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2017 Rising Stars: These 5 are the ones to watch in Georgia’s restaurant scene

By Hope S. Philbrick and Nancy Wood

What does it take to make it in today’s competitive restaurant scene? Talent? Determination? Blood, sweat and tears?

For the five people Restaurant Informer selected, in partnership with the Georgia Restaurant Association, as the state’s Rising Stars, it’s all of the above and more.

While these five chefs come from varied backgrounds and cook different cuisines, they all have two things in common: A determination to succeed, and a love of cooking. They’re also people who are not only leaders, but mentors to others, whether that’s by teaching kitchen staff how to break down primal cuts or nurturing talent in the people around them.

Read on to learn more about these five talented chefs – no doubt you’ll be hearing their names again in the next few years.

 

Savannah Sasser

Hampton + Hudson

Atlanta

Savannah Sasser

Savannah Sasser

As a little girl, Savannah Sasser loved working alongside her single mother in the kitchen. “It was the best way for us to spend time together as a family,” she says. When her mother first taught her how to make a roux, she’d said that it would be finished when it was the color of a penny. Sasser ran to fetch a penny then set it by the pot on the stove as she stirred.

She doesn’t need a lucky penny anymore. The 31 year old is now Executive Chef at Hampton + Hudson in Atlanta, where she employs a playful mix of classic French techniques with creative twists using seasonal ingredients.

“I always wanted to cook for a living,” Sasser says. At age 18 she left home for Pittsburgh to attend culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu. She says that her food will always have a French influence since “that’s where my foundation lies,” but she enjoys adding Southern twists “because that’s where I’m from.”

She recently discovered a love of butchering. “I’m teaching the staff to break down primals,” she says with a smile. Pleasing customers is a passion. “It’s exciting to see what a community wants and give it to them.” She predicts quality will continue to drive Atlanta’s dining scene: “More people care now about what they put in their mouth, so we need to take time to do it right.”

Sasser cites her mom as a key influence. “My mom is strong. She was in the military when women stayed in the same barracks as men,” she says. “She always taught me that for equality, you just have to work really hard.”

Though ultimately she’d like to own a small restaurant of her own with a garden out back, she plans to stay put for the foreseeable future. “I’d like to continue to elevate the food here, hopefully grow with the company, and teach and grow with the staff. I love what I’m doing now!” – HP

 

Woolery “Woody Back

Coalition Food & Beverage, Alpharetta

Table & Main, Roswell

Woolery “Woody” Back

Woolery “Woody” Back

When he was a high school-aged server at Uno Pizzeria & Grill, the camaraderie of the kitchen staff helped Woody Back realize he belonged in the back of the house. “I saw what they were doing and cooking, and I wanted to be back there,” he says. “I’d cooked for my friends and parents quite a bit; it just came naturally to me.”

The 40 year old is now Executive Chef at Table & Main in Roswell and Executive Chef and Partner at the new Coalition Food & Beverage in Alpharetta.

“Opening a new restaurant with Ryan Pernice is exciting, and making that transition from chef to restaurant owner is a big transition,” he says. It’s a dream realized. “I think this will be my end all be all,” he says of his future career plans. “I think as a restaurateur I’ll keep opening restaurants and see how they do.”

After graduating from Johnson & Wales, he worked at restaurants in Virginia and Georgia, including Craft, Restaurant Eugene and Holeman & Finch. Back credits Chef Linton Hopkins with expanding his understanding of Southern cuisine.

“He really opened my eyes to the fact that it’s not just fried chicken,” he says. “It changes so much depending on the season. Plus there’s the whole Gullah culture, coastal cuisine, Louisiana cuisines” and other contributors.

Seasonal ingredients drive his menu, along with memories of childhood favorites. “I remember my grandma making soup beans or pinto beans for me,” he says. “I’d beg her to make those! She cooked them with ham hock and green onions.”

Raised in Syracuse, N.Y., he claims Southern roots through his Kentuckian mother. “My mom made fried chicken, collard greens and stuff like that,” he says. He now counts fried chicken as his signature dish, based on “as much as we sell!” – HP

 

Matt Weinstein

Executive Chef

ONE Midtown Kitchen

Atlanta

Matt Weinstein

Matt Weinstein

“I’ve always loved working with my hands,” says Matt Weinstein, executive chef at ONE Midtown Kitchen. Fortunately, the jobs he tried along the way – plumber, auto mechanic, carpenter – didn’t pan out.

Starting at 15 as a busboy and dishwasher at a family-owned restaurant, the 30-year-old Virginia native soon got his first opportunity as a short-order line cook. “The owner showed me how cooking could be fun,” recalls Weinstein, “and an outlet for working with my hands.”

It didn’t take long for that outlet to become a calling. By 2009. Weinstein had his associates degree from the Culinary Institute of America and was back in the metro D.C. area, joining the staff at 701. The next stop was a three-year stint in Maryland under the eye of Top Chef finalist Bryan Voltaggio.

