Gateway to the World
The culture of Atlanta combines Southern hospitality with international flair.- By Gwyn Herbein
From the Olympic rings that proudly watch over downtown, representing the five major regions of the world (Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania), to the myriad Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean restaurants in Buford and Doraville, Atlanta is clearly a city that embraces global influences.
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport has earned the distinction of being the world’s busiest passenger airport for the past 10 years, and the May 16 opening of the new Maynard H. Jackson Jr. International Terminal promises to extend Atlanta’s global reach and appeal. With the gates of the city wide open, it naturally follows that the restaurant and art scenes have benefited from the influence of many cultures.
Like the thousands of visitors and tourists who trek the city’s streets throughout the year, much of Atlanta’s international influence can be tied to transportation, specifically Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Already the world’s busiest airport—more than 92 million passengers passed through in 2011—this past spring’s grand opening of the new international terminal ushered in a new era for the city. A project in the works for more than 10 years, the terminal promises to increase Atlanta’s presence in the international market. Airport officials anticipate that the terminal will become an economic catalyst for the city, the state and the region.
Coming in at an impressive 1.2 million square feet, the international terminal boasts a 12-gate concourse known as Concourse F. When combined with the gates in the existing Concourse E, the previous international terminal, Atlanta now claims 40 international gates.In addition to its size and impact on the airport’s day-to-day operations, the international terminal is a shining example of sustainablity. On track to become a LEED-certified facility, the terminal was built using recycled and/or regionally produced construction materials. It is fitted with low-flow restroom fixtures, high-efficiency cooling and heating systems and insulated glass that will increase energy efficiency while also decreasing its emission of greenhouse gases. Servicing nearly 80 destinations in more than 50 countries, the Maynard H. Jackson Jr. International Terminal welcomes the world with open arms.
The city has long focused on attracting the best and brightest from around the world, and the culinary scene in Atlanta is no exception. While Atlanta is a bastion for cooks who ply diners with fried chicken, shrimp and grits and other Southern staples, it has also long been known for its international cuisine. Buckhead’s La Grotta Ristorante Italiano has been serving up authentic Italian food with true bespoke service for more than 30 years.
Newer restaurants strive to emulate this combination of international cuisine and service. One of the city’s most acclaimed restaurants is the Westside’s Cardamom Hill, which opened in January and features the cuisine of the southern Indian state of Kerala.
“I don’t like calling [Cardamom Hill] an Indian restaurant,” says Asha Gomez, chef and owner. “We happen to be a great restaurant that happens to serve Indian food.” Gomez moved to Atlanta 10 years ago to open a spa. Because she loved to cook her native cuisine, she served her spa patrons home-cooked food after their treatments. When the spa closed due to the down economy, Gomez continued pursuing her love of cooking.
A far cry from the sauce-heavy curries of India’s northern states, Gomez says she stuck to her guns when it came to the type of food she wanted to serve at Cardamom Hill. From seasonal salads with fruit to fresh vegetable biryani, Gomez prides herself on remaining loyal to the food she was raised on. Nestled between the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean, Kerala was a prime stop on the spice route of the 16th and 17th centuries, and thus its cuisine bears the mark of several different cultures.
“The Arabs brought things like cumin; the Chinese brought things like nutmeg,” Gomez explains. These spices, combined with indigenous spices like black pepper, ginger and turmeric as well as fresh seafood and tropical fruits and vegetables, create a unique regional style of cooking. Gomez describes the Atlanta market as ripe and ready for her style of cuisine and her attempt to elevate ethnic are to something refined. “What Tuscan cuisine is to Italy is what Kerala cuisine is to India. It’s a jewel of its own rite. It stands on its own, it stands proud, and I’m so happy to bring it to a wider audience,” she says.
