Ajit Mathew George: Mastermind Behind the Scenes

MidAtlantic Wine + Food Festival founder and president nearly triples amount of winemakers in year two.

In the months leading up to the second annual MidAtlantic Wine + Food Festival, its founder and president, Ajit Mathew George, was getting down to the nitty-gritty. Menu planning for the festival’s 46 events was about to commence, and so too the logistical nightmare of matching wines for each and every course—“a jigsaw puzzle,” he says. 

The founding chairman of Meals on Wheels Delaware, George oversaw the popular and imminently classy Meals from the Masters Culinary Weekend, which grew from one to three separate events during his watch. Drawing inspiration from the BB&T Charleston Wine + Food Festival, he unveiled his multifaceted opus in 2013. The self-described “serial-entrepreneur, creative marketer, philanthropist, gastronaut, and wine aficionado” talks to us about what to expect in Year Two. 

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DT: What were some of the differences we might see from Year One into Year Two?
AG: The most valuable thing was to have a full year to plan for this one, because we started the day after the festival last year. What can we do differently? And we learned from last year, we learned from our successes and failures. That’s always helpful to have under our belts. So the critical things we decided to do were increase the number of events in Sussex, because Rehoboth and Sussex have a very significant number of world-class restaurants. So we are essentially doing 10 events in Sussex from Thursday through Sunday, and that’s a lot of events—every variation of our events, including a 1,000-Point Wine Tasting, Winemakers Dinners, lunches that are interesting, a

Sunday jazz brunch. Two beneficiaries in Sussex. The chef talent in Sussex is really valuable for this festival, and we’re very happy to do that. We see that attracting not only people in Kent and Sussex, but people from Washington, D.C., and Salisbury, Md. 

That’s one difference. The second thing is we’ve had an explosion of chefs and winemakers overall. We have over 92 spanning all six continents. I think we had seven winemakers last year, we have 20 this year, again from six continents. It really put us into a whole different place, and we don’t have to ask chefs to cook every single night, we can have them spread out for variety—and it also gives us the benefit of getting some extraordinary choices of things that we can do. 

The most significant difference this year is the benefit of a very big national sponsor—a sponsor who is involved in the New York Food and Wine Festival, and that’s Bank of America. We think of Bank of America as our local bank, but in reality they are a national bank involved in these events in New York and South Beach, and they came to us wanting to be affiliated with us and we are really honored to have them. They can look at our festival with a critical, national eye, as opposed to a local perspective. That gave us tremendous confidence. Perhaps the biggest coup for us is we persuaded American Express, MasterCard and Visa to participate in the festival, which is to my knowledge the only time that all three credit card companies have sponsored the same festival. What it does by having them all participate is we have established ourselves clearly as a major, national festival. That’s really what our driving force was—to get that national presence. Because we want to attract visitors, guests as well as winemakers and chefs from around the world, and you can’t do that with a local festival. 

DT: Delaware can be a pretty insular place sometimes. Were you surprised at all by the national attention? 
AG: Of course I’m surprised. I had hoped we could achieve all of that in five years, so having it in Year Two is certainly accelerated. The reason they came was not because of Delaware, interestingly enough. It was because of the caliber of the events we did last year, and what we are proposing this year. We have 46 events, we have 23 educational courses that we’re doing that range from food photography to “the art of preservation: salting, smoking, jamming, canning, fermenting, pickling and more with chef Hari Cameron.” How to write a cookbook from a James Beard Award winner. So it’s not just these incredible events, but you have all these other interesting choices. 

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DT: Is there a sense of relief that there even is a Year Two? Surely you had to be going into this last year with some degree of uncertainty. 
AG: What I’m relieved about is the incredible support of the corporate community. At the end of the day no festival of this magnitude can be successful without their support. That’s the bedrock. Number two is the equal support from the chefs. They all volunteer their time. We pay for their airfare, their accommodations, but they’re giving up their time and their talent, which is most precious to them. The winemakers donate their wine. 

DT: What is your routine at this point, in terms of preparing for such a large event? 
AG: I have half a dozen people who are getting paid in some shape or form for this, and I’ve got a huge number of volunteers that help us out. But here’s what I’m doing today and tomorrow, just to give you an idea: 

So, 20 winemakers and 46 events—let’s take a five-course dinner on Thursday night, for example. Which winemakers are going to which dinner? Some winemakers are smaller, so I’ve got to make sure the right event matches the right winemaker. Then I’ve got to figure that out by tomorrow, so that I can tell the winemakers that, “You’re going to this lunch, to this dinner. This is how many bottles of wine we need.” Then they have to review it and let me know, Yes, that’s fine, and here is the wine I want to provide. Once they tell me which wine, I’ve got to match it to the menus that the chefs are preparing. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle.

