Chef Steve Hartman
Fine Southern Food in the North Georgia Mountains
By Christy Simo
There are scores of chefs and restaurant owners across the state doing new and different things, cooking interesting food and creating exciting restaurants. This month, we talked with Steven Hartman, executive chef at Le Vigne, Montaluce Wineryâ€™s restaurant in Dahlonega. Born and raised in Nashville, Tenn., Steven has a culinary arts degree from Western Culinary Institute in Portland, Oregon. He is also the former chef de cuisine for the Hermitage Hotel, a five-star, five-diamond icon in Nashville.
Chef Hartman has been at Le Vigne for two years. Itâ€™s a young winery and restaurant â€“ the vines are on their sixth year of the rootstock, and the winery has only been open for three years.
Following is the highlights of our conversation. Be sure to also check out his blog, Hogballs & Mountain Dew at http://levignekitchen.blogspot.com/ or follow him on Twitter @hogballs.
Tell me a little bit about Montaluce Winery and the restaurant itself.
Monteluce Winery and the restaurant is located on 400 acres in Dahlonega. Weâ€™ve got 17 acres planted in vineyards and 2 acres for an organic garden. Weâ€™re staying true to the whole local and sustainable movement. We started with offering the local wine and vegetables from our garden. We want to stay true to that by supporting the local artisans and producers and try to do our part and give back to the local community.
Why did you decide to become a chef?
My mom is a fairly accomplished southern American cook. I spent a lot of time in her kitchen growing up, so I began to appreciate food traditionally prepared and prepared well. And I grew up with a large garden in the yard. When I was a young teenager I began working in the foodservice industry and really began to enjoy the buzz and the excitement. Itâ€™s not a desk job by any means. Itâ€™s like, whatâ€™s going to happen today? Thereâ€™s always something going down.
How would you describe your cooking style?
Iâ€™d say what I do is refined Southern regional. We take elements and techniques of traditional southern cuisine and try to add a sense of refinement to these and present them in a higher-end fashion. Iâ€™m not saying itâ€™s easy, but it makes sense.
As a chef, what inspires you?
Iâ€™m very ingredient driven, and right now itâ€™s awesome seeing beautiful produce coming in from the garden, things I havenâ€™t seen since last spring. I always get excited about seeing morels again.
What is the best advice or tip you ever received?
At first when I was really struggling working the line and having a hard time staying on top of things, the chef said to me, â€œYou know, you really need to think about things and work smarter, not harder.â€ Itâ€™s pretty simple, but at the end of the day, I tell cooks that more than anything else.
Whatâ€™s the one item you must have in your kitchen?
I would say the Vita-Prep is essential to what I do.
What would you ban from your kitchen if you could?
Aluminum sautÃ© pans. Itâ€™s hard to replace 100 sautÃ© pans that are aluminum.
What is your favorite ingredient to cook with?
Vinegar plays a crucial role in my cuisine. Not only for preservation, but itâ€™s a major part of the balancing act with what we do.
What would you say is your least favorite ingredient to cook with?
I really despise the smell of truffle oil. Itâ€™s one of those things. Truffles are fine, but truffle oil itself â€¦Â I donâ€™t know if itâ€™s too many times Iâ€™ve smelt it or too many people have overused it, but itâ€™s just so strong that anytime anyone opens up truffle oil, itâ€™s like, â€œAhh, I wish we could just get away from this product and just use real truffles all the time.â€ But itâ€™s hard for me to justify spending the money sometimes.
What is your favorite restaurant (outside your own, of course)?
The menu and style of cuisine at Holeman & Finch is fun for me as a chef and a diner. Iâ€™ve found it to be the most consistent and enjoyable dining experience in Atlanta or the surrounding area. Itâ€™s the opportunity to see chefs use products from the same producers and artisans that I use but presented in a different way. Theyâ€™re using the whole animal similar to what we do here, but itâ€™s fun seeing the different spin.
Who is the most inspirational person to you in the restaurant world?
Probably the chef I worked for at the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, [Tyler Brown]. Heâ€™s the executive chef there and I was his head chef de cuisine for a number of years. We built a strong relationship and found a good cooking balance between the two of us.
What is your favorite thing about the foodservice industry?
I love and hate the hours at the same time. Itâ€™s a labor of love being here, but itâ€™s awfully time-consuming. I love working and the challenge of working in a kitchen and the rush, but also itâ€™s tough watching my baby grow up and think, well, Iâ€™m going to be gone for 15 hours today. My wife is going out of town this weekend to a birthday party, but Iâ€™m going to stay back and do a wine dinner tonight. So Iâ€™m really pumped up about the wine dinner, but Iâ€™d love to see my friends and family back in Nashville.
What is the most challenging part of heading up the kitchen?
I think cooks are super tough and super sensitive at the same time. So figuring out the mentality of all the different cooks is a balancing act. Itâ€™s interesting. Everybody has their own style of management, but everybody has their own learning style and respond better to different techniques and avenues.
If you werenâ€™t in the restaurant industry, what do you think youâ€™d be doing?
Iâ€™d guide fly-fishing trips. Iâ€™ve got a lot of opportunities for fishing up here. Our winery is located on the Etowah River, so we take clients down and do basic fly fishing casting and fly-fishing instruction, then weâ€™ll harvest our catch . Weâ€™ll do a demonstration on cleaning and cooking the trout by the river. Itâ€™s neat and fun and something different for them to do.
If you could decide your last meal, what would it be?
Collard greens with grits and a slow-roasted pork shoulder. Hearty Southern food with a lot of flavor. I grew up eating greens but didnâ€™t enjoy them very much, and now itâ€™s one of those things I canâ€™t get enough of.