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A Q&A with President, COO and Executive Chef Marc Taft

Wednesday, July 19th, 2017

By Nancy Wood

It all started with chicken on a vineyard. Those free-range feathered fowl pecking around Marc Taft and his wife Elizabeth while on a trip to California are what prompted them to start their own chicken-centric restaurant. Since it opened in 2011 in Cobb County, Chicken and the Egg has hatched a budding empire across Atlanta’s northern suburbs that shows no signs of stopping.

Marc Taft

Chef Marc Taft

An Alabama native, Taft spent a number of years traveling the country before his job brought him to Atlanta in 2009, when he opened the Hotel Palomar and Pacci Restaurant for Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants.

When Chicken and the Egg opened, it was one of the few chef-driven restaurants in the suburbs committed to using local and sustainable product as much as possible. Thanks to the restaurant’s success, he opened Brine Seafood Shack this past April in Alpharetta’s Avalon development. And there’s two more concepts ready to come on board: FEED – Fried Chicken & Such opening this month at The Battery Atlanta, part of the Braves’s new home at SunTrust Park, and CO-OP Community Table + Bar, which will open next spring in Forsyth County’s HALCYON development.

To manage the growing empire of restaurants, he recently launched Southern Fried Hospitality Group, where he serves as president, COO and executive chef and which also plans to offer restaurant development, consulting and management services to others in the industry.

Taft has much experience in that department – he’s opened more than 40 restaurants across the country during the course of his career. He also currently serves as senior director of openings and transitions for New York-based The ONE Group, whose concepts include STK, Bagatelle and Asellina.

In 2014, he was named a Georgia Grown Executive Chef. Selected by the Georgia Department of Agriculture in partnership with the Georgia Restaurant Association, the chefs serve as ambassadors for Georgia’s farmers and crops while increasing awareness about the availability of quality local products in the state’s restaurant scene.

He was also invited to participate in the third annual Georgia Grown dinner at the Beard House in New York City this past June. “It was fantastic,” he says. “Obviously that’s a bucket list thing for any chef.”

Restaurant Informer talked with Taft about what it’s like to open new restaurant concepts, why he feels it’s important to use sustainable products and how cultivating a solid workforce is one of the biggest challenges the industry faces today. Following are edited highlights from the conversation. – The Editors

 

RI: How did you first become a part of the restaurant industry?

MT: I was a teenager who needed a job. I worked in a Chick-fil-A when I was 15. Chick-fil-A was the greatest first experience in the hospitality business. The way they treat their people and the culture they have. It’s the first impression of what hospitality is supposed to be.

 

RI: Is that how you got involved with chicken?

MT: No – I got that from my grandmother in East Tennessee – just growing up and eating her fried chicken a lot. Growing up that was my favorite meal – fried chicken, mashed potatoes and green beans.

FEED – Fried Chicken & Such, which will serve primarily fried chicken, is opening this month at The Battery Atlanta.

What do you like best about Georgia?

RI: The products we can get. I’m a Georgia Grown Executive Chef representing the state. I just got done cooking at the Beard House [in New York City] with the Georgia Grown Chefs, and it’s just the amount of products we can get and use that’s so accessible.

 

RI: Why did you decide to open your restaurants outside the perimeter vs. intown Atlanta?

MT: I ran a very popular restaurant in Midtown – we were on Esquire’s Top 20 Best New Restaurants in U.S. list. AltoRex rooftop lounge was named the hottest bar in Atlanta, so we definitely had something in the city working with Kimpton and running the restaurant. But I lived in Marietta. Just living up there and seeing the void of chef-driven restaurants is probably what started it and why we opened Chicken and the Egg back in 2011. We were kind of trailblazers out there, because no one else had really gone outside the perimeter at the time.

Doug Turbush came in about five months after us in East Cobb, and now Ford Fry is doing something out there. The Indigo Road guys from Charleston are out there. I think it’s a market. As long as people are working inside the city and they live outside – trying to deliver that chef-driven quality without having to drive into the city to eat. That’s probably what started the whole thing.

 

RI: How did you come up with your concepts for Chicken and the Egg, Brine Seafood Shack and FEED – Fried Chicken & Such?

MT: Chicken and the Egg was probably not going to be the first restaurant I opened. It was way too much like my childhood, and it was probably something I was trying to avoid because as a chef, you don’t want to be known as just the guy who cooks southern comfort food. But I think it was the right concept for the space we had in Marietta and for the market that we were trying to serve.

If you really look back at some of the first menus we had and some of the first things we did, they were probably a little more ‘cheffy’ than what they are now. It’s important that we listen to our guests and don’t get inside of our heads as chefs and be so arrogant that people will eat our food just because we cook it. Listen to what they want. Different markets want different things.

The concept itself came when my wife and I were visiting California. We were staying on a vineyard. We were sitting on the veranda, and I’m just looking around at these heritage free-range chickens walking around. We had just come off of 10 days eating the freshest food I’ve pretty much ever had. I looked at that chicken and thought about how sustainable that animal is, and that’s where the name Chicken and the Egg came from. It represents the cycle of life and sustainability and the impact we put on this planet.

Chicken and the Egg, which opened in 2011 in Cobb County, serves southern-tinged “modern farmstead fare.ˮ

We’ve won some awards with our fried chicken, and it’s very popular. So it was kind of a natural thing when the Braves approached me about doing a restaurant [FEED – Fried Chicken & Such] and wanting to do fried chicken. That was an easy decision to make, so we’re doing a fast-casual version of Chicken and the Egg with our fried chicken.