“I learned a lot about technique as well as a general love of cooking and presentation from Bryan,” Weinstein says. But his move to Atlanta as sous chef under Tyler Williams at Woodfire Grill broadened his horizons.

“Tyler showed me the creative side and the cultural diversity found in different cuisines,” says Weinstein. “He opened up that whole world of cooking.”

Diners can taste those influences on Weinstein’s menus today. “I would call my style Modern American with cultural influences,” he says. “I love Indian and Mediterranean food, and I pull from that when I’m looking for inspiration.”

Since the “co” was dropped from his title in 2016, Weinstein’s offerings at ONE Midtown Kitchen now include Sunday brunch and a weekly five-course tasting menu with wine pairings for six.

Next up for Weinstein is bringing Concentrics Restaurants’ Golden Brown & Delicious concept to life at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium as consulting chef. “The food is what I would want at a stadium,” he says. “Something fried, a sandwich, American beer.” One twist? Falcon’s fans will get their Dirty Bird fries with jerk chicken gravy – not your typical stadium fare.

While Weinstein clearly understands what his guests want – whether it’s a corn dog or a delicate seafood entrée – he welcomes the challenge of changing trends.

“I think guests today are more health conscious, and they’re looking for a value-driven meal with good local ingredients.” And he’ll do it all with those talented hands. NW

 

John Williams         

Chef de Cuisine

Freds Meat & Bread and Yalla

John Williams         

John Williams

At the tender age of 22, John Williams is on the fast track in Atlanta’s restaurant scene.

Unlike most chefs, Williams fell into the business after accepting a job offer from the owner of a local music venue right before he graduated from high school.

“I was taking a food science class and really liked it,” recalls the Atlanta native. “When the owner asked if I could come to work there, I said ‘sure – why not?’”

Ever the quick study, Williams soaked up every bit of knowledge he could – from food basics to handling and ordering.

“He opened a lot of doors for me,” Williams says fondly. “When he went to West Egg, he urged them to hire me and I found out I was really good at this!”

Within a year, John had climbed the popular Westside café’s kitchen ladder and at one point ran the whole establishment. He was 19.

Williams’ career has been full speed ahead ever since. Named to Zagat’s 30-Under-30 before he had even turned 20, he added to his list of credits with the co-creation of Oddbird, the Westside pop-up that features his take on Nashville hot chicken – served with his favorite dish, mac and cheese.

He then moved to sister restaurant The General Muir, owned by James Beard-nominated chef Todd Ginsberg with partners Jennifer and Brad Johnson, to be a sous chef. There, Williams delved into his creative side, learning to “mix food flavors together to make something beautiful.” Adds Williams, “Todd is so passionate about that style of food that it was easy for me to pick up on it. He’s has been my biggest influence so far.”

In his newest role as Chef de Cuisine at Fred’s Meat & Bread and Middle Eastern- inspired Yalla – both at the Krog Street Market and owned by the same team – Williams still gets to try new things.

“I enjoy taking different products I’ve never worked with and making something delicious. I’ve never worked with as much eggplant as I have at Yalla,” he laughs.

“I like a lot of change, and this move was great for me,” he says. “I never thought I would be where I am right now. It’s a sign that I’m doing something I should be doing.” NW

 

John Castellucci

Castellucci Group

Atlanta

John Castellucci

John Castellucci

John Castellucci grew up in the restaurant industry. His parents opened Sugo and he worked in that kitchen in middle and high school. “That’s where I got my first real restaurant experience,” he says.

By age 13 he knew his professional path: “I felt like cooking was something that not only I would enjoy most but also be good at. It aligned together and was an obvious choice for me.”

A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Castellucci worked in several kitchens, including RN74 in San Francisco, WD~50 in New York City, and Arzak in San Sebastián, Spain, before officially joining the family business in Atlanta.

Now the 25 year old is one of the owners as well as the head of culinary development for The Castellucci Hospitality Group. He helped relocate Double Zero to Emory Village, serves as executive sous chef for Cooks & Soldiers, and will helm the kitchen at the new Bar Mercado in Krog Street Market.

“Bar Mercado is going to be very traditional Spanish tapas,” he says. “Very ingredient driven, focused, with a fun, lively environment.” In preparation, Castellucci has been hitting the books – old Spanish cookbooks to be exact.

“I’ve been learning a lot about classic old-school Spanish techniques,” he says. “It’s nice to get back to the nuts and bolts, see how it’s been done for hundreds of years, the most traditional way to make something super delicious. That’s exciting for me.”

He predicts the restaurant industry will see more ethnic-driven restaurants. In particular, he thinks “people will be looking at South American food differently.”

Castellucci’s ultimate career goal is to “really keep my head down and keep progressing as a chef,” he says, “and hopefully create people under me who are as talented or more talented than myself, at whatever pace that may be – I don’t want a number as a goal. I’d like to be recognized in the city as one of the best restaurateurs with the best concepts.” – HP

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