Food and Wine Festival highlights growing culinary scene in Savannah

eshaw@islandpacket.comNovember 12, 2013 

The Savannah Food and Wine Festival continues through Nov. 17 at various locations in Savannah.



    WHAT: Savannah Food and Wine Festival

    WHEN: Through Nov. 17

    WHERE: Various locations

    COST: $29-$295, although many events are sold out


The Savannah Food and Wine Festival was designed to put the Hostess City on the culinary map.

The week of extravagant dinners, wine tastings, cooking demonstrations and celebrity chef appearances, which started Nov. 11 and continues through Nov. 17, is practically a call to arms for Savannahians who know their food scene is top-notch.

Now it's about letting everyone else know, festival director Jan Gourley said.

"There are so many restaurants in Savannah that are really innovative and do unbelievable culinary things," she said. "I think that the word hasn't gotten out about what they are doing here already."

Part of the reason Savannah has been underrated nosh-wise is because it hasn't been able to grab the attention away from other Southern cities touting their culinary scenes, Gourley said.

"The festival is helping raise that awareness of what the culinary scene really is here."

What began as a plan to extend the one-day Taste of Savannah into a weekend festival quickly gained momentum and mushroomed into a weeklong event, Gourley said. Guests this year include James Beard Foundation award-winning chefs Hugh Acheson, Chris Hastings, Steven Satterfield and Elizabeth Terry, as well as "Extreme Chef" winner Anthony Lamas, Charleston cookbook authors Matt and Ted Lee, and Napa Valley winemaker Rob Mondavi Jr.

Festivities began with a "Farm to Table" wine dinner and will continue with connoisseur wine dinners, cooking classes and demonstrations throughout the week.

The main event, still called A Taste of Savannah, is on Saturday and will have an artisan market, a celebrity chef kitchen, an author signing tent, a silent auction, a bartender's challenge and a culinary kids area.

New to the Savannah scene but very aware of its potential is Hugh Acheson, who is set to open his first Savannah restaurant, The Florence, in April. Acheson has restaurants in Athens and Atlanta already, but said the people of Savannah have been receptive to the growing food landscape.

"I think it's changing at a pretty rapid-fire place. I think that it's changing across the country in a lot of ways," he said. "Charleston just saw enormous growth very quickly, but I think that was due to a lot of dedication. I think Savannah has the same level of dedication."

Acheson will be a featured chef at the Celebrity Chef Tour dinner Nov. 13 and will be teaching a cooking class Nov. 14. He will make beef short ribs for the tour dinner and a modernized Frogmore stew for the cooking class, he said.

"We're in an age of authenticity in food. You want to show off your local environment; you want to show off the credence of Southern food history, but you want to make it modern and interesting and in a way that people want to eat nowadays," he said.

Acheson is part of a movement among Southern food producers not just touting the benefits of farm-to-table cuisine, but reviving the South's agricultural roots.

For Savannah, this means moving away from the traditions of chefs like Paula Deen, who is a tourist boon for the city but whose Crisco and butter-filled recipes might not be sending the right message.

"I think that we in Savannah have always been very conscious of our roots," said Elizabeth Terry, a fellow James Beard award-winning chef and founder of Elizabeth's on 37th. "I think that okra reigns, and so do crab and oysters and shrimp. We have a much larger variety of fruits and vegetables than other places."

Terry now lives in Portland, Ore., after selling Elizabeth's in the late 1990s.

She is returning to Savannah for the Food and Wine Festival, and will be participating in the Farm to Table dinner and the Celebrity Chef Tour Dinner with Acheson.

Elizabeth's is a perfect example of how food changes but stays the same, Terry said. Executive Chef Kelly Yambor uses local ingredients and many of Terry's old recipes, but gives them her own personal twist.

"This is what is so exciting about food, that there is space for nostalgia -- we all have comfort foods we grew up with -- but then there's also space for innovative food, and we're using the same basic ingredients," Terry said. Savannah was "such a positive place" to play off that, she added. "I think Savannah has always been a food scene, but I think it is changing to become more of a public food scene."

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