Chef Guy Owen
Chef and co-owner of The Blue Bicycle in Dawsonville
By Christy Simo
Guy Owens took a serpentine path to where he is now, as chef and co-owner of Dawsonvilleâ€™s The Blue Bicycle with his wife, Kati. He started out as a heating and air conditioning unit designer for commercial properties, then decided to follow his passion and cook. After his first job at The Abbey in Atlanta, followed by more than 10 years working for Futren Corporation in private country club restaurants, the space for The Blue Bicycle became available. Tucked away behind the North Georgia Premium Outlets in Dawsonville, the restaurant opened in 2005.
Tell me a little bit about your restaurant, The Blue Bicycle.
It was a life-long dream to have my own place, like most chefs. This little place used to be an Italian restaurant, a mom-and-pop red sauce kind of place. They were retiring and were looking for someone to take it over, so we did. We call it a bistro. We started out with what we thought we wanted it to be, but pretty soon we found out that the customers wanted something else, and theyâ€™ve kind of dictated what weâ€™ve become. Weâ€™ve evolved from doing real casual kind of food to a little more upscale. We donâ€™t consider ourselves upscale. We consider ourselves comfortable food. But our clientele thinks of us as fine dining.
So tell me a little bit about yourself and your background before you opened the restaurant.
I spent about 10 years in my 20s and early 30s in an engineering business designing heating and air conditioning systems for commercial buildings. Cooking was more of a hobby, so it was a passion. It was what I loved to do. Somebody actually pointed it out to me one time, she was a grandmother. She said, â€œYou know, God gave you a really good gift, and youâ€™re not using it. You should really rethink what youâ€™re doing.â€
I thought about it for a little bit. Because I wasnâ€™t what you would call passionate about designing heating and air conditioning units. It was just a job. So I took the plunge in the late 1980s and saved some money for about a year, then quit my job.
I went to work at The Abbey restaurant down in Atlanta for minimum wage. I got into the American Culinary Federation apprenticeship program, which I thought was a good way to get an education, because you learn so much on the job as opposed to going to culinary school and going into debt.
I was fortunate to have good mentors, and being a little older â€” I was in my 30s by the time I started this â€” I understood responsibility and being at work on time, and not staying out all night after work drinking. So I migrated to the top management pretty quickly.
Once I had gotten established as a sous chef and had a good reputation with some of the other chefs around town, it was pretty easy to find a good place to settle in.
So did you always know when you decided to go into the internship program that you wanted to have your own restaurant one day?
Yep. I knew that when I was 14 years old. I just didnâ€™t pursue it at the time. I was kind of discouraged from it by my family. They said, â€œYou wonâ€™t make any money doing that!â€ Because the idea then was you were a cook. The concept of executive chef was pretty far from most peopleâ€™s minds. The only celebrity chefs in those days were Julia Child and Graham Kerr.
How would you describe your cooking style?
Itâ€™s Continental influence with a southern accent. We try to keep things simple. The ingredients list in many recipes, I like to keep to a minimum. I like to let the product speak for itself. I try to choose the highest quality I can get.
We try and shop local as much as we can, but we canâ€™t ignore what our customers want. During the wintertime, Iâ€™m forced to buy tomatoes, lettuce, things like that, that I have to import from other parts of the country, because my customers demand it. Theyâ€™re not satisfied eating canned green beans, even if I put them up myself during the summertime. But we still try to think locally first, then we stretch out from there.
After 5 years in business, we found somebody who can provide us with local, pasture-raised organic chickens. Itâ€™s not cheap chicken, but itâ€™s good chicken. Itâ€™s a local farm â€“ Joyful Noise Acres Farm. Theyâ€™re out of Ball Ground, Ga. She delivers birds to us every Wednesday that were alive on Tuesday morning. Thatâ€™s fresh.
What inspires you as a chef?
I like to eat, and I like to eat out. I like to see what other people are doing, and I like to be challenged.
What is the best advice or tip you ever received?
Probably local and fresh, and get the highest quality ingredients you can get â€” within your price range of course. I mean, the sky is not the limit. We have to be responsible to our community, and we have to fit into our community.
What is your dream splurge if you could have anything in your restaurant or kitchen?
I would gut my kitchen and I would put in all new sautÃ© range, because we do a lot of sautÃ©ing and we only have six burners. And I would probably get an immersion circulator and vacuum seal and do a little bit of sous vide.
Whatâ€™s the one item you must have in your kitchen?
Other than a sharp knife and a good pan? We work a lot on our Robot Coupe, and of course our KitchenAid mixer.
Whatâ€™s the one thing you would ban from your kitchen if you could?
Anything I would ban is probably not here, because weâ€™re a pretty small operation.
What is your favorite ingredient?
