“I’m a big believer in, just like my festival, tasting lots of different things. I love to be a taster,” she said.
The inaugural event, which attracted 7,000 food lovers, was — and still is — a year in the making.
“I had been…working on many successful Atlanta festivals but I didn’t own one,” DeSena said. “I thought it would be a lot more fun to be able to put on the whole thing from beginning to end with my team in place. We did a year of research and development and then we had our first festival in 2002.”
Its second year, a pre-celebrity Paula Deen was a featured chef.
“We hadn’t necessarily met before but we had that Savannah connection,” DeSena said about their mutual hometown. Family connections, like her grandmother Bessie Cooper’s meatball and cabbage recipe, are important to DeSena and her adopted tribe of foodies.
“We did Family Favorites last year,” DeSena said about chefs demonstrating handed-down dishes not appearing on their regular menus.
This year’s features include the Family Food Zone and the new Kitchen Workshop, while first-time participants pop up every year.
“We typically have a 50 percent turnover in our restaurants,” DeSena said. “That shows how amazing Atlanta is in its attraction for new restaurants to constantly open.”
The festival’s mission — to turn tasters into diners — feeds the team’s desire to cap attendance at last year’s 45,000.
“I don’t want it to be too crowded,” DeSena said. “We want to control that access because our festival is an eat-and-greet experience.”
East Point resident Stacy Weenick had been greeting DeSena for about 10 years before joining the team in 2007 as festival manager.
“I’ve known Dale since the Music Midtown days,” Weenick said. “Her passion was to create something Atlanta had not seen before.”
The event became the granddaddy of food sampling. “Obviously, from all the ‘Taste’ spinoffs over the years, we know we’ve done something right,” Weenick said.
Another positive action was moving their office from Midtown to Sandy Springs, closer to DeSena’s favorite Chinese restaurant — Canton Cooks II, which is not a festival entry — and her home.
“I could come home from a really long day, but I still like to cook for my family,” DeSena said about her husband, Richard, and their 7-year-old son, Roman.
If you go:
What: Taste of Atlanta
When: Friday through Sunday
Where: Tech Square in Midtown at Spring and 5th streets
Cost: $25 to $85; additional taste coupons 10 for $10
Benefits: Food-related nonprofits