The 16,000-square-foot Chattahoochee Food Works (CFW) on the edge of Underwood Hills now has a celebrity attached to it: Andrew Zimmern.
According to a press release sent Monday, the restaurateur and host of Bizarre Foods is the “culinary advisor” to Robert Montwaid, the market’s operator, and will help “develop a unique and diverse talent mix” at the “boutique food market.” The pair have an established history of opening food halls: They have also partnered on the Dayton in downtown Minneapolis, which will open next year, and Montwaid opened the Gansevoort market in New York City in 2014.
Like Ponce City Market, Marietta Square Market, and the yet-to-open Halcyon in Forsyth County, Chattahoochee Food Works mostly follows the established food hall formula, with restaurant stalls that feature “international fare,” “artisanal” shops, chef events, a test kitchen, an indoor-outdoor bar, and an all-weather patio with a firewall overlooking a quarter-mile park.
The market is part of the The Works, an 80-acre overhaul of several warehouses along the once industrial strip in northwest Atlanta. In addition to the food works, which is slated to open later this year off of Chattahoochee Avenue, a second location of Scofflaw Brewing Co., 500 residences, a boutique hotel, retail shops, and a 13-acre greenspace will be built in phases over the next few years.
What isn’t quite clear in the release is which chefs, restaurants, or food producers Zimmern and Montwaid seek to include at Chattahoochee Food Works. Based on prepared comments provided in the initial statements from Zimmern and Montwaid, the answer is a bag of buzzwords and blanket statements.
“Atlanta and the Southeast in general have a thriving culinary scene with some of the most notable restaurants and the most captivating food culture in the country. At Chattahoochee Food Works, we’re recruiting the region’s top chef talent and setting the stage for them to try new concepts or menu items,” Zimmern continues in the statement. “The Works is a thrill for all of us at Passport [hospitality consulting group]. We want to make this a landmark and inclusive project for all because the food of the south is America’s food in every sense of the word.”
Zimmern responded Wednesday afternoon to Eater Atlanta’s questions, and clarified the meaning of “the food of the south is America’s food.” He points to key phrases, which Zimmern paraphrases, from The Potlikker Papers by John T. Edge, writer and director of the Southern Foodways Alliance.
“Over the course of its history, the influx of immigrants, some traveling by choice, others not, literally transformed the region” and that foods found in the South are “foundational to American cuisine” due to the region’s many and varied “cultural influences.”
Words like “inclusive,” “top chef talent,” and “diverse” lend little insight into the market’s future occupants. It could be an opportunity to reach out to chefs and restaurant owners in the historically black communities of Atlanta and in any of the more than 20 international communities along an eight-mile stretch of Buford Highway.
Zimmern says he and Montwaid haven’t “identified” the people they’re considering for the food hall, as they’ve just begun the process. He claims, however, CFW will include “celebrated chefs, cooks, up and comers, women, people of color, restaurateurs and makers of all kinds.”
If true, it could be good news for some chefs and food entrepreneurs part of Atlanta’s thriving pop-up scene.
In an Atlanta Magazine story published this February, editor Mara Shalhoup delves into the city’s pop-up subculture and why chefs such as Chicomecóatl’s Maricela Vega, Mia Orino of Kamayan Atl, and Chow Club’s Yohana Solomon and Amanda Plumb, have chosen to buck the standard restaurant route in favor of kitchen residencies, supper clubs, and collaborations. “The city’s being really run over by deep-pocket [restaurant] concepts,” Vega, who recently returned to full-time kitchen work as the executive chef at 8ARM, told Shalhoup. “And I think that, in a way, these little pop-ups have been really successful in the city in the past year or two because people recognize that.”
“There’s something else people might recognize in the underground dining scene: themselves,” Shalhoup surmises. “That’s because the underground is more reflective of Atlanta than the city’s actual restaurant scene. It’s diverse, quirky, absent a discernible center, hard to define, but easy to recognize as being of this place. This place is not the South as stereotyped by outsiders. This place is the South as shaped by its multitude of cultures.”
Chattahoochee Food Works could tap into these multitudes using Zimmern’s star power. He alleges his plan is to do just that — tap into these communities and provide them access to what he describes as an “affordable food hall” in which people can “grow their businesses and experiment with sub brands and dishes that aren’t served” elsewhere in Atlanta.
But there’s reason to be skeptical. For instance, Zimmern caught flack recently for making offensive statements in an interview with Fast Company prior to the opening of his Minneapolis Chinese restaurant, Lucky Cricket, in which he denigrated the area’s existing Chinese restaurants, erasing, among other culinary contributions, those of the city’s Hmong community. “I think I’m saving the souls of all the people from having to dine at these horseshit restaurants masquerading as Chinese food that are in the Midwest,” he said. (He apologized after being criticized for his “colonizing and condescending” and “entitled” comments.)
“Places like these food halls talk about diversity but, they don’t really invest in the people who might want to open their own restaurant,” says Quynh Trinh, owner of restaurant incubator and food market We Suki Suki: Global Grub Collective in East Atlanta Village. “Because these opportunities are not being given to these people, that’s why I exist.”
Trinh claims to receive two inquiries a day from people asking how they can be part of the Global Grub Collective. (A family-owned taqueria specializing in tamales and street tacos and a vegan hot dog business are the latest stalls to join Trinh’s collective.) These are people who want to be successful restaurant owners, she says, but simply can’t afford to do so elsewhere in the city. “When you are immigrant or refugee in this country, you start off with no credit. It’s incredibly hard. We [Global Grub Collective] get people started in the restaurant business. We only ask they become an LLC and they have their own liability insurance. We’re basically street vendors in a magical place that never rains and is health permitted.”
According to Zimmern, CFW offers a “lower financial entry point” available to anyone who chooses to open there, “regardless of previous barriers to access.”
Eater reached back out to ask for a more definitive cost figure on the stalls inside the market.
Food halls like Chattahoochee Food Works could act as dining microcosms within the city, offering a broad spectrum of the eating that can be done around Atlanta, countering the trends that largely draw people toward establishments created and favored by big names and deep pockets. With Zimmern’s undeniable influence, CFW has the opportunity to be a truer reflection of Atlanta’s far-reaching food scene than its existing food halls — a scene that includes micro-regions of the South, Ethiopian, and French cuisine to restaurants serving dishes from Laos, Korea, and the Shaanxi province of China.
Eater reached out initially on Monday to Zimmern and Montwaid for more details on Chattahoochee Food Works.
Update, 5:30 p.m., May 22: This article has been updated to include remarks sent by Zimmern after the original publication of the story Wednesday.