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Sara Levine

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Top Chef kickoff: interview with Kevin Gillespie of Woodfire Grill

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Three
years ago, Atlanta native Kevin Gillespie returned home from a stint in
Oregon to work under Michael Tuohy at Woodfire Grill. Then last year,
his mentor took off for California and Gillespie was tapped to take
over the kitchen. Now he’s on every Atlanta foodie’s radar as a young chef
to watch. Beginning tomorrow night, viewers nationwide will be watching him compete as one of three Atlanta chefs on Top Chef Las
Vegas. With the season’s premiere episode just around the corner—it
airs on Bravo on Wednesday at 9 p.m.—Gillespie caught up with Sara Levine about his experience as a cheftestant.

Who were some of your favorite cheftestants in previous seasons of Top Chef?

I
think that everyone in Atlanta pulled for Blais, but that is about it.
I haven’t really watched it previously, with the exception of a few
episodes.

What inspired you to go on the show?

I wanted to
challenge myself more than ever. I really enjoy competition and I felt
that this gave me an opportunity to grow as a chef.

Did you do anything in your kitchen to practice or prepare for challenges before going to Vegas?

Not really. I felt like it was only appropriate to show up and cook
the way you always do. I didn’t have much interest in grooming myself
to only be successful for the set of circumstances that I assumed would
be present on the show. It seemed like more fun, and more challenging,
to be more natural about it.

You have to be pretty secretive when you’re off competing
on the show—were you allowed to tell your kitchen crew you were going?

Unfortunately, no. I had to instead come up with a pretty elaborate lie and stick to it.

Did the three chefs from Atlanta stick together during the competition?

As
much as would be expected. At the end of the day it is still a
competition and we each wanted to win, but I still think we had each
other’s backs.

Did you know any of the non-local chefs prior to the show? Do you think you’ll keep in touch with the chefs you met?

I
didn’t know any of the other chefs personally. After a short period of
time I realized that I knew of several of them through other people.
It’s kind of a small world in our industry. I’m sure we will keep in
touch.

Was the competition harder than you expected?

The
competition was significantly harder than I expected. It has seemed to
me that with the exception of a few individuals, many of the other
seasons didn’t have the caliber of chefs that this one does. I think
people will be able to see that.
 
Where was your first cooking job in Atlanta?

My
first cooking job in the city was working for the Ritz-Carlton. I
started at the bottom and eventually worked my way up. It was a great
learning experience.

You mention in your Bravo bio that hot wings are your favorite junk food. Where are your favorite wings in Atlanta?

My favorite wings are usually the ones I make myself, but I do enjoy the wings at Mo Joes in south Atlanta.

Are you excited to see yourself on national TV? Where will you be watching the season premiere on August 19?

I
actually had no desire to watch myself on television, but soon realized
that I probably should, just to be able to help remember. I think that
after work that night, myself and my kitchen team will be watching it
at my sous chef’s house.

Can we expect any Top Chef-inspired menus in the future at Woodfire Grill, featuring dishes you cooked on the show?

I
doubt it. I change Woodfire’s menu every day, so I probably won’t ever
replicate any of the show’s food here. At the same time, I cooked the
same way on the show that I do in real life, and people will be able to
have that anytime.

Top Chef kickoff: interview with Eli Kirshtein of Eno

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At 25, Eli Kirshtein of Midtown’s Eno restaurant is the youngest cheftestant in Top Chef’s
accomplished lineup this season. An Atlanta native, Kirshtein’s first
cooking job was at Buckhead Diner at age 16. From there he attended the
Culinary Institute of America and spent time in a number of top-notch kitchens, from New York’s Le Bernardin to Atlanta’s Joël. He worked with Top Chef
alum Richard Blais for six years, and the two chefs remain
close—Kirshtein was best man in Blais’s wedding and is godfather to his
daughter. Advice from this particular mentor—season two’s
runner-up—came in handy when Kirshtein was selected to compete on
Season Six in Las Vegas. We’ll have to wait until the show airs on
August 19 to see how he fares in challenges, but he recently took a
break from the kitchen to talk Top Chef with Sara Levine.

When did you get into watching Top Chef?

I
started watching Season One, and then I had a good friend on Season Two, Marcel. He did really well. Hung [winner of season three] is also
a buddy of mine. And then of course I watched when Blais was on—I was
the best man in his wedding, I’m godfather of his kid. It’s one of
those things where previously I had never seen brilliant
executive chefs on the show and never thought it was a great career
step, but then I saw what it did for him. I didn’t watch Season Five
because I had bad feelings about what happened to Blais on the show.

