When the British first encountered tomatoes, they thought they were poisonous. There’s something intriguing and maybe even a little scary about the bright red and shiny fruit that inspired the 1978 musical black comedy Attack of the Killer Tomatoes in which mutant tomatoes ravage a town. The movie even led to three sequels, followed by a children’s television show and many other adaptations.
Like a lot of people at chef Ford Fry’s Attack of the Killer Tomato Festival, which was also inspired by the film, I discovered the festival on the internet. It takes place every summer in Atlanta, Georgia and brings together chefs from all over the city to display tomato-centric foods and cocktails. It started off with about a dozen chefs after Fry realized that a lot of local farmers had surpluses of tomatoes. Fry, a fan of the Killer Tomato franchise since childhood, started the festival back in 2008. The festival returned for its eighth year in Park Tavern, next to Piedmont Park on July 17.
Proceeds from the festival went to Georgia Organics. This year’s ticket prices dropped to $45 (down from $50) in order to draw more attendees. The strategy worked, and the festival hit its goal of raising over $100,000, compared to $80,000 last year. This year’s festival saw more than 2,000 attendees, including more than 60 chefs and mixologists from 50 restaurants. Upon entering, it smells like sunscreen, but the smell is soon replaced with the scent of ripened tomatoes. Dozens of chefs lined up behind bright, red table clothed booths promote Costco-style samples next to place cards mentioning the names of their dishes, the chefs, the restaurant and the tomatoes’ farm of origin. When you approach a table, chefs excitedly hand you a sample and don’t hesitate to tell you about their dish.
“It’s a play on the traditional pork sugo, which is braised in tomato juice,” Michael Perez from Colletta says about his pork and tomato agnolotti. “We wanted to take it a step further and juice the cherry tomatoes and take all the middles out of them and braise the pork shoulder in that. Then, we wanted to cure the cherry tomatoes afterwards to add an umami flavor.”
Though many chefs stuck with traditional dishes, others developed recipes unique to them. Jared Pyles, a production manager from King of Pops, created a tomato, sweet corn and lime popsicle topped with chili salt.
“They’re found in a lot of recipes together, like salsas,” Pyles explains. “They’re both sweet. We also did a tomato caramel and a tomato buttermilk in past years.”
Many of the tomato-themed desserts were based on nostalgic tomato entrees, such as Ladybird’s tomato mayo macaroon sandwich and Venkman’s BLT gelato sandwich made out of a spiced tomato jam honeysuckle cheesecake gelato, sorrell gele’ and applewood bacon sandwiched between two thin oatmeal cookies.
“Being a southern boy, the tomato mayonnaise sandwich is really dear to my heart, but it’s also really simple,” said executive chef Cooper Miller of Ladybird about his macaroon sandwich. “So at an event like this, you can’t just put tomato and mayonnaise on bread, so we tried to have a little fun with this. We made the mayo into ice cream, the tomato into sorbet. Took the white bread and made a macaroon kind of cookie with it. Added some salt and pepper.”
Outside the line, strangers ask each other about the comestibles they liked and disliked and where they got certain items. “You’ve got to take a sample and walk away until you can’t be seen by the chef. Then, you walk to a trash can and throw the rest of it away if it’s bad,” one attendee says to her friend as she throws away a sample into an overflowing trash bin.
Unlike a lot of food festivals with well-known chefs, Attack of the Killer Tomato is extremely friendly. “Everyone seems like they’re really enjoying themselves. Most of these events feel a bit too foodie,” says Chef Meherwan Irani, who owns a line of Indian street food restaurants in Georgia and North Carolina. “This one feels like a party,”
As I take a photo of Kyma’s ceviche topped with tomato sorbet, a man with sunglasses tries to photobomb but instead gets tangled in the line of people in front, politely trying to squeeze his way through. “I’m trying to photobomb you for $500,” he explains to me once I realize what he’s doing. “Funny or Die pays big money for epic photobombs.”
Unfortunately, he doesn’t make it into my photo in time. Behind Kyma’s booth, where the ceviche topped with tomato sorbet is served, stand two Wills. “My name is Will Smith, like the actor,” jokes the executive chef. Will Howard is the other Will at Kyma, working as a line chef.
“My dad was my chef, and it’s what I like to do,” said Howard. “My parents just got through a divorce, and the only thing I’m going to have left now, instead of a family, is food. Food is my happy, it’s my sad, it’s my everything. That’s why Kyma is one of the best restaurants in Atlanta. It’s me and people just like me who want to take food to the next level.”
