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Chef Keira Moritz

A Southern Chef Comes Home

By Christy Simo

Chef Keira MoritzGeorgia’s big cities may seem to be the hubs of cuisine, but a slew of chefs are opening high-end, fine dining restaurants in smaller towns across the state. Keira Moritz, most recently of Pacci’s in Atlanta, recently moved back to her hometown of Valdosta to open a new restaurant. In September, Steel Magnolias was slated to open in the historic downtown area of Valdosta. Chef Moritz has put her heart and soul into the restaurant, purchasing the building and designing the interior herself. We talked about her new concept, her cooking philosophy and her love of lavender in this month’s Q&A.

Tell me a little bit about yourself and how you came to be a chef.
I was born and raised here in Valdosta. It’s been a decade since I’ve been back. I went through my first college career, then I ended up not knowing what I wanted to do with my life. So I took a job waiting tables at a dude ranch in Wyoming. One day the breakfast cook didn’t show up, and I was like, well, I might not be able to cook anything, but I can cook eggs. So I just cooked breakfast for 150 people. It was a buffet. You just go for it. They were coming one way or the other, and nobody wanted to call the ranch manager. So I ended up behind the grill. They ended up giving me his job and his great cabin. And from there, I jumped to a couple different dude ranches and decided I had found what I really wanted to do, and I should go to culinary school.  I went to Johnson-Wales Charleston followed by Johnston Wales Denver.

What is behind your decision to move back to Valdosta?
The restaurant in Atlanta, Pacci, the property itself was sold. Pacci was a really successful restaurant. I actually looked at the building I bought [in Valdosta] five years ago when it first went up for sale, and I couldn’t afford it then. It was kind of a pipe dream. Then when I was home, I happened to look and it happened to still be for sale five years later. They had rented it out but they still wanted to move the property. I put down a low-ball offer, and dang if he didn’t take it.

In the past 10 years, I’ve moved every 14 to 24 months. For 10 years. And it’s been loads of fun doing that. All the major cities I’ve done. I’ve loved it. But I guess when an opportunity arises, at least for me, to do my own on my own, and renovate it the way I want it, you don’t pass that up.

Steel Magnolias is in downtown Valdosta. We’ve got about 80 seats on the first level, banquet space for 100 on the second. It happened to be a pitched roof. Both of the buildings on either side have no windows on them, and they’re both one story higher than my building, so we’ve put in a rooftop bar. The first rooftop bar in Valdosta.

How would you describe your cooking style?
It’s changed. I landed in an Italian concept right off the bat, and that’s where I pretty much stayed. With this restaurant, I guess I’m doing my own concept. It’s Urban Southern. We’ve got pimento cheese, mac and cheese and grilled cheese. So my style would be comfortable ingredients, easily recognizable and non-confusing.

A lot of downtowns across Georgia are seeing more fine-dining options.
Yea. We have a great downtown area, and it’s beginning to pick up in the downtown. I think in the next five years, this downtown area is just going to completely change. I’m excited to have something to do with that.

What would you say inspires you as a chef?
I like to eat. I think that’s my inspiration. If I found out I had a gluten allergy or Celiac Disease, I don’t know what I would do.

What’s the best advice or tip you’ve ever received?
If you do what’s right, it will never let you down.

What would be your dream splurge if you could have anything in your kitchen or restaurant?
Could I have another hood vent and a bigger kitchen? I’d say size. I believe in functionality. I don’t need too much; I just need everything I have to be functional and get the job done. I’m very simplistic.

What’s the one item you must have in your kitchen?
It’s simple. I really have to have a grill. If I don’t have a grill, it really changes everything on my menu.

What’s the one thing you would ban from your kitchen if you could?
We don’t have radios. We’re there to do business. If you’re focusing on who’s playing in the background, then you’re not focusing on the food in front of you.

So with the new restaurant, will you be working with local farmers down in South Georgia?
Yep. We’ve got some people doing some great venison sausage, we’ve got Sweet Grass Dairy doing all of their items a town over. We’ve got a grass-fed beef company in Madison, Fla., about 45 minutes away. We’ve got a pork place headed out toward Thomasville. So we have a lot of local producers. And we have a lot of unrecognized local producers. I’ve come home to my parent’s house, and my dad is sitting there with venison summer sausage that is made out of venison that he killed. You can’t get much more local. And these people, you drive up their driveway, and they’ve got it all set up. It is some of the most amazing product I’ve ever seen or tasted.