Brine Seafood Shack up in Avalon – they asked me what I wanted to do. I wanted to show that I could do something outside of one genre of food, so we decided to do Brine Seafood Shack. I just spent some time, about a year in L.A., doing some work for a company, and my chef d’cuisine had spent three years in Maine, so we kind of meshed the two – New England and California, sort of Nantucket meets Santa Monica – and created Brine Seafood Shack.

 

RI: Hows it doing?

MT: Super busy. Avalon is a different location than obviously Marietta. After six years, we have a good finger on the pulse of what Marietta wants. What we’re trying to do with Brine Seafood Shack is we’re trying to offer a very approachable food experience but use the finest ingredients and bring in our fish following the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch [sustainable seafood program]. It’s initially a challenge. It’s an educational process – hey, this isn’t the shrimp you’re getting at that chain restaurant. This is shrimp that was caught yesterday in the Gulf and brought up to us. This is different – this is fresh like something you’re going to get eating at the beach. It’s going to cost a little bit more.

I think people love it at the end of day. Since we’ve opened, we’ve fed about 20,000 people. That’s the number of covers we’ve done since April 13. That’s a lot of people to feed.

Brine. Photo by Ed Carter

 

RI: Tell me a little bit about your upcoming restaurant, CO-OP Community Table.

MT: We’re excited about expanding up on McFarland [Road] doing Co-Op Community Table in the Halcyon development in Forsyth County. And we’re going to have the opportunity to do a food hall version of our fried chicken, and we’re also going to do our first burger concept up there. I do not know the name of the burger concept, because I swore I would never do a burger concept. I’m only doing it because the developer really wanted a burger concept and asked if I would do both. Linton did it down in Ponce City – and I don’t try to put myself in the same shoes as Linton Hopkins, but I think we have the ability to be that outside-the-perimeter version and offer a really great burger product and an alternative to a lot of the burger chains in Forsyth County.

FEED, which is fast casual – obviously we’re going to do high volume here [at the Battery Atlanta]. We’re opening the FEED food hall version up in Halcyon, and in early 2018, we’ll be opening a FEED over in Peachtree Corners [in a] new food court development across from The Forum.

 

RI: Your restaurants use a lot of local, sustainable and organic produce, along with humanely raised animals. Why do you think these attributes are important for a restaurant to incorporate?

MT: People expect now when they go to a chef-driven restaurant and the chef is in the house sourcing – whether its farm-to-table or ocean-to-table – that’s part of the cost of doing business, of being a chef. People’s expectations that you are sourcing responsibly as a chef is there. The onus is on us to follow through with that.
You’re starting to see the days of having every single farm and every single place you source stuff from [listed on the menu] kind of over. Because that’s just the expectation. If you look at our website for Chicken and the Egg, we list links to our partners, but I don’t necessarily put everyone on our menu because it becomes very cliché and I shouldn’t have to do that for people to know that I source things responsibly.

But from a seafood perspective, I learned about the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch a long time ago. They’ve done a great job globally in promoting sustainable fishery – beyond just the wildlife piece of it. They’re really into how the fleets are run, the amount of fuel that’s burned, the way the fishermen are treated – making sure they have a living wage. I think it’s a great program. They have an app that guests can download on their phone and look at fish and what they should be eating or buying themselves.

Brine Mussels Marinara by Heidi Geldhauser

We follow their recommendations on what fish we should be buying at the time, and that’s always changing. Some of our fish is even geo-tagged – especially stuff coming from the Gulf. We literally can have a tag that tells us the exact coordinates of where it was caught, who the fisherman was, the captain of the boat, what the boat name is and all about the species. So it’s easy to track things back to its origin.

 

RI: What was behind your decision to form Southern Fried Hospitality and to include restaurant development services in your offerings? 

MT: I think it was natural as we knew we were growing – we’ve got a pretty aggressive development plan. We knew we needed a management company to oversee our operations, so that’s where Southern Fried Hospitality was born. I do a lot of consulting work and a lot of F&B work both in lodging as well as in restaurants. It’s a natural progression that we do it as a company.

So we not only offer a management company to manage our own restaurants, but we can be a management company to help other operators that need someone to step in and help them become profitable. From a developmental side, I’m pushing 60 restaurant openings under my belt, so opening a restaurant is an art, following a critical path and making sure everything has its place and everything is taken care of when you open.

Chicken and Egg Restaurant

There are a lot of people who are consultants out there, but they’ve really never opened that many restaurants. So we thought a development service as part of our restaurants would be important for the future, whether we’re developing hotel F&B restaurants or we’re running them. That’s probably something we’ll look at in the future as we start slowing down our own buildout – we’ll start doing that a little more.

 

RI: Doesnt that take you out of the kitchen?

MT: It does – but Atlanta’s pretty aggressive about expecting chefs to be around. We see a graveyard of chefs from other cities who have come in with big names, and their restaurants have all closed because Atlanta [diners] expect to be able to talk to that person.

No matter how many restaurants we have, you’ll see me in one of my kitchens. When I go to Brine, I’m around the kitchen. When I go to Chicken and the Egg, you’ll see me in the kitchen; I’m in the dining room talking to people, and I think that’s an important aspect.

As with any company growing, it’s important that I surround myself with very qualified people and talented chefs. I’ve got two up-and-coming chefs now – one is chef d’cuisine at Brine and one is chef d’cuisine at Chicken and the Egg. They’re going to be rock stars in the city. The goal is to continue to recruit and create a company that people want to work for, so I can continue that growth and still have those same expectations from guests that they can continue getting that same quality product from our kitchens.

 

RI: Whats the biggest difference between operating multiple restaurants in different parts of town vs. just focusing on one single restaurant concept?