What advice did Blais give you before you went to Vegas?

He
gave me a little advice about just how to keep myself mentally calm,
support myself, how to work with others. It was more philosophical
stuff than actual clues about how to do the challenges.

Did you do anything to prepare or practice before the show?

I
did some prep sessions over at the Flip kitchen with Blais. He’d give
me Quickfires and things like that. The other owners of Flip were there
too, and we’d see what we could come up with.

Did the three Atlanta chefs bond while competing?

Definitely.
When we got there, I knew Kevin [Gillespie], he and I are great social
friends prior to the show happening. I’ve known Hector [Santiago] for a
long time, too. We’re all previously
friends—two weeks before going we’d done events together even. There
was definitely camaraderie. Kevin and I worked together at Two Urban
Licks, so we can relate back to going through the war.

Were there any non-local chefs this season who you knew prior to the show?

There was a lot of two-degrees-of-separation there. One guy, Mike Isabella, was chef
de cuisine at Kyma before going to D.C., so he knows a ton of people
from Atlanta. Jennifer [Carroll] from 10 Arts in Philadelphia, I worked
at Le Bernardin for a little while and she was a sous chef there.

Was there fierce competition and drama, or did the cheftestants generally get along?

I would say that across the board everybody was very professional, gentlemen and gentlewomen. We stayed out of drama, we were all in it together. We wanted people to win and lose based upon the food, not drama or trickery.

How’d you feel when you learned you’d be competing in Vegas?

I
was really excited by the whole thing. I heard rumors through the
grapevine of possible cities—Philly, Atlanta, Vegas. I thought Vegas
was a really exciting prospect because of the food culture. I’d never
been. It’s a cool town, totally service industry-oriented. The
concentration of money and fantastic restaurants, casinos, art and
entertainment…it’s great to visit but I wouldn’t personally want to
live there.

Are you excited or nervous to see yourself on national TV?

I’m
excited. The commercials started airing, so I stayed up late with my
girlfriend waiting for a commercial to come on. I watched an episode of
Miami Social, which was pretty much the worst thing that’s ever
happened to me in my life. But I did get to see a commercial. We
freaked out because it had me talking for like two seconds! My
girlfriend jumped out of bed.

Let’s say, hypothetically, that you won the show and were crowned Top Chef. What do you plan to do with the 100K?

Just get my ducks in a row, sort out all of my personal affairs, take a little time off. Unfortunately, I don’t think you can open your dream restaurant for 100K.

Top Chef kickoff: interview with Hector Santiago of Pura Vida

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For Atlantans, this season of Bravo’s Top Chef will be the most exciting yet. Not one, but three chefs from our city
are among the 17 cheftestants competing in the upcoming Las Vegas
edition. Tied with foodie mecca San Francisco for the most chef
representation, Atlanta will have Hector Santiago of Pura Vida, Kevin
Gillespie of Woodfire Grill, and Eli Kirshtein of Eno to root for.

The show has wrapped and the chefs are all home from Vegas. Before episodes kick off on August 19, Sara Levine sat down to chat with all
three hometown talents. They’re not allowed to give away much about
what happens on the show: Bravo maintains strict codes of silence, so
don’t worry about major spoilers ahead. The chefs don’t even get to see
the show before it airs—they’ll be tuning in with the rest of us on
Wednesday nights.

First up is Hector Santiago, chef/owner
of Pura Vida in Poncey Highland. [Editor’s note: Interviews with Kirshtein and Gillespie will go up on Monday and Tuesday, respectively.] A native of San Juan, Puerto Rico and
a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, he’s been cooking in
Atlanta for 15 years. When the finalists on Top Chef
season four got to travel to his hometown for the finale episode,
Santiago decided that the show might be worth a shot. Earlier this
year, he got a call about competing on season six and was soon enough
on a plane to Las Vegas, knives in tow.

What did you think about competing in Vegas?

I had never been there before the show. To me it’s a little over the top,
you could go to a church and there would be a slot machine in there!
Enough is enough. But I loved the weather—not the heat, but it’s nice
and dry. I can’t wait to go to try all of these amazing restaurants that we saw there, I want to go back to eat. I’m not a big gambler.

Did you originally try out for Top Chef at one of the Atlanta casting calls?

I
was actually recruited through a phone call. The casting people from
the production company called on a Friday at like 9, in the middle of
everything. My wife called me and said they were on the phone. To me,
it’s still kind of uncertain how they recruited me. I didn’t go to the
casting call this time but two years ago, in 2007, I had an interview
with them for Top Chef season 4. Maybe it goes back to that, or maybe from customers who sent emails, I don’t know.

