrice and Clementine (aka Bea and Clem). His obvious pride and joy surrounding his family was quite touching and definitely showed his softer side.
A couple of hours later (just enough time to get Hugh’s cookbook, A New Turn in the South, signed and grab some lunch), Cat Cora took the stage. Since I arrived a bit earlier for that presentation, I was able to snag a seat right in the front row. Instead of doing a cooking demo, Cat discussed her personal life and new memoir, Cooking as Fast as I Can: A Chef’s Story of Family, Food, and Forgiveness. She candidly talked about how she was adopted and how some personal challenges early in life shaped who she is today.
As the first female Iron Chef, Cat has had to break down a lot of barriers in her industry, and she provided some great advice about how to get over your fears and just go for it. Her talk was very emotional and inspiring and I can’t wait to read her memoir!
As if this wasn’t enough awesomeness, all three chefs also took the time to meet with fans and sign their books. They were all super gracious and personable, especially Cat who took a few extra minutes to chat with me about adoption since I told her it’s something I’m looking into.
I could not have asked for a better day, especially considering that the event was totally free to attend. The only money I spent was the $3 for parking, the cost of the two books I bought to get signed by Hugh and Cat, and of course a King of Pops orange basil popsicle on my way out. In addition to multiple King of Pops stands, there were also some other food trucks/stands with pretty typical festival fare, but I opted to have a nice lunch at Decatur’s Cakes & Ale instead. (More on that later.)
Long live Decatur Book Festival!!!Tags: AJC, Atlanta, Cat Cora, Decatur Book Festival, Hugh Acheson, Steven Satterfield