MT: Some of our brands – like FEED – you’re going to see more than one of those. I’ve never been a big fan of having “Part Twos” of certain restaurants. Chicken and the Egg would have to find a very unique place for it to be as successful as the first one. It’s a way we can express our creativity as chefs to be able to do that.

I’ve got 33 years of hospitality experience at this point, so I don’t find it as challenging as I might have 20 years ago. It’s easy to multi-task. Once again, it’s about having a great team. My partner, Tom Foust, has been in the Atlanta area for 20 years; he has 35+ years in the business. My director of operations, Fran Kieffer, he’s got over 35 years experience in the business and he‘s been around Atlanta for quite some time. When I’m not in a restaurant they’re in a restaurant, so we’re able to keep our standards and continue to grow our culture as a company.

 

RI: Who is the most influential person to you in the restaurant industry?

MT: Probably two different people have been the most influential to me. One is Karim Lakhani [former executive chef at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. and the Latham Hotel in Baltimore]. I got to experience him when he was a VP of F&B when I worked for AGI Hospitality. He’s probably the first person I worked with who really had a tremendous passion and demanded us to deliver. I’m very driven, but Karim was more driven and pushed me to push past my limits and do more than I could do. I will always be indebted to him to really make me see that I could always do better no matter what I’m doing. He’s probably one of the biggest influences I’ve had in my career.

The second person who really influenced me in a leadership regard was John Inserra. He was the Senior VP of Restaurants for Kimpton Hotels. He brought me back to work with The ONE Group to manage their acquisitions and transitions. He took up where Karim left off and really pushed me to be even better later in my career when I had done a lot. It’s easy to sit back and say ‘here’s some success,’ and he’s the one that makes me everyday say “What’s next?” “What do I need to do better?” and “What am I doing now that’s not right?”

Besides my grandmother, those two people have probably had the most influence on me.

 

RI: Tell me about your grandmother.

MT: She lived in East Tennessee. I spent a lot of time with my grandmother the first few years of my life. I stayed with her while my mom went to school and went to work. Growing up, I remember looking forward to those trips – when we moved to Alabama, we went back once a month, and my time was all spent with her in the kitchen.

My grandfather wanted me out playing on his ham radio and doing electronic stuff, but I just wanted to be with my grandmother. She taught me a lot about cooking even if it was from observation – and as I got older, by me asking questions. They had a small farm as well, and she was always canning and preserving.

There’s probably a lot of chefs who say they were influenced by their grandmother, but she’s probably had one of the biggest impacts of anyone in my life on who I am. She was just a very loving and caring person. I think probably my passion for food and cooking started really early with her, and she’s probably responsible for a lot of things, especially Chicken and the Egg. A lot of my recipes started as her recipes.

 

RI: Wheres your favorite place to eat in Georgia besides your own restaurants?

MT: I enjoy eating at Jay Swift’s restaurant [Noble Fin]. I enjoy going to Colletta and Oak [Steakhouse] up at Avalon. The Indigo Road Group does a fantastic job when it comes to hospitality. I like Cooks and Soldiers a lot – the Castellucci Group. I really like some of Ford Fry’s restaurants – St. Cecilia’s and No. 246. Sometimes it’s just grabbing a burger at The Red Eyed Mule in Marietta. They have a great burger.

I eat simply. We don’t do a lot of upscale dining just because we save that for special occasions, and I can cook it at home, too. It’s really just going out to enjoy the company and have something that tastes good.

 

RI: What do you see as some of the biggest challenges for the restaurant industry right now?

MT: Labor is a huge challenge for all of us. Twenty years ago, there was a lot of passion in the industry. Maybe not all the methods were appropriate, but there was a lot of passion and people would do anything in the kitchen to be successful and to learn.

That’s not the mentality in today’s workforce. You see a lot more people care more about their experiences out in the world instead of devoting time to work and trying to build for the future. We’ll see how that plays out 20 years from now.

The kids just come in, they don’t show up for interviews, they talk back to you when you’re trying to teach them something, they quit on a dime. If you say anything they do is wrong, they’re either in tears or they quit. They want off for a party, and you say “Sorry, you didn’t request in time,” they quit so they can go to a party. It’s not rational thinking to most of us adults.

The industry is hard as everyone in it knows – it’s grueling hours, it’s hard work, it’s hot. You’re taking care of guests who all have an opinion of what you should be doing. Somehow, we’re going to have to start younger and teach them – doing the school farming thing or talking to kids earlier – because at the end of the day, trades are important. Everyone can’t be a rocket scientist.

We have to be realistic with our kids. There are a lot of trades they can go into that they can be successful in, and there’s nothing wrong with cooking or being an electrician or a plumber or any of the things that require a learned skill.

So labor is the No. 1 thing we all have to face as well as fighting for a very small workforce.

 

RI: What are some of the trends you are seeing right now in the restaurant world?

MT: One of the biggest trends – and I think it will come back – is fine dining has been out for a while. It’s kind of a bad word. It’s almost like a splurge that’s hard to justify.

We’re finding more ways to open more casual restaurants that deliver a quality product, just in a different way. Casual dining is much more popular now, and you don’t see as many white tablecloths in any restaurant.

Chefs have to be approachable now because people are very knowledgeable about food – they watch a lot of TV and they read a lot of books. They expect the chef to be knowledgeable.

People care more about what they’re putting in their bodies than they used to. Being able to educate our guests on what we’re serving them and knowing origins of what we’re serving is very important and trending.

We’re always going to have the dietary trend – whether it’s the gluten-free approach or vegan or whatever. They’re more likely to tell you how they want to eat [now] than they used to. Very rarely do I get a ticket in the kitchen that they order the dish exactly how it is on the menu. It’s like a build-your-own mentality now, and we have to – as chefs – be very flexible about that. The people who aren’t flexible are finding out their business is dropping. People want to eat what they want to eat.