Were you a fan of the show in previous seasons?

I
started seeing the show when Richard [Blais] was on. I’ve known him for
some years. We have a mutual respect for each other, he comes to eat
here, I go to eat at his restaurant. We have shared employees, too. I
rooted for him. It’s one of those things where, at the beginning, the
show didn’t have a big reputation, but it started getting better. When
he was there, I was like, maybe I should have gone for it. Then they
went to Puerto Rico, and I wanted to jump out of the second floor!
That’s my hometown. When they called I started thinking about it more.
When you have people like the head of the James Beard foundation as
judges … these kind of things could be good or bad.

Did you, Kevin, and Eli know each other well before the show? Was there camaraderie among the Atlanta chefs?

Eli
I know from back when he used to work with Richard at One Midtown
Kitchen. He comes to my restaurant often. Kevin I met like two weeks
before the show, at an event for the liver foundation. Yeah, from the
beginning we started hanging out together and rooting for Atlanta. We
were proud that we were there, it was pretty cool.

Did you do anything to prepare or practice for the show before going to Vegas?

I
kind of did a little quickfire action, my wife threw me some stuff.
That’s what I do, I cook here at the restaurant and then I go home and
I cook. At 1 or 2 in the morning, I’m cooking dinner. She’d throw me
some curve balls. She cooks, but not professionally. I do most of the
cooking at home, 9 out of 10 days probably. She knows me very well and
knows that timing is always my issue. I cook a lot of slow food but I’m
also a pretty slow cook, so I worked on going faster.

How do you describe your style of cooking?

Fresh,
bold, and at the same time I try to make food that seems very
uncomplicated but it is complicated to make. My food is very complex,
but very clean. To be that clean sometimes involves a lot of time and
complexity. I use as fresh ingredients as possible. It’s Latin American
food by a Latin American chef.

When did Pura Vida open? How long have you lived in Atlanta?

We
opened 2001. I was here in Atlanta in 1995. I worked about 5 years for
Peasant group, a big restaurant group in Atlanta at that time. I was
the chef at one of their restaurants, then
moved to another and opened a steakhouse with them. I was doing
American food and always wanted to do Latin American food. I looked
around and wanted to stay in Atlanta, so I decided to do something.
After a couple of years of looking at what I could do, I opened my
restaurant. I just wanted to make it. I built half of it myself.

What’s next on your plate? Your Bravo bio says that you’re
working on a project about chiles—can you tell me a little about that?

At
one point I was in Spain and over there, people and chefs are really
are curious about studying everything about their products. So I wanted
to do something here, and chiles are the thing I use most in all
of my dishes, they’re used from America down to Chile, and it ties into
my cuisine and what I do. I took this as a study point, now in the last
year or so I’ve picked it up. Now I’m growing chiles on the roof of my
restaurant. I’m coming up with new recipes and new uses, for all
parts of the pepper like the flowers of the chile plant and the leaves,
and how to tame the heat of the chiles.  Right now I’m doing a blog about all of this research, with recipes. Hopefully at some point it will become a book.

Have you seen any of the Top Chef episodes in advance?

I
see what you guys see on TV. The first time the show gets seen, on
Wednesday the 19, I get to see how I look on TV. In the picture on
Bravo’s website I look pretty scary! I won’t be here when that happens,
I’ll probably be at home or at some unknown bar. I’ll be away in a cave
or something watching.

Farewell Post: A Year of Eating Atlanta

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The backstory: I moved to Atlanta twelve months ago, having enrolled in the year-long culinary arts program at Le Cordon Bleu in Tucker. When I decided to leave my magazine job in Washington D.C. for this culinary adventure, my choice of location had some personal motivation behind it. My boyfriend, Zack, was starting his final year of law school at Emory, and we’d spent the past two years shuttling between Atlanta and D.C. to visit each other. When I found an Atlanta outpost of Le Cordon Bleu, it was an easy sell.

As a food writer, diving into a new city and its food scene can be intimidating. When I moved to D.C. after college, I had a leg up—I grew up in the area, and my parents were always eager to try the latest well-reviewed restaurant whenever I came home to visit. I’d read the Washington Post food section and dining reviews religiously since elementary school. I knew a little bit about Atlanta from my visits; we’d enjoyed a few very good meals on those weekends. But the local culinary map was mostly a blank slate for me and I barely knew where to start.