That audience has also been partial to Inman Park’s Barcelona Wine Bar. Culinary Director Adam Halberg describes his experience living in Atlanta as very international. “Atlanta has always had a strong enough attachment [to ethnic cuisine] to claim authenticity,” he explains. “And there has to be a certain population that appreciates that.” Halberg notes that Atlanta diners are often well-traveled, well-educated and willing to try new things. “At the end of the day, people don’t go to restaurants because they’re hungry or thirsty; they go for a broader experience,” Halberg says.
The menu at Barcelona emulates restaurants in Spain, where many small bars on the same street serve the same dishes, like paella or chorizo. Halberg describes those dishes as tested and true; other sections of the Barcelona menu reflect what foods are currently in season, like fresh asparagus or beets. He believes the restaurant is successful because of the cocktails, extensive wine list and a menu that is evocative of a different place. “You want to walk in and feel like you went somewhere else,” he says. “The challenge for us is to give that experience.”
An evocative dining experience is
certainly the norm at Tomo, an upscale sushi restaurant in Buckhead. Chef Tomohiro Naito describes Atlanta’s affinity for Japanese cuisine as part of his reason for success. He recently relocated his restaurant from Vinings to Buckhead, a move he says has allowed him to dive deeper into Japanese cuisine because he could reach
a wider pool of diners. Naito also acknowledges the effect that the city can have on his cuisine. “The time
spent dining out with friends, and even eating with my employees, has introduced me to a wider variety of foods that have influenced my menu,” he says.
While the city and the restaurant have a symbiotic relationship, Tomo patrons can rest assured they are partaking of the best Japan has to offer. Tomo receives shipments from the Tsukiji fish market in Japan twice a week, and Naito uses Japanese techniques to prepare his dishes. The cultural experiences are sure to keep on coming as Tomo settles into its new home. “We are going to continue to introduce the many different facets of Japanese cuisine to the Atlanta market,” Naito says. “We are not only going to explore unique flavor combinations but the textural aspects that permeate Japanese cuisine.”
A natural companion to the city’s restaurant scene, international influences can also be seen in Atlanta’s cultural offerings. The High Museum of Art, the Southeast’s largest art museum, often hosts exhibits that highlight the historical importance of diversity in the arts. The success of past exhibitions of work from French artist Claude Monet to Spanish artist Salvador Dali indicates that Atlanta arts patrons appreciate art from all over the globe. Upcoming exhibits at the High Museum include a retrospective of paintings by Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and paintings from The Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in the Netherlands—including Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” While contemporary international artists dream of gracing the walls of the High Museum, they can find welcoming space in many of the city’s galleries. In addition to a stable of Southeastern artists, the Bill Lowe Gallery on Peachtree Street prides itself on hosting artists from all over the world. In June, the gallery opened an exhibit by Cha Jong Rye, a South Korean artist whose large wooden carvings evoke images of nature and the earth’s topography. Jong Rye shares an agent with Jung Kwang Sik, another South Korean artist who had an exhibition at the gallery in March. Later this year, the gallery will celebrate its 23rd anniversary with an exhibition by Italian artist Alfredo Bovio di Giovanni.
Alex Delotch Davis, director of PR and marketing for the the Bill Lowe Gallery, says Atlanta is the ideal place for international artists to receive exposure. “You have people moving here from other metropolises, like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami, and in those cities you have great international exposure,” she explains. “When people get here, they want to have similar experiences to what they left.”
Davis also believes that international work can benefit local artists beause they can stay connected to what is happening all over the world without leaving the city. “We love being a part of the international conversation that’s happening,” says Davis, who also notes that the Atlanta art scene is growing more and more compatible with international shows and that the city is working hard to provide more opportunities for artists.
Global influences are evident in many facets of life in Atlanta, from the infinite dining options to the museums and galleries that populate the city. The city’s openness to diversity and expanding cultural horizons attracts thousands of new residents and visitors every year as well as new businesses.
Now more than ever, with the open gates of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and the diverse cultural offerings from festivities to fare, the city is poised to grow as a gateway to the world.