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Gerry Klaskala: 2018 GRACE Lifetime Achievement Winner

Gerry Klaskala

For Gerry Klaskala, the kitchen is where art and food collide.

In high school, Klaskala was on a path for fine art school when he stumbled upon his true calling while working at a restaurant.

“The chef that I worked with, he was into doing ice carvings and buffet work and pulled sugar. … I said that’s really cool. Can you teach me this stuff?,” Klaskala recalls. “And he said yeah. but you gotta come in on your own time. He wasn’t going to pay me to learn.”

The chef also liked to enter competitions, so Gerry helped him with that, too. And they won.

That’s when the chef turned to Gerry and said, “You should really go to culinary school.”

So he did. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, he spent 10 years working his way around the kitchen.

“You have to love it from the beginning. I love every step of the way, from washing dishes to working as a short-order cook, progressing through the whole thing. There’s not one step that I didn’t like.”

Some of Atlanta’s most storied restaurants have Klaskala to thank for their success. He helped launch the Buckhead Diner and Horseradish Grill. He consulted for restaurants like Atlas and Murphy’s. Then he met George McKerrow. The two decided to open a restaurant together. And in 1995, Canoe debuted along the banks of the Chattahoochee River.

But Klaskala wanted to do more. So in 2000, he and McKerrow launched Aria in a historic home in Buckhead off East Paces Ferry. Today it’s regarded as one of the city’s finest restaurants. It’s become a neighborhood spot for Buckhead locals, a respite for celebrities and movie stars filming in town, and a special place for a generation of Atlantans celebrating birthdays, anniversaries and promotions.

The menu changes nightly, albeit slightly, and rolls with the seasons and Klaskala’s inspiration.

“[It’s based on] seasonality, but then you’re moving it forward in the creative process,” he says. “You’re [always] looking at things differently.”

Now in its 19th year of operation, Aria has gone on to be recognized with numerous accolades, including a 2017 James Beard Award semifinalist for Outstanding Service, a Top Time-Tested Restaurant by The Atlanta Journal- Constitution that same year, and one of Atlanta magazine’s best restaurants in 2018. Klaskala’s food has been featured in Bon Appétit and Esquire, among many others.

And while he still can be found in the kitchen most days, he’s also dedicated to giving back. If there’s a cause, you can be sure Gerry is helping out. He’s a mainstay at Share Our Strength’s Taste of the Nation, and he’s also the chef chair for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society Georgia Chapter’s Harvest for a Cure event. He’s chef co-chair of Open Hand Atlanta’s Party in the Kitchen. He’s a founding chef of the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, a member of the Vidalia Onion Committee’s Chefs Advisory Board and on the board of advisors for the Atlanta Foodservice Expo.

“I feel very connected to the community that I live in. Being a part philanthropically with the community is extremely important to me.” he says. “Then you’re part of the solution. You’re not one who sits on their hands.”

He has also supported the Atlanta Community Food Bank, the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, Georgia Organics, High Museum of Art and Southface, among many others.

“For chefs it’s easy for us to connect and feel a direct connection to solving the problems of some very serious issues of childhood hunger, feeding the less fortunate. You know, taking care of one another,” Klaskala says. “That’s what we do in the restaurant industry. We take care of one another.”

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