Credit Southern hospitality, if you will, because it wasn’t long before I found myself enamored with a city that’s welcoming and warm, especially to food lovers. It began with a burger. Naturally, I’d been reading up on food in Atlanta, and this very magazine had named Holeman & Finch “new restaurant of the year” in its August ’08 Best New Restaurants issue. So just days after my move, we made our way over. The place was buzzing with energy, and our table of three ordered fantastic cocktails and a full spread of food—perfect steak tartare, pimento cheese, deviled eggs, a pile of fried oysters with scrumptious fried pickles, melt-in-the-mouth pork belly, a skillet of hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and creamy polenta. When our server came by around 10 pm, we were sated and about ready to pay the check. “Have you tried our burger?” he asked. “We only make 30 of them a night, at 10 o’clock. We run out fast—they’re really good.” He seemed earnest, not like a salesman just trying to inflate our check. So we ordered one to split among the three of us—a few bites of beefy dessert (pictured above). The rest is history. Soon I was reading about the H&F burger everywhere, and I was grateful to our server for letting us in on this little secret before the hype intensified.

My year of culinary discovery continued at a quick pace—every week, I was raving about something new—well, new to me. Last fall, my very first post for AtlantaMagazine.com was about Souper Jenny. The Buckhead institution was celebrating its tenth anniversary and I was assigned to write about the festivities, so we went over to the quirky little cafe to see what it was all about. A look around the cramped and cozy space and a smile from the energetic aspiring actress ladling out our steaming bowls of soup, and I was sold. In my pre-culinary school days, turkey chili was one of my only specialties—but a few bites of Jenny Levison’s My Dad’s Turkey Chili was quite humbling.

I’m not particularly religious, but every October, my family fasts for the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur—the day of repentance. Back home, we break the fast with the traditional deli spread of bagels, lox, and the like, but this year I decided to shake things up a bit with a not-exactly-kosher tapas feast at Pura Vida. Our eyes were obviously bigger than our stomachs after this day of starvation, so we ordered just about everything on the menu. I’m not sure anything has ever tasted as good as that first bite of a malanga chip swiped through creamy mushroom dip.

Cakes & Ale is another discovery from Atlanta Magazine’s 2008 restaurant issue that I now count as one of my favorite restaurants anywhere (Bon Appetit thinks so too). I’ve swooned over so many plates here—a rabbit and farro salad, pillowy gnocchi, a top-notch vegetable plate, a snack of rosemary-roasted almonds at the bar. Cakes & Ale is also one of a select group of restaurants  where skipping dessert is just not an option for me. The marscarpone “phatty cakes” are the restaurant’s signature, but if it’s on the menu, figgy toffee pudding is my pick. I’ve sampled several iterations of this dessert around town—Rathbun’s and Floataway Cafe also make commendable sticky toffee cakes—but pastry chef Cynthia Wong’s is in a class of its own. On our first visit, we ordered this to share, but we’d also asked our server about the phatty cakes. With our figgy toffee, she brought out one delicious phatty for us, just to sample. That night, I was blown away by this little act of kindness. The restaurant industry survives on insanely slim profit margins, so giving away freebies is no small sacrifice—yet I’ve come to realize that gestures like this aren’t so rare in Atlanta restaurants. That spirit of generosity is just another reason why I love eating here.

For my twenty-fifth birthday, Zack surprised me with a trip to Bacchanalia (my favorite presents are usually edible). We were seated at a romantic corner table and treated like gold despite the fact that our selection of an inexpensive half-bottle of wine quickly established us as far from high-rollers. Then came the food, which wowed us from the very first bite of an amuse bouche gougere to a rich brown sugar pain perdu for dessert. They sent us home with birthday cupcakes from Star Provisions—not one, but a box of four. I had a s’more flavored one the next morning, the perfect breakfast to help ease me down from my Bacchanalia high.

When family comes to town, for us it means one thing: great meals. Zack’s grandparents are from New Orleans and were foodies long before that term existed, so we wanted to show them some range of what Atlanta has to offer. Our first night’s dinner was at Restaurant Eugene, where the new menu concept is a spectacular showcase for chef Linton Hopkins’s creative, Southern-tinged food. Our out-of-town guests were delighted when Hopkins came by the table (and every table), sincerely asking for feedback on our meal.

The following evening, we were back in Buckhead for an entirely different experience at Bone’s. I likened it to the Palm with real character and better food—we feasted on crabmeat with remoulade, shrimp cocktail, Caesar salad and, of course, red meat. This time it was Zack’s birthday, and when I made the reservation the staff went above and beyond, asking if I wanted personalized menus and decorations. I was more than happy to email them a photo of Zack to grace the menu covers—they turned out adorable and, of course, the grandparents loved them. Several other family members now have copies.