The technology piece is pretty simple – one is for recruiting staff. The newer generations use a lot of technology, and we should be using new technology to be able to be more approachable to them – make things easier for them. Whether it’s how they schedule a request or how our schedules get out to everybody.

They don’t come in and look at the board and take a picture of it or write it down the way we used to do. Instead of everything being handwritten and kept in a calendar – our payroll systems, our accounting systems – almost everything we do, we’re trying to upgrade and use technology to our advantage so we can grow at the rate we’re trying to grow and be able to slowly recruit people into the ranks that are required to run the company without just filling holes with bodies. We want the right people to continue the culture that we want to grow.

It’s important that we connect with our guests and that we’re anticipating their needs and that we are hearing their feedback. We [need to] find a better way for chefs and the community to communicate with each other so they can understand what we’re trying to do and we can hear back how we’re failing at that or how we’re being successful so we can continue that process.

           

RI: Why do you like being a part of the restaurant industry, and why did you decide to make a career out of it?

MT: Everything is different every single day – we never have the same day twice. Your guests are different coming in. The food is organic, and it changes with what the season is or where that plant came from or where that animal was raised. So you’re constantly having to hone your skills and constantly learn something new so it doesn’t get stagnant. That’s probably what I like most.

And I would not know as many people as I do in the Marietta community if I didn’t own that restaurant. I’ve met so many people in my community because of the restaurant, and it’s pretty cool.

 

RI: If you could decide your last meal, what would it be?

MT: My grandmother’s fried chicken that she cooked in – heaven forbid – lard in her cast iron pot really low and slow. I love that fried chicken. And probably mashed potatoes and southern-style green beans. A biscuit with sorghum on it.

I’m not a huge dessert fan, but my grandmother got me addicted to banana pudding. Every time I came to visit, she always had it. And I’m sure bourbon would find its way into that meal [Laughs].

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John Castellucci

Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

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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John Williams

Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

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?’”

John Williams         

John Williams

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

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Matt Weinstein

Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

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

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Woolery “Woody” Back

Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

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

 

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Savannah Sasser

Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

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

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Changing With the Tides

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2016

Georgia seafood angles toward fresh caught and sustainable options to match consumer demand

By Alexander Gagnon

rpatrick_RI_4thswift-2Georgia’s culinary scene has transformed drastically over the last few years. Like elsewhere across the country, the farm-to-table movement has taken off, encouraging more people to learn how and where their food comes from.

It’s only natural that they’ll want to know where their seafood comes from, too. So as more restaurants choose to source fresh seafood to meet consumer demand, knowing how the fish you put on your menu was caught and where it came from is especially important, as the well-being of the ocean, the long-term vitality of the fish species and the livelihood of local fishermen all depend on the choices you make.

But how do you know what you are putting on your menu is truly fresh and sustainably caught? Luckily, there are a number of chefs and distributors who are responsibly sourcing their seasonal seafood products to bring deep sea flavors to the surface.


Catching the FlavorThe Noble Fin

The obvious first step when sourcing the freshest seafood begins in the ocean with dedicated, hardworking fisherman who brave the waters in search of the highest quality products. These fisherman work hand-in-hand with well-known Georgia-based distributors to keep menus stocked with fresh seafood on a daily basis.

“Fresh seafood” is an extremely loose term that leaves a lot to interpretation. A high-quality product is not only freshly caught, but it must be shipped and stored responsibly to not compromise the delicate flavor of the meat.

The way in which fish are caught can affect the tenderness and quality of the product. Many traditional fisherman use a long-line technique that leaves hooked fish on the line for hours or days on end. During that timeframe, the restrained fish is fighting the hook and trying to get free. The fish’s muscles are strained during the fighting process, and this releases lactic acid into the muscles of the fish, creating an inferior flavor profile for a once decadent meat.

“Not all fresh fish are the same,” says Jay Swift, GRA board member and executive chef of 4th & Swift in Atlanta and Noble Fin, which is slated to open in Peachtree Corners this spring. “It’s not all about how long the fish has been out of the water, but how it was treated on the boat. Was the fish put in a live well? Was it immediately thrown in ice, or was it placed carefully? Does the boat have an ice machine? All of these factors play an important role in the resulting flavor.”

“It is the little things you do when you store a fish that make a difference,” says Jeb Aldrich, chef de cuisine of 4th & Swift and Noble Fin. “You don’t want fish to be stored laying on its side. This applies pressure to the filets and bruises the meat. Fish should be stored in the same position as they would swim.”

Some fisherman use live wells instead of the preferred method of icing the fish immediately. They hold the fish in a compact onboard tank, overcrowded with other fish in often inferior water quality for days at a time. All of these factors play an important role when determining the flavor and condition of the fish itself, which makes high-quality seafood distribution extremely tedious and highly regulated.

“The way it is fished, the way it is stored on the boat, the way it is received at the dock, the way that it is transported to the market – there are a lot of opportunities for bad things to happen,” Swift says. “Anything you can do to shorten that distance from the hook to the restaurant is going to be less detrimental for the fish.”


Nick Carpenter Reeling In Relationships

Georgia-based seafood distribution companies use Georgia’s strategic location between the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico to provide chefs with fresh, locally caught products. Local chefs work directly with an assigned distribution representative, who works tirelessly to fulfill the high standards of Georgia’s demanding and competitive market. These representatives take some of the load off of a chef ’s plate and have to be familiar with their client’s menu, clientele and flow of business.

Distribution representatives are often the determining factor when it comes down to what varieties of fresh seafood are being sold at different restaurants. These representatives are often in charge of selecting and ordering the right amount of products based on their client’s flow of business to prevent financial and physical waste.