The tomato sorbet is slightly sweet and melts into the ceviche. Both parts also carry hints of acidity to strike out the sweetness of the tomato sorbet, which was originally adapted from a watermelon sorbet recipe on their menu. The unlikely pairing creates a cool taste with the complimentary—but different—melt-in-your-mouth textures of the shrimp and the sorbet.
“We want to make food that’s different, but that people will still understand what they’re eating,” said Howard.
Even though tomatoes aren’t native to India, Irani, who also owns Chai Pani in Ponce City Market, served a tomato tikka masala served over yogurt rice during his first year at the festival.
“I just wanted a really tomato-forward dish, and in India we do a lot of stuff with showers and we had just opened a restaurant that does skewered meats, so we came up with the idea of skewering chicken instead decided to skewer tomatoes,” said Irani. “I also figured that it was going to be really hot and yogurt rice is traditionally served when it’s hot because it cools things down.”
Some restaurateurs served dishes unfamiliar to their brands. Best known for their barbecue meats, Fox Bros BBQ, went vegetarian and took an unexpected direction with a tomato pie featuring focaccia bread and pimento cheese. “It’s good to do something different. That’s what makes these events fun for us,” said Justin Fox, co-owner of Fox Bros. BBQ.
Not all of the participants were from restaurants, though. Peach Dish, a newly formed meal kit delivery service based in Atlanta, served a sugar snap pea and barley salad from a kit curated by a Robert Lupo from Leon’s in Decatur.
“It’s really important to know where your food’s coming from. It’s good for the food system to be able to trust your farmer, know how they’re growing your food, what they’re doing to it. It also makes you feel good to let you know that you’re supporting local farmers.” Mary Alice Shreve, Marketing Coordinator and Dietitian.
Growing the perfect tomato takes a lot of work. Tomatoes can’t be over-watered (they’ll absorb fewer nutrients and might develop fungal diseases) or watered too little (they’ll die). They also need to be grown in the right soil with the proper fertilizer, amount of light and temperature, and involve many other factors that are too tedious to explain to someone who just wants to sample food at a tomato festival. Somehow, thousands of perfectly grown tomatoes were wheeled into the festival from local farms, such as Planted Rock Farm in Chattahoochee Hills and Love is Love Farm in Decatur.
Taking a break from the food, people visited booths selling Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and Georgia Organics themed merchandise. Tilt, a streetwear label for chefs that supplied the festival with tomato-embroidered aprons, set up a booth with t-shirts, free yo-yos and a catalog of looks from their brand.
Music also accompanied the festival with performances from The Spazmatics, a wacky 80’s cover band that somehow reminds me of The Wiggles for people in their 40s. “I have a love-hate relationship with the Spazmatics, mainly because the main singer perpetually touches me on the head when they’re not on stage,” says R.J. Kessler, a farmer from Planted Rock Farm who has attended the festival for the past 6 years.
“He’s a very nice human being,” he adds.
Fry also made a musical appearance with his band Chef Zeppelin. Sheldon Wolfe from Superica formed the band with Fry, and the duo has been playing at the festival since 2014. This year, Yacht Rock drummer Mark Cobb, Kristian Bush guitarist Benji Shanks, Sheryl Crow guitarist Peter Stroud and Bain Mattox bass player Michael Lamond joined the band to open for The Spazmatics. Fry was previously in a now disbanded band of chefs called Five Bone Rack, which opened up for Killer Tomato Fest and other local food festivals in the past.
The festival ended with an announcement of the winners, determined by both attendees and well-known guest judges. This year, Kat Kinsman (senior editor, Extra Crispy), Jordana Rothman (co-author, Tacos: Recipes Provocations), Justin Chapple (senior test kitchen editor, Food Wine), Wendell Brock (freelance writer, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Saveur, Cooking Light, Delta Sky) and Bob Townsend (food & drinks columnist, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution) judged the competition for best tomato foods and cocktails.
Food: Gunshow’s Tomato Sandwich
Cocktail: Cooks & Soldiers’ watermelon, basil, tomato, gin, lemon and agave
BOCADO BLT Bo Ssam
Watershed Tomato Meringue Pie with Toasted Pepper
Food: BeetleCat Hama Hama Oysters with Tomato Ice
Cocktail: AMER Crop Cucumber Vodka, Sungold Tomato, Smoked Tea, Watermelon, Shichimi Togarashi Salt