After these two nights of high-end indulgence, we wanted something super low-key for Sunday’s dinner. We ended up taking Zack’s 80-something-year-old grandparents to The Vortex in Little Five Points, where they had a blast noshing on fried zucchini and huge burgers. By the end of the night, his grandmother was taking a shot of whiskey with our server.

With my parents and sister visiting, a trip to Watershed was non-negotiable. My younger sister and I became Indigo Girls fans back when most of our friends were into New Kids on the Block. For years we’d known that Emily Sailers owned a restaurant somewhere near Atlanta. When I moved here, it was one of the first stops on my list. Once, Sailers was hanging out at the bar while Zack and I were having dinner: I’m not usually the celebrity-stalking type, honest, but this was pretty exciting. My Dad actually started singing “up on the watershed, standing at the fork in the road…” as we drove up to the former gas station in Decatur for brunch. Sadly, Sailers wasn’t around that day, but the buttery biscuits, shrimp and grits, french toast, and chicken hash with griddle cakes were more than enough to win my family over.

These are mere snapshots of my year of eating my way through Atlanta. I’d be remiss not to touch upon our regular haunts, like Frank Ma South for Shanghai juice dumplings and always at least one order of dry sauteed green beans—often a weekly occurrence. I’ll miss the friendly little man with glasses who knows our order by heart. I thought D.C. had the best Ethiopian food in this country until I sampled from the beautiful platters of shiro, lentils, tibs and injera at Desta. Antipasto and pizza at Fritti is one of my favorite meals after a long day—and I get to brush up on my Italian by attempting to converse with pizzaiolo Enrico Liberato. I may not always be able to understand everything he says, but his blistered pies are consistently delicious.

A bit further down on North Highland Ave., Zuma is our go-to spot for sushi—it’s not the most mind-blowing sushi bar in town by any means, but the fish is fresh, they stay open late, and for months now they’ve been giving out $10 gift certificates to each diner after every meal. Essentially, it cuts our bill in half, making it much more reasonable for me to get my at-least-once-a-week sushi fix. For lazy brunches, Sweet Melissa’s in Decatur is our place. I love to sit outside year-round and always order the yogurt pancakes with bananas and strawberries cooked in. Zack’s partial to the meat-lover’s Goose’s Delight omelet with a side of cheese grits.

Ahhh, grits. An Atlanta menu staple that I will surely miss—from the miniature cast iron pot of jalapeno grits at BLT Steak to the Flying Biscuit’s super-creamy variety. I’m preparing for grit withdrawal because we’re getting ready to move again…this time to New York. An incredible eating city, to be sure, but I won’t pretend to think it will embrace me with open arms the way Atlanta did.

Although I accomplished a lot of eating this year, I know I’ve barely scratched the surface of what Atlanta has to offer. There are so many places still left undiscovered on my always-growing list: An exhaustive food tour of Buford Highway, a trip to Serenbe, a blowout special occasion at the Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton Buckhead, just to name a few. I’m still  clueless when it comes to the suburbs, and I’m told there’s plenty of good eats out there, too.

We haven’t even left the ATL yet, and we’re already talking about the food itinerary of our first trip back. Hopefully it’ll be soon—but tonight, we’re off to one last dinner at Cakes & Ale.

Recent Obsessions: Highland Bakery’s Peanut Butter French Toast

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It may have been my most decadent lunch ever, my ultimate plate of guilty pleasure. Yesterday we stopped by Inman Park’s Old Fourth Ward’s sunny Highland Bakery Cafe around 3 o’clock for a late lunch. I browsed the menu of sandwiches and salads, all ready to order the sensible roasted turkey on honey-wheat. Then I turned it over and found the brunch menu.

I’ve always been a serious fan of the pairing that Elvis made famous: peanut butter and banana. If a dessert includes both elements, chances are I’ll order it (and throwing chocolate into the mix never hurts, either). Highland Bakery’s brunch menu offers a breakfasty version of the classic PB&B sandwich—peanut-butter stuffed challah french toast with caramelized bananas. I read that description and was already mentally planning a return for brunch in the near future.

But when our server mentioned that brunch was served all day every day, I took it as a sign. So what if I’d probably need a nap afterward and wouldn’t be able to do anything productive for the rest of the day? That peanut butter french toast was calling my name.

Soon, a mammoth french toast sandwich arrived on my plate. The extra-thick slices of challah are encrusted with bran flakes—providing great crunch—and smeared with a layer of “real” peanut butter, the natural stuff that