Earlier this month, Restaurant Iris' head chef, Kelly English, joined three chefs (John Besh, Ashley Christensen, and Duane Nutter), a chocolatier (Kristen Hard), and a mixologist from New Orleans (Neal Bodenheimer) for the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival's London promotional tour. He sat down to tell us about his experience hopping the pond, the upcoming Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, and what else is in store.
Why did the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival send your motley crew to London?
Kelly English: We were sort of culinary mercenaries. We went to spread the gospel of Southern food. We weren't there to see the sights. After getting in at 7:30 in the morning, we had dinner for 120 people that night, 12 hours later. It's a challenge cooking for that many people without anything prepped. Nothing. It was a hell of an experience.
What were the staples of this Southern food gospel?
We cooked a lot of catfish, a lot of pork. And we drank a lot of bourbon. We think of Southern cooking as being very ingredient-driven, when really it's about using what you have at your fingertips to create something delicious and soulful. The spirit of Southern cooking is alive whether you have collard greens or you don't.
So, did you win some converts?
We opened people's eyes to a lot of different regions and what the South is, and we got to show how progressive we are as a culture. As cool as the South is, I think when people think about America, they think about New York. They think about San Francisco. There's so much more to get to know, and it was fun to get some of these people with these beautiful accents to say "y'all."
What was your favorite part of London's culinary scene?
We ate a lot of fish and chips. And we had a lot of curries. But the best food we had there was Lebanese. I love the cuisine of the upper Middle East — it's so flavorful and the people are so passionate about their food.
Speaking of a passion for food, you're involved in a Southern Foodways Alliance dinner soon, no?
We're doing the New South Family Supper in Atlanta in April. I'm honored to be a part of it and a part of this organization. I'm doing a crudo of flasher, which is a fish also called tripletail, and Gulf crab meat with burnt butter and Greek yogurt.
We couldn't help but notice that's a lot of time spent in Atlanta. What gives?
The Atlanta Food & Wine Festival is committed to being the premier festival that talks about the South. I've been a part of it every year and the first year was part of the founder's council. People ask, why do this in Atlanta? Well, the great thing is you get to go out and show people what we do and what other parts of the South do. Sometimes to get people to Memphis, we gotta get out there and show them what it is that we do.
What will this year's festival look like?
I love that they let the chefs program the festival, and this year my focus is tailgating. We're going to have a Southern tailgate on Thursday night with a bunch of different chefs from around the South. Then we're going to do some grilling demos on tailgating on Friday and Saturday. Tailgating is a big part of what Southern culture is. You talk about family dinner and tailgating in the same breath. That's where people break out the guarded recipes that they only break out six times a year.
Do you have any guarded recipes?
I've got plenty. But my wife is the expert at tailgating. She makes a breakfast casserole that I love. Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day — especially when you can put it in one cup.