Nick Carpenter, executive chef and general manager of Atlantic Seafood Company in Alpharetta, has used the same distributor for more than four years and has had the same representative since the beginning. “My rep knows the high standards of my restaurant, and if he has something new for me he doesn’t even mention it until he has done the research and seen the product in person,” he says. “He knows not to waste my time.”


Sharking the Competition Native Seafood

The rise of chef-driven restaurants seeking the freshest wild-caught seafood has captured the attention of many entrepreneurs, who are taking a different approach to the increase in supply and demand. These independent contractors are seizing this opportunity to make a profit by driving from coastal regions with their own selection of unprocessed, wild-caught seafood and knocking on the doors of kitchens across the state.

Timmy Stubbs is the sole owner and operator of Native Seafood, a company he founded in 2015 in his hometown of Brunswick. Timmy is a third-generation commercial fisherman; his grandfather was the Harbormaster of Brunswick, and he followed in his family’s footsteps out of high school. He says the fishing culture has changed over the years, which is partly why he decided to start his own independent operation.

“I was working on a contracted shrimping boat in the late ’90,” says Stubbs, “They gave us a supply of boxed powder and directed us to put it on the shrimp after they were caught to help preserve the freshness of the product. We did not know what the powder was made of, but it would burn our nostrils, give us headaches and make it difficult for us to breathe. I knew that consumers were seeking out fresh shrimp and had no idea about this process. To me, fresh means an untampered product, which is not always the case.”

In part because of these preservation methods, Stubbs left the shrimping industry for more than 10 years. It was not until 2011 that he began driving his truck loaded with coolers of freshly caught, head-on Georgia White Shrimp to Atlanta.

“There was some trial and error involved early on, but the response was overwhelming.” says Stubbs. “I only buy the highest quality shrimp, and it has to be frozen immediately on the boat after it is caught. With my shrimping experience and connections, I know exactly which boats to buy from and which ones to avoid.”

Stubbs drives his truck once a week from Brunswick loaded with more than 1,000 pounds of shrimp and delivers to more than 50 restaurants in the Atlanta area.

The increase in popularity of the seafood restaurant – and a renewed dedication to sustainable seafood – is not due solely to the local chefs creating imaginative dishes. Rather, it’s a statewide dedication from distribution companies and their representatives and entrepreneurs. And ultimately, the drive comes from consumer demand.


Flavor FlexibilityAtlantic Seafood Company

Atlantic Seafood Company, which has been independently owned and operated in Alpharetta for more than 10 years, specializes in seasonal market fish. On any given day, diners can find mountain trout, swordfish or atlantic salmon on the menu, and they can choose to have the fish grilled, blackened or cooked à la meunière. The freedom that this provides guests ensures that even those with dietary restrictions will have a satisfying dining experience.

“All of our market fish are popular,” Carpenter says, adding that as the clientele has shifted over the years, guest-menu customization is rapidly becoming important for the center of the plate.

“Lately I’ve had a lot of guests that come in with different dietary restrictions, so we had to make sure to offer them something delicious,” says Carpenter. “I want everyone to be able to come eat at my restaurant.”

As the country shifts toward healthier eating habits, the deep-fried seafood of yesterday is slowly transitioning out of restaurants and is being replaced with healthier options.

While Atlantic Seafood Co. does offer some fried seafood on its menu, for example, the options are reduced to fried shrimp and sea scallops, located beneath dozens of items like pecan-crusted mahi mahi, green chili grouper and spicy shellfish linguine.

“I always try to keep the menu changing. Other seafood restaurants around here are corporately owned and have to stick to their crab cakes and po’boys,” he says. “I like to do something different. We’re trying new things for this area, and we want people to come experience it with us.”

That something different includes one of his latest dishes, Orange-Miso African Prawns, which combines Asian and Southern culture. Lemon-braised rainbow chard sits on top of a crispy shiitake potato cake in a shallow pool of roasted pork belly dashi broth, then is topped with two large African Prawns that are flown in daily.

“I cook with the seasons,” says Carpenter. “I had to take halibut off the menu because it was out of season. It was a popular dish and I could probably still get it, but I decided to replace it with the prawns. The response has been fantastic.”

Highlighting the Half-ShellThe Noble Fin

Both locally sourced and sustainable seafood are top trends for 2016, according to the National Restaurant Association. As part of that trend, oysters are surfacing on menus all across the state.

Carpenter’s menu at the Atlantic Seafood Company showcases oysters from around the country, all arriving fresh and unfrozen. The most popular of his oyster options is “Nick’s Famous Char-Grilled Oysters,” which are shucked fresh and grilled with a cayenne-bacon-butter-chive sauce, topped with parmesan cheese and garnished with rock salt and a lemon wedge.

“I use Chesapeake for my char-grilled oysters. They are clean, big and beautiful,” says Carpenter. “Every oyster has different flavor profiles. The Chesapeake provides a thick enough shell to grill and not lose the crisp natural flavor.”

Noble Fin’s debut menu will consist of a constant rotation of East and West Coast oysters, each delicately prepared to complement the oyster and not overpower the natural flavor.

“We will offer a lot of different flavors with our oysters,” Swift says.“We’ll make our own tartar and cocktail sauces for the more traditional guest, yet offer something different such as garnishes like Jeb’s cucumber granita. We will also have fried oysters, simply because I love them.”

Granita is an Italian-inspired shaved ice that can be crafted with almost any juice or puree. The adaptability of the oyster is unique, and the ability to combine a traditional Italian dessert with the briny flavor of the barnacle is the type of creativity we’re going to see from Georgia chefs a lot more in the coming year.