What would you say is your favorite ingredient?
Lavender. That’s my favorite ingredient right now. I make a lavender brown sugar rosemary syrup. It’s so simple, and you don’t know what it is when you put it in your mouth. I’ve never had anyone put their finger on it, because it’s unexpected, and I like the unexpected. It’s a sweet savory note, which I love so much. I’ve got a glazed pork belly served over creamy polenta with the lavender brown sugar syrup. And then I’ve turned that around and done it on my brunch menu – a big hunk of pork belly with the glaze on it with two poached eggs and cheese grits.

What about your least favorite ingredient?
I hate fish fumet. I hate it. Lobster stock — hate it. I use lobster stock, but I don’t really use fish fumet much. I think it comes from having it spilled all over me once, and then I had to walk around the entire day smelling like it. It might slightly make me gag. Every time I’m around it.

What is your favorite restaurant outside the ones you’ve worked at?
There’s a restaurant in Oakland, California called Pizzaiola. I used to live a block from it. I got used to walking over to it and sitting at the bar to have dinner by myself or meeting friends there, and I think they do a fantastic job. The menu changes daily.

In Atlanta, 4th and Swift does a great job. JCT does a great job, and then the one place after my own heart is La Tavola, because they are a small set up and they do what they do well, and it’s consistent. I really appreciate consistent.

What is your favorite thing about the restaurant industry itself?
The amount of love people put into it. If you’re in this business, you’re in it for a reason. If you don’t love it, you shouldn’t be in it. And those who do love it put a lot into it. It’s a lot of work, and you gotta love it. So for people to have that kind of love is pretty impressive.

What is the most challenging part of being a chef in the restaurant industry?
Finding that balance. At my last restaurant, I truly achieved balance. And right off the bat at this restaurant I’ve been really focused on making sure I aim for that balance from the beginning.

How has it been different working at somebody else’s restaurant as a chef vs. owning your own restaurant now?
You know, I’m fully invested. Maybe that’s how it’s different. I’ve worked really hard and did it for so many other people. To be able to give everything that you got to get in the door and be able to do your own, that’s the love that restaurateurs have, right there. Because we could work for other people all our lives, but there’s still that one thing that says, nope, I’m working so that one day I can have my own. Then to be able to do a renovation on a place is insane — insanely fabulous. To see it come along and it be everything you’ve thought about from Day 1 with you saying you wanted to have your own. If you look at that restaurant and you look at me, you will know me. And that’s what’s done me so well in the past is that I’ve had that relationship with not only my guests, but my staff and my team.

What is your philosophy as a chef managing people?
Every place I’ve ever left, I’ve left behind a really great team, and I’ve always hated to leave the team that I have behind. That’s a really tough one, but every time I get to a new place, for some reason I build another great team.

I expect people to work hard. I expect them to enjoy coming to work. And for that I create that environment where we work hard, we take care of each other. We do what’s right. They make decisions on their own, because they’re allowed to make decisions on their own, based on the simple philosophy that I will support you if you do the right thing. I think that goes a long way with people.

Even the hiring process — I have not put a single ad out. Everybody that I’ve hired thus far has been word of mouth. Everybody has different things going on in their lives, and they all have questions about what about this for me, and what about that for me. And I say, you know what? We’re going to take care of that. Everybody here is going to be working hard. You’re going to get to do what you need to do for yourself and your family, and you’re going to be able to do it because so and so is going to do this for you, and you’re going to return the favor when it’s time to return the favor.

It’s funny, because one restaurant I worked for in San Francisco, that team was all family, family, family. And I worked at another restaurant where it was business, business, business. And then my last one really combined both. And it was a really great harmony. So it has to be a great combination of people who are willing to do within those four walls for each other, and care about each other, and work hard and enjoy working with each other. It’s mutual respect.

If you weren’t in the restaurant industry, what do you think you’d be doing?
I would be an architect or designer. I can put it together in my head and can see it. And I’ve had a great time designing this restaurant. I don’t have a designer. It’s me putting it together, and it’s going to be a really pretty place. If I could do that for a living, that could be my next life, for sure.

If you could decide your last meal, what would it be?
Fried chicken. I would probably have some fried chicken, mashed potatoes and peas. And cherry pie for dessert.

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