Chef life: Atlanta’s new ideas and opportunities

By GABRIEL RAMOS

Creative culinary is constantly on the rise in Atlanta. So are the ways in which highly skilled chefs bring them to the public.

ATLANTA – Executive Chef Walker Brown of Inman Park’s Wisteria Restaurant has been in the industry for 30 years. Having spent most of his career in Atlanta cooking soul food (or as he prefers to call it, ‘Southern inland’), he’s seen the culinary culture change right before his eyes.

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Executive Chef Walker Brown of Wisteria Restaurant begins prep for the dinner shift. Photo taken by Gabriel Ramos March 22, 2016

“I think I was here right at the beginning of it, really, when it started to take off,” Brown said. “I mean, honestly, Harvest, a few places, Dish came after that. There was Indigo, and things were just starting to pop up. Then it was Fritti and Sotto, so there was stuff like that, but not a whole lot. Nava… then you started to see the whole, little small corporations that started, like Concentrics and things like that, but really, the explosion of the whole restaurant business has been in the last, probably fifteen years.”

As the food scene developed, new ideas were assimilated. Locally and regionally-sourced ingredients started making their way to Atlanta tables. Food trucks began popping up around the metro area, and specialty production companies started creating craft foods and distributing to restaurants and health-conscious grocery stores like Whole Foods.

These burgeoning concepts and methods provide for different types of opportunities that were previously unheard of in the area. Fortunately, all you had to do was seek education in cooking, and Atlanta is rife with ways to do so.

Learning the craft

As Atlanta grows in popularity with millennials, so does its restaurant scene. As such, more and more young adults are taking to the kitchen as a career, hoping to learn creative styles.

Culinary, sustainability and hospitality programs are becoming more and more common, with younger programs like Kennesaw State University’s coming up alongside established schools like The Art Institute of Atlanta and Le Cordon Bleu.

Both Christian Rodriguez, culinary director for High Road Craft Ice Cream, and Larissa Johnson, who divides time between Rome’s Charbucks Mobile food truck and the Ritz Carlton’s Buckhead location, trained at Le Cordon Bleu.

“The training was not as stressful as the actual – it did not prepare me for the stress of the career, how about that?” said Rodriguez. “The actual teachings of the school were very good. I learned a lot as far as technique, as far as organization in the kitchen, as far as classic dishes, classic sauces. I learned a ton in culinary school, but I think it’s really difficult to prepare you for the restaurant industry if you haven’t really seen it before then.”

Johnson somewhat agrees. As a pastry chef working for one of the best known corporations in the world, she learned much in school, but more on the job. She didn’t have a large resume, but she said it was her lack of experience that made her attractive to the Ritz Carlton.

“I went to school for cooking, but I went for the full program instead of just making a pastry,” she said, “so I did a few classes, but it wasn’t to a huge extent, just because I knew that once I got out of school it was gonna be really hard for me to find a job where I was at… Fortunately, a lot of the times in a place like (the Ritz Carlton), they like to bring in new people who don’t really know a lot. They can – it’s easier to teach someone new than it is to break old habits. So the chef, she took me in and she taught me basically the foundation work, and from there I’ve been building ever since.”

The case is different with Brown. He grew up in his father’s kitchen, and continued the trade into college and beyond, learning from various mentors along the way in lieu of formality.

“It’s kind of like, you don’t see so much the young group of Americans come in (to the restaurants) to become chefs like you used to,” he said. “It’s now become a very kind of schooling thing, so it’s kind of a perspective I have that might be different from a lot of people’s.”

Different environments and different ideas go hand in hand

Brown, like most chefs, plies his trade in a traditional brick-and-mortar store, where the public becomes accustomed to finding their food in the same location, day in and day out. One of the downsides is that the hours can become hectic due to the fact that cooks work the same hours most people use for leisure.

The time constraints that are part of the reason why Rodriguez prefers his current position as culinary director of an ice cream manufacturer and distributor over the chef positions he previously held in such restaurants as Morningside’s Rosebud (now closed) and Atlantic Station’s Diner.

“It’s still a little bit new for me, but it’s definitely challenging, in a good way,” said Rodriguez, who started with High Road in September. “It’s a nice change from restaurants. I don’t work every weekend. Every once in a while I’ll have to put in a Saturday, a few hours, which is fine, as opposed to being behind the line, grinding through brunch every weekend. It gets old after a while, for sure.”

He said that the opportunity was more appealing to him because it was completely different from being in the kitchen. It provided him with a different type of challenge and a level of autonomy and creativity he just wasn’t going to get under another chef.

For Tristan Brock, leaving the fixed building behind was not just a matter of creativity, but ownership as well. With help from Johnson and others, she saved up $50,000 to found Charbucks Mobile, which specializes in burgers, sandwiches, and fries.

“We own it outright,” she said. “It doesn’t have a lien, so it’s awesome just to know that this is 100 percent ours. It’s paid for, it’s paid in full. Now we just got a couple of little bills here and there, and then watching it take off, get that following, gain loyal customers, it’s awesome.”

Her training was a combination of pastry school at the Virginia College of School and Business in Tennessee as well as on-the-job training at Mellow Mushroom, where she followed corporate techniques and recipes. It was at VCSB that she came up with the idea for a food truck, as part of her education revolved around learning how to make a business model and plan. Eventually, the freedom offered by the truck was too hard to ignore.

For Brown, working in the traditional kitchen isn’t bad. Being an executive chef allows him to use the ingredients he believes are best.

“Another whole part of (the Wisteria) experience to me, a very important part of that experience, is being able to provide something that’s good for our community,” he said. “Something that’s good for them to eat, that’s not processed, and it’s not (chemically-enhanced) or it’s not grown in some way that can be a problem for people. It feels good to be able to provide that to the community as well.”

In addition to providing organic food for customers, his cooking also gives business to farmers in the area who aren’t subsidized by the government, which allows them to make a living off of environmentally sound business practices. It also spreads awareness of flavors and methods that are uniquely Southern.

The future is now – and it’s growing

A recent study by NetFinancials indicated that established restaurants of two years or older had a hard time with sales growth last year, but this had less to do with customer satisfaction and economy as it did with the plethora of new dining options that popped up in 2015. NetFinanicals said that once Atlanta was able to absorb most of these new restaurants, sales would begin to rise again for local establishments.

With the growth comes new ideas, and with new ideas comes new execution. For local chefs, the time is now.

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