Like Chefs Swift, Aldrich and Carpenter, it’s time to cut loose the traditional views of seafood and experience the modern taste of freshness with flavors showcasing Georgia’s thriving seafood industry.

 

 

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Gunshow Hosts 3rd Annual “Hired Guns” Series

Thursday, January 7th, 2016

Chefs Kevin Gillespie and Joey Ward of Gunshow are bringing back their “Hired Guns” series for the third year and the lineup is full of great talent. This year’s guest chefs will cook dinner on Sunday and Monday, nights Gunshow is normally closed, with a limited number of tickets sold for each night. Beginning the series is Gillespie’s Top Chef friend and one of DC’s most recognizable culinary talents, Bryan Voltaggio.

Voltaggio’s family of restaurants includes VOLT, Lunchbox, Family Meal, RANGE and AGGIO, and is a collection of experiences from fine dining culinary adventure to casual comforts and grab-and-go. He has won accolades for his ability to merge tradition and innovation using fresh, local ingredients.

“I have long admired Bryan’s skills and look forward to having him in the kitchen at Gunshow,” says Gillespie. “I’m really excited about all the chefs who are coming this year. At these dinners, the show is the food. We’re going to be graced with rock-star chefs giving some of their best performances. Make sure you get your tickets to this show.”

“With only 100 guests dining each night, the setting is intimate and will allow the guest chefs more time to mingle throughout the room,” says Ward. “Hired Guns will still present their signature dishes for all guests to sample alongside favorites from the Gunshow kitchen dudes, including Kevin and me.”

Future additions to the “Hired Guns” lineup are:

  • March 13-14, Vishwesh Bhatt, executive chef of Snackbar in Oxford, Mississippi, is coming to town with his French brasserie fare and Creole Southern flair.
  • May 22-23 will bring Brian Baxter from HUSK in Nashville, Tennessee.
  • June 12-13, mark your calendar for Kenny Gilbert of Gilbert’s Underground Kitchen in Fernandina Beach, Florida.
  • Vivian Howard of Chef & the Farmer in Kinston, North Carolina, is lined up for October.

And one more surprise chef!

Hired Guns began in 2013 as a way to lure some of the country’s most talked about chefs to Gunshow for a two-night showcase of their signature flavors and personalities alongside the restaurant’s featured items. For the past two years, this creative collaboration with chefs from around the nation has brought in award-winning talent like Chris Shepherd of Underbelly, John Currence of City Grocery, Joseph “JJ” Johnson from The Cecil, and Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton of Ox.

“Each chef has blown us away with creativity and passion for what they do, bringing their ‘A’ game and inspiring us to match it,” says Gillespie.

 

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2015 GRACE Awards Results

Monday, November 2nd, 2015

The winners of the 2015 Georgia Restaurant Association Crystal of Excellence (GRACE) Awards were announced Sunday, Nov. 1 at The Foundry at Puritan Mill in Atlanta. The GRACE Awards is the Georgia Restaurant Association’s (GRA) annual black-tie gala event honoring Georgia’s restaurant industry. Jim Stacy, host of the Cooking Channel’s “Offbeat Eats” and owner of Pallookaville Fine Foods, served as the Master of Ceremonies and Willie Ziavino & C.O.T Band provided live musical entertainment.

The GRACE Awards are peer-nominated and winners are selected by the GRACE Academy. GRACE winners are presented with crystal works of art created by renowned local artist Hans Godo Frabel. Additionally, a portion of the proceeds from this event goes to the Atlanta Community Food Bank.

“The GRACE Awards is our chance to pay tribute to those who have demonstrated standards of excellence and serve as an inspiration to others in the restaurant industry and our community. On behalf of the organization, I am proud of the members we have and the outstanding accomplishments they make day in and day out,” said Karen Bremer, CEO of the Georgia Restaurant Association.

2015 GRACE Awards Winners:

Lifetime Achievement Award – Doug McKendrick, McKendrick’s Steakhouse

Since its opening in 1995, McKendrick’s Steakhouse has enjoyed continuous success as one of Atlanta’s must-attend restaurants for any special occasion. It has also been rated as one of the coveted few Great Steak Houses of North America ®. McKendrick’s Steakhouse offers classic steakhouse dishes as well as off-menu cuts combined with locally grown fresh produce. It has also been named one of the top steakhouses in Atlanta by Zagat, The Atlanta Journal Constitution, Open Table and more.

McKendrick began his journey in the restaurant industry as the Vice President of Finance at Mimi’s and Max’s Restaurants formerly in the Omni Hotel in downtown Atlanta. Aside from running a successful steakhouse in Atlanta, McKendrick is also involved in organizations including Dunwoody Schools, Wounded Warriors, Camp Twin Lakes and American Cancer Society.

Industry Partner of the Year – The Giving Kitchen

The Giving Kitchen provides emergency assistance grants to those in the Atlanta restaurant community facing unanticipated hardship. TGK offers two types of grants, one covering the basic living expenses of those struggling as well as a grant that matches funds raised by a restaurant team on their behalf.

It all started when Atlanta Chef, Ryan Hidinger, was diagnosed with stage – four cancer in December 2012. Following the diagnosis, the community rallied together to provide love and financial support. What started as helping out a fellow chef in his time of need has evolved into a strong helping hand that takes care of their own. The Giving Kitchen has achieved great success since its inception. They have provided over 250 crisis grants totaling $500,000 for restaurant workers.

Distinguished Service Award – Fifth Group Restaurants

Since 1993, a love of food and desire to share it with the world has guided Fifth Group Restaurants to the success it has today, growing from one restaurant to seven. Its dedication to drive Atlanta’s reputation has led it to provide a superb dining experience, high quality food and a connection to guests that makes them return time and time again. Within the community, they also give back by participating in the Atlanta Community Food Bank’s Hunger Walk/Run as the top corporate sponsor of the event for the past seven years, raising over $250,000.