By March, we hope to have a wine pairing for every course at every single dinner or lunch. It’s like a revolving circle that never ends. Because if the winemakers decide they don’t have a certain wine, we have to figure something out. It’s like conducting a symphony where the members of the orchestra change musical instruments all the time. 

DT: Which is probably about as easy as it sounds, right?
AG: I am just the conductor that waves the stick. Without the great musicians, the great talent and great musical scores, none of this happens. So I’m very blessed to have an incredible team that’s working with me. And winemakers that are very patient with me as we shuffle them around to 43 different locations. We have to physically move thousands of glasses, food items for the chefs have to be moved around—and remember they’re not making mac and cheese—and we never repeat the same course twice. 

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And every course is paired with two different wines, and we’re also adding craft beers this year, so you’re going to see some remarkable combinations of red wine, white wine and a craft beer all in just one course. Which defies all of the normal logic of pairing, but what we want is for people to be open-minded and completely surprised by the choices we’re presenting. 

DT: Talk about the genesis of the MidAtlantic Wine + Food Festival. Were you sitting around thinking, One event is just too easy. Let’s try 46? How did it first come about?
AG: It was insanity. Somebody should put me in the Delaware State Hospital for psychiatric examination. So my background on all of this: I was the founding chairman of Meals on Wheels Delaware, and I created the Meals from the Masters Celebrity Brunch, which invited national, international and local chefs together on a Sunday at one location. And I did that 17 years ago. And then along the way, I added an event called Evening with the Masters on Friday night, and we also added a wine auction. So we ended up with, for lack of a better word, a training ground for the festival, where we had three events over a weekend. 

And then when I retired, my wife and I moved to London for three years, and my business interests were in the British Virgin Islands where I did real estate development and I ended up doing a series of winemakers dinners called the Virgin Islands Winemaker Dinners. These were seven-course dinners at different locations where we’d invite the winemakers and chefs over. The key was, for every meal, we had a different chef making a different course. Seven-course dinner, seven chefs. That was the very different part. Usually you have one chef preparing all the courses. Now, in the kitchen you have seven chefs preparing seven courses, and the great thing is each chef only has to make one course. And we’d match each course with a wine. We did these for seven years in BVI. When we moved back to Wilmington, I wanted to adapt this idea of having a chef for each course and winemakers pouring wine. 

There is no other festival in the country that is statewide. And I wanted us to go from Rehoboth to Wilmington. I went to the Charleston Wine + Food Festival to understand how they do it. They’re an incredible festival, they’ve done it nine years. They told me: You need a critical mass of events. The magic of 40-some events is a function of finding a way to balance advertising and marketing costs, travel costs and also provide variety. What we learned quickly was that not everyone was into high-end wine, but things like bourbon, scotch and tequila and sake. So when you look at our event, there’s something for everyone. 

DT: Was there a concern about spreading this too thin in such a small state?
AG: That was a concern. But our goal was to try to attract people from other places as well. Last year we attracted people from 16 states and nine countries. So our goal is to continue that—and we’re running ads in Amtrak magazine, to Wine Spectator to Hudson Valley. We want people to come here and especially in May to experience the beautiful weather and the gardens here. It’s the perfect time to be in Delaware. What I tell my friends in Delaware is this is a great time to invite your friends from around the country and the world because it’s a great time to showcase our state, and you don’t even have to cook for them. 

DT: Is Delaware moving up in the world, culturally speaking? 
AG: I’ll use an analogy. When the Charleston Wine + Food Festival started nine years ago, most of the people that visited Charleston visited for the historical sites, the mansions and buildings. Last year there was a crossover. More people came to Charleston for food and wine than for the historical sites. And that’s not just from the festival. It means Charleston’s food and wine scene has increased significantly over the last nine years, to the fact that they have numerous James Beard Award winners, plus the quality of the food has increased because the light shined very deeply into that scene. 

So the way you become better is stop being focused on just your local audience, and focusing on an audience that travels. I think that’s what our festival offers. It’s for everybody in Delaware to step up their game while that light is shining on us, and the hope is you enable your community to do better. 

DT: To me, the timing also seems perfect. Chefs today can be celebrities and TV stars and rock stars. Is there a deeper following for these guys today than 10 or 15 years ago?
AG: Without question. And now people are even pickier, choosier than they were before. The Internet has given people an enormous amount of data. People refuse to accept mediocrity—there is no place for a mediocre restaurant or for mediocre wine or service. And this festival can showcase that the Mid-Atlantic does have some fantastic places to visit. My goal in the next five years is to look back and say, “Wow, the caliber of food, wine and service in the whole state has improved. And there are people visiting us for that reason.” 

DT: Are the chefs and winemakers people you know or have met? What does it take to get all of these people involved? 
AG: All the winemakers came from my personal connections, either directly or indirectly. The challenge is: Delaware gets lost in the shuffle because we are not a major winemaking state, and people sometimes don’t even know where we are. Which is why we use the word “MidAtlantic” in the name, because it makes us sound bigger. 