Probably pig. Itâ€™s so versatile. Weâ€™re doing osso buco right now but with pork instead of veal. We make terrines and charcuteries, things like that. I make fresh sausage every once in a while, but itâ€™s not something thatâ€™s on the menu all the time.
What is your least favorite ingredient?
Iâ€™m not a big fan of offal, tripe and stuff like that. Duck liver and chicken liver, I like those. Itâ€™s one of those things I used to veer away from that Iâ€™ve come to appreciate. But I still canâ€™t get into kidneys and tripe, hearts and lungs and brains. I wonâ€™t cook anything that I wonâ€™t eat.
What would you say is your favorite restaurant in Georgia outside of the ones youâ€™ve worked at?
I really like Holeman & Finch. And Varasanoâ€™s Pizza â€“ I really like what he does with pizza. Itâ€™s my passion at home. We make pizza almost every weekend. Chef Varasano has a link to his blog about dough making. I used to think I made pretty good pizza dough, but after following some of his advice and making some alterations, what I read on his blog improved my pizza 100%.
Who would you say is the most influential person to you in the restaurant world?
Probably Frank Stitt over in Birmingham. I havenâ€™t met him, but Iâ€™ve dined in his restaurants on several occasions. Itâ€™s what I always wanted to do â€” to focus on regional food â€” and itâ€™s kind of what I do here. I like the way he is able to elevate southern cuisine. Heâ€™s been doing it for so long, and he hasnâ€™t missed a lick yet. His restaurants are really first class.
What would you say is your favorite thing about the restaurant industry overall?
The camaraderie. The teamwork. When I was 14 years old, my first job was working in a restaurant. I just had so much fun with the people that I worked with, and you spend so much time with them. So thatâ€™s probably the best part â€” the friendships that you make.
How is it different working at someone elseâ€™s restaurant as a chef vs. owning your own restaurant?
Well Iâ€™ve always been good about watching my bossâ€™s nickels, but you watch them even closer when theyâ€™re your nickels.
I watch my nickels, but I also try to take care of my staff â€” pay everybody the best that we can, considering the business and all. I was fortunate when I was working for Futren Corporation that they taught me the business aspect of it. And thatâ€™s probably why weâ€™re still in business today, because weâ€™re not doing it strictly from the passion part of it, but weâ€™re watching our dollars. Itâ€™s true what they say, that working for yourself is way different than working for somebody else. You resent that guy to some degree whoâ€™s got you working on Sunday because itâ€™s Motherâ€™s Day or Easter. Where now if Iâ€™m working on Motherâ€™s Day or Easter, itâ€™s my own choice.
What would you say is the most challenging part of being a chef/owner in the restaurant industry?
Staying afloat. Especially in the last year or so, it seems like every time I get an invoice from anybody, the cost of everything just keeps going up. But the pressure on us in the restaurant is to maintain our prices so that people still feel like theyâ€™re getting a bargain. And itâ€™s getting harder and harder. Weâ€™ve already had to do a menu change and raise prices. And because we waited too long to raise prices, on several items we had to raise them dramatically.
What was the response from your diners when you had to do that?
Weâ€™ve had mixed things. Some people say, â€œWell itâ€™s about time. We understand.â€ And other people are like, â€œYouâ€™re charging me $19 for this trout that I got two weeks ago for $16!â€ But prices keep going up. And there are costs built in that [trout] people donâ€™t see. Insurance keeps going up. Every year my lease goes up 3 percent. The more people use credit cards, the more I have to pay the credit card companies.
What is your philosophy as a chef managing people?
Treat everybody with respect. Try not to order people around, but direct them and ask them politely. Use a lot of thank youâ€™s and pleaseâ€™s. And then the golden rule â€” treat other people like I would want to be treated. Educate the younger people. I ask everybody who comes to work for me in the kitchen, what do you want to be one day? If itâ€™s a line cook and they say, â€œI just see myself as always being a line cook,â€ well then, theyâ€™re out of the picture. But if someone says â€œI want to be a chef. I want to be running an operation one day.â€ Then thatâ€™s the one I want.
Education and respect, those are the biggest things in the kitchen. It keeps people motivated. Iâ€™ve been fortunate; Iâ€™ve had very little kitchen turnover, and I think itâ€™s because I treat people with respect and I try to educate them. Hopefully when they do leave, they go on to something better. Theyâ€™re not just going across the street because somebodyâ€™s going to pay them another 50 cents an hour more.
If you werenâ€™t in the restaurant industry, what do you think youâ€™d be doing?
Laying out on the beach, drinking margaritas (laughs). I really canâ€™t see myself doing anything else at this point except for retiring.
If you could decide your last meal, what would it be?
Probably pizza. Like I said, itâ€™s one of my passions. We donâ€™t bake our own bread here â€” we donâ€™t have the facilities for that â€” but I bake all our bread at home, and we make pizzas at home. So my last meal would probably be a fig and blue cheese pizza.