They are the founder and presenting sponsor of Taste of the Highlands, which benefits Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Sustainability has also been a core value since the beginning, recycling and composting 95% of their product and diverting more than 500,000 pounds of waste destined for landfills annually.

Restaurateur of the Year Award: Small/Independent – Kevin Rathbun, Cliff Bramble and Kirk Parks, Rathbun’s, KR Steak Bar, Kevin Rathbun Steak, Krog Bar

Kevin Rathbun, Cliff Bramble and Kirk Parks have contributed to the Atlanta restaurant scene, starting with one restaurant and growing to four. Kevin Rathbun began working as a dishwasher in Kansas City, working his way up and receiving many awards, ultimately taking his talents to Atlanta where he opened Rathbun’s in 2005. Cliff Bramble has contributed to the hospitality industry for 30 years, at one time owning his own café, and is now the co-owner of Rathbun’s, Krog Bar & Kevin Rathbun Steak. Finally, Kirk Parks discovered his love for the culinary field at an early age and has won many awards such as Baker of the Year in the Southwest region. He is co-owner of Rathbun’s, Krog Bar & Kevin Rathbun Steak as well.

The partnership between Kevin Rathbun, Cliff Bramble and Kirk Parks began in 2004 and continually receives recognition as some of the top restaurants both in Atlanta and the U.S.

Restaurateur of the Year Award: Franchisee – John Silvey, Poultry Partners, dba Zaxby’s

John Silvey has taken his passion for food and serving people through many different roles in the restaurant industry. After 30 years in the industry, he continues to learn and teach others, watching them become successful in their own endeavors. Poultry Partners employs around 50 employees, most of whom have worked with the company for more than 5 years.

Poultry Partners works with several community schools by supporting the students and their athletic programs. They have always focused their community service on the youth and provided food for 600 children in school during the 2014 ice storm. They also actively participate in Kamp Kizzy with Keshia Knight Pulliam, Ne-Yo Compound Foundation and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges. Poultry Partners hires those who share the spirit of community service, which helps continue to make an impact.

Restaurateur of the Year Award: Large/Corporate – Paul Damico, Moe’s Southwest Grill

Based in Atlanta, GA, Moe’s has more than 600 locations across the country. Now EVP and Group President of Focus Brands, Paul Damico first started out in the industry cleaning dishes and helping out with his dad’s catering business. Damico became CEO of Moe’s Southwest Grill in 2008 and then was recently promoted to Focus Brands, focusing on oversight of Moe’s Southwest Grill, Schlotzsky’s Bakery and Café and McAlister’s Deli.

Moe’s has been receiving recognition from national publications such as QSR, Entrepreneur and Nation’s Restaurant News. By continuously evolving the brand, remaining relevant and having a strong team of employees, they are successful in delivering genuinely good food.

ProStart Student of the Year – Heather Bundy, Marietta High School

Now a senior at Marietta High School, Heather joined the ProStart Culinary Team in her sophomore year. Her passion for competing and learning the drive and dedication it takes to be successful in the culinary world are what led her to get involved. While participating in ProStart competitions, she contributes her skills and passion for food to the dessert course for her team.

Heather is now Executive Chef of Devil Rock Café, Marietta’s student-run restaurant and manages 11 students. She also gives back to the community through the Culinary Arts Program and helps prepare food for a local men’s shelter at least once a month along with other culinary events. Her teachers at Marietta High School state that Heather demonstrates the tenacity needed to lead a bright future in the culinary field.

Restaurant Employee of the Year – Chris Gianaras, 4th & Swift

In 2008, Gianaras began as a food runner at 4th & Swift and has moved up through the ranks as the beverage director. As the longest tenured employee in the restaurant, he is responsible for curating the wine, spirit and beer list as well as creating seasonal cocktails that pair well with dishes. Chris has also created his own farm-to-drink movement in conjunction with 4th & Swift’s farm-to-table concept.

What began as a job to help support other goals quickly became more than just a job, but rather a passion. At 4th & Swift, Gianaras is encouraged to be creative and has the freedom to explore new things to incorporate into the beverage menu. The culture and creative liberty has allowed Chris to expand his knowledge and understanding of the industry and bring value. He has a commitment and passion for his work and now has the honor of designing the beverage program for Noble Fin, another one of Jay Swift’s restaurants.

Manager of the Year – Dewey Funna, Hudson Grille Midtown

At Hudson Grille Midtown, Funna manages one of the busiest restaurants in Atlanta, and does it by providing an entertaining, high quality experience and playing an active role in the community. Like many others, Funna began at Hudson Grille in order to pay for his college expenses. He quickly noticed that this industry provided him with so many opportunities. Funna’s peers explain that he exhibits every quality of a successful manager and seeks to gain the respect of those he works around.

Throughout his 20 years in the restaurant industry, Funna has been a server, bartender, bar manager, and hourly manager.

 

 

 

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Cooking Up Creativity

Sunday, November 1st, 2015

Pop-up restaurants take on a new form with Joystick GameBar’s Kitchen Incubation Program

By Alexander Gagnon

Georgia’s culinary scene is presenting unique opportunities for local chefs to showcase their talents in a variety of new and innovative venues. A few years ago, the Food truck phenomenon exploded onto the streets of Atlanta and other cities across the state, reviving the concept of chef-driven restaurants on wheels. These mobile chef experiences continue to thrive with places like the Atlanta Food Truck Park and Market, and now people are wondering, what’s the next big thing to shake up the industry?

Blink and you may miss it: Pop-up chefs are becoming more popular as many local restaurants open their doors for guest chefs to come in and take over their kitchen for an evening, creating a whole new eating experience in a familiar setting.

Joystick GamebarThe Joystick Gamebar on Edgewood Avenue near downtown Atlanta is known for their old-school arcade ambiance, craft beverage program and overall friendly neighborhood vibe, what many do not realize is they are setting the standard for an entirely new interpretation of the pop-up. Joystick opened its doors three years ago with a very limited food menu consisting of common bar snacks. The owners Johnny Martinez and Brandon Ley knew that Joystick’s kitchen was not living up to its full potential and decided they had to make a change. This realization motivated them to start inviting local chefs to come in a few nights a week to create nightly menus for the Gamebar’s hungry patrons.

“We realized that the short-term pop-up was not a permanent fix to our food problem, so we had to come up with a creative solution,” says Ley.

Brandon and Johnny were inspired by the success of Atlanta’s Fox Bros Bar-B-Q and their humble beginnings serving pulled pork sandwiches out of the back of Smith’s Olde Bar. They realized that Joystick’s kitchen could provide a comfortable, fail-safe environment for chefs to experiment and build their culinary portfolio. With this thought in mind, they transformed the idea of the traditional pop-up and created Joystick’s acclaimed Kitchen Incubation Program. This creatively named program allows chefs to take residency in the Joystick kitchen for a one- to two-year term, in which they are given the freedom to create their own menu without corporate interference.

“It’s hard to get your start in this industry,” Martinez says. “It takes luck, it takes planning, and if you have a little help it can go a long way.”

The first participant of their Kitchen Incubation Program was husband and wife team Chef Steven Lingenfelter and Laurie Dominguez of Illegal Food. Their residency at Joystick started as a short-term pop-up, but with the success of their menu and the couple’s dedication they decided to extend their stay. During their time at Joystick, Illegal Food evolved from a locally known eatery into a culinary destination. Illegal Food’s popularity boomed when they were voted Best Burger in Georgia from Business Insider.

“Our time with Illegal Food was a big educational experience for both of us. We learned something new every day,” say Ley and Martinez. “We were honestly surprised by the success of Illegal Food. Once they were awarded Best Burger in Georgia business doubled almost overnight.”

The Kitchen Incubation Program provided Chef Lingenfelter with the supportive environment he needed to jumpstart his culinary career, and in February 2015, Illegal Food opened its flagship restaurant in the Virginia-Highlands.

Joey ZalinkaThe success of Illegal Food inspired another local chef to take residency in the kitchen in hope of a similar result. Joystick’s kitchen is now home to Chef Joey Zalinka, who has held many reputable chef positions all around the city, including Rathbun’s, 4th & Swift, Café Circa, and the Soundtable. Chef Joey began his residency at Joystick with Junk Food, his years-in-the-making restaurant and pop-up concept. Junk Food’s debut menu consisted of his take on traditional comfort food prepared using groundbreaking techniques and creative plating styles.

“I have run a couple of kitchens around the city, but I will tell you running a Pop-Up is 10 times harder than a regular kitchen. Anyone that thinks that it is glamorous or it’s fun, come wash dishes with me every night,” he says.

Chef Joey’s hard work and dedication of his Junk Food program has now evolved into a completely different entity. Junk Food added Babcia’s Pierogies to its menu this past June, and the Polish dumpling quickly became the highlight of the menu. Babcia’s debut pierogi was made from scratch using all local Georgia ingredients like local potato and Vidalia onion and was served with house-made Clabber cream. The popularity of the handcrafted pierogi was so great that he decided to switch concepts completely.

“The transition from Junk Food to Babcia’s has been really slow moving and organic, he says. “No one else in the city was doing Polish food, and it’s something I have been interested in a long time. I am really diving into the Polish culture.”

Babcia’s now offers a wide variety of flavor-filled pierogis, ranging from six-hour braised Oxtail to a sweeter option chock-full of fresh Georgia blueberries. His pierogis are served with your choice of six internationally inspired homemade dipping sauces for a combination of cultural flavors you can’t find anywhere else. Chef Joey is escalating the small kitchen’s potential and is now offering Polish sausages that are made and smoked inhouse.

Babcias “There is a traditional Polish element to my pierogis, but I am using Georgia ingredients to create a flavor and texture you can’t get anywhere else, he says. “Even the flour is milled in Georgia. There is nothing else like it.”

Joystick’s Kitchen Incubation Program provides its residents with unparalleled flexibility like no other kitchen program in Atlanta.

“We like food with attitude,” Ley says. “Illegal Food had it, and now Babcia’s is taking a new punk approach to classic Polish cooking. We couldn’t be happier with the change, it is more fitting for us.”

Chef Joey says he’s had an amazing experience at Joystick and he’s so grateful to be a part of the program. The ability to completely change the direction of a kitchen mid-season is something that he could have not done anywhere else in the city. This type of kitchen program encourages creativity through mutual trust and lack of restrictions. Chefs are able to focus on the type of food they are most passionate about, and it can be tasted in every bite.

Chef Joey plans on opening Babcia’s Polish Food in his own location whenever his residency is finished. The kitchen program has given him the necessary tools to move into a new location and be ahead of the game by having an established menu, a cult following and the reputation to be successful. The opportunity that Joystick GameBar is offering local chefs is surely setting a new standard for kitchen programs in Atlanta, and the owners hope that other restaurants will follow in their footsteps with a similar service for the chef community.

With the success of Illegal Food and the popularity of Babcia’s steadily growing, there is no reason why other restaurants should not attempt their own version of the Kitchen Incubation Program to continue progressing Atlanta’s exciting culinary future.

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