So nobody voluntarily comes to me and says they want to come to Delaware. But once we start talking about the excitement we’re creating and our format, which is very different from any other festival, that makes it interesting for them. So the chefs like that, and the fact that they only have to prepare one course, and get to share a kitchen with five other great chefs. Winemakers are fascinated by the idea that we are pairing wine with every course. But at the end of the day, I am a professional beggar. I beg the chefs and winemakers to come. It’s going to become easier as the years go on. Once people know that other people of stature come to this, it will open doors. 

DT: I love the point you brought up about bringing these high-profile chefs into a kitchen with several other high-profile chefs. Chefs are definitely known for their egos, but that environment must produce some great one-upmanship—in a good way. 
AG: Absolutely. And they all wind up as Facebook friends. But that’s a great point. If you are doing the soup dish or the salad dish, you don’t care that you’re not doing the main course. You are going to take that salad and make it into something that will be colorful and interesting and tasty in ways you cannot imagine—it won’t just be iceberg lettuce. Every course is essentially a meal in itself, and an extraordinary opportunity to showcase your skill. 

DT: How much money do you hope to raise this year? Who are the beneficiaries?
AG: We don’t set a fundraising goal because those are always tricky. But what we have done is engage our five beneficiaries to work hard as partners with us. For example, OperaDelaware is a beneficiary for two events. And in return they get 50 percent of net of that event, so they have incentive to help us sell tickets, and in doing so, they will benefit directly. In addition, if they donate a live or silent auction item, they get 50 percent of that. So what you put in is what you get out. So in Sussex we have beneficiaries in CAMP Rehoboth and the Freeman Foundation, and they are going out to their constituency and really selling their events. [Other beneficiaries include The Smyrna Opera House, and the Christina Cultural Arts Center.]

DT: I know it’s hard to choose, but what are some of your personal highlights, or events that you’re really looking forward to?
AG: I am looking forward to Soft Shell Crab Nouveau. Soft shells can be harvested for the first time each year during the first full moon in May. This year it happens to be May 14, which is the night we kick off our festival. So they will have been harvested that night, and the very next day is Soft Shell Crab Nouveau. And we are taking an international chef, a national chef, and a local chef and we’re having three stations where they will give their spin on soft shell crab. There is a great local ingredient that’s very emblematic of this area. 

Another one is The Farmer Meets the Fisherman, a pop-up dinner with Matt Haley at Magee Farms in Lewes. He is bringing local farmers and local fisherman together, so I think that’s going to be a great dinner. 

Hari Cameron is doing a wonderful lunch with chef Siri McDang of Thailand. In Smyrna we’re doing a remarkable game dinner with spirits. We’re using two historic mansions that are mirror images of each other—the reception is in one mansion, and then we’ll walk over to the other one for dinner. 

We’re looking forward to the Food Truck Dinner in Rodney Square, which is a new one for us. We have a blind wine tasting at a farmhouse in Pennsylvania, with a scavenger hunt added in. Some really interesting options. 

One of our most popular events is Scrapplegasm at the Green Room, which sold out very quickly last year. So this year one is at the Green Room, and one is at Michele’s at Dover Downs. Scrapple is something that people look down on, so we’ve elevated it into this incredible experience where the chefs make antelope scrapple or rabbit scrapple or duck scrapple, and you sit down inside these elegant restaurants and have three amazing scrapple courses. It’s a mind-blowing experience. 

DT: Your dinner parties have become the stuff of legend. Is that spirit something you wanted to weave into the festival with the wine dinners at private residences? 
AG: Absolutely. Anybody who’s wealthy can purchase wine. Anybody who’s wealthy can own a good restaurant. What you cannot buy with money is fellowship. If there’s anything I want to leave behind as a legacy from this festival, it’s that the people who come here create fellowship, make new friends, have fun, having great food and great wine. Just like with dinners at my house, we’re not looking for stuffy people; we look for people who enjoy food and wine and making new friends. And that’s what happened last year. 

DT: You’ve dined with celebrities and heads of state, billionaires and movers and shakers. The question I’m sure you hear a lot is: Why Delaware? 
AG: I came to Delaware as a 16-year-old in 1972 at the University of Delaware. And I fell in love with Delaware because of its wonderful provinciality. It had a lovely parochial quality—and I don’t mean that in the bad way. Almost everybody knows everybody. You could run into the governor or a U.S. Senator at the grocery store. You could go to New York or Washington without any problem. It’s an extraordinary place to be parochial without being parochial. A sense of community where everybody knows each other.

The truth is, I couldn’t have pulled this off in any other place. The support that I’m getting in Sussex, Kent and New Castle County could not be done in most states. The insularity that we have is also our strength.   

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