Into the Fire - Features - Atlanta Magazine
 
 
 

Into the Fire

We went behind the scenes for twenty weeks as Ryan Turner, Todd Mussman, and Chris Hall transformed the failed glitz of Joël Brasserie into rustic kitsch

Chris Hall’s eyelids droop behind his wire-rimmed glasses. He crosses his brawny arms and lowers his jowl to his chest, dangerously close to nodding off. In the two weeks since his restaurant, Local Three Kitchen & Bar, opened, the chef has averaged 130 hours a week on the job. That’s left five and a half hours a day to sleep, to shower, to remember that his dog, Maxine, is more than a picture on his iPhone. Hall can talk rapid-fire on barely a breath—about Georgia Tech football; bourbon; which Def Leppard album is better, Pyromania or Hysteria. (It’s Hysteria.) But as he sits in one of Local Three’s private rooms for a quiet moment, his words have dwindled to a necessary few.

Local Three, March 2011
Left to right: Todd Mussman, Chris Hall, and Ryan Turner;
photograph by Gregory Miller

The phones at Local Three still aren’t working right. Incoming calls can’t transfer beyond the host stand, and at this point on a mid-December morning, when the prep cooks are chopping butternut squash for soup and servers are sweeping up last night’s crumbs, no one has time to run out and answer it. Ring, ring! Ring, ring! Hall cringes.

“What sort of restaurant can’t pick up their fucking phone? I wouldn’t go there.”

Hall has already threatened to firebomb the president of the phone company’s house and, if he ever sees him, to punch him in the face for good measure. But as he shuffles around the dining room in his kitchen clogs, his vent sounds drained of bile. He feels drained. He sat down not long ago to write the New Year’s Eve menu and struggled to put thought to paper. His creative spark, snuffed. This is what he wanted, right? A restaurant of his own to rule, one that just so happens to have the finest kitchen in the city?

At the end of last June, the kitchen’s much-celebrated occupant, Joël Brasserie, closed, the latest in a line of Atlanta’s fine-dining destinations to vanish. By then, Hall and his partners, Todd Mussman and Ryan Turner, had signed a letter of intent to lease the place. Chefs in town know about this kitchen, tucked inconveniently in the corner of a west Buckhead office complex. They salivate over it. Many of them mastered beef bordelaise over its burners, on a cooking line sixty-two feet long. All in the name of the man who specified its extravagance a decade ago: Michelin-starred chef Joël Antunes.

Though they never headlined the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton in Buckhead, as Antunes did pre-Joël, the resumes of Hall, Mussman, and Turner are nothing for the scrap pile. Hall was sous chef at Canoe, chef de cuisine at 4th & Swift, executive chef at the Sun Dial. Fifth Group alums Mussman and Turner opened Smyrna’s Muss & Turner’s as a gourmet deli in 2005; since then, it’s grown into a full-service local favorite doing its best business yet.

Still, how did a glorified sandwich shop in Smyrna get hold of this thing? And why did these three think they could succeed where one of the best chefs in the world failed?

Yet here is Hall, barely standing upright because Local Three—despite the phone snafus, despite the server slipups, despite starting without a liquor license—has seen more than double the expected revenue in its first week, ringing up close to $60,000. (M&T makes a weekly average of $35,000.) A gratifying start, especially considering all the weeks of arguing over logos, testing pimento cheese recipes, cursing out Coca-Cola, dickering with wine distributors, and translating French instruction booklets for the bread oven.

“I have to remind myself to stop and enjoy it,” says Hall as he takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes. “I’m as sure now as I was then that this will work, and we can create something lasting and worthwhile.”

Longevity is an increasingly rare feat in restaurants these days. Many run into money problems before the doors open, and it can take years of marathon shifts before one claims success. The business can be especially daunting in Atlanta, where diners are still cash-strapped and foodies tend to flit on to the next burger nook or farm-to-table tavern at the drop of a Tweet. In the last year alone, Shaun’s, Craft Atlanta, Dynamic Dish, and, of course, Joël floated up to that big kitchen in the sky. That’s why opening a restaurant has to be a passion project; no sane person would attempt it otherwise.

“There’s nothing more alluring or powerful or cool than the fact that you can control your own destiny,” says Hall. “And no one controls our destiny but us.”

To begin, he and his partners spent five hectic months transforming Antunes’s aloof temple of French gastronomy into a welcoming neighborhood haunt, risking life savings, mortgages, and hypertension along the way. Watching ovenside, you couldn’t help but worry for them, laugh with them—and respect the seven lessons they used to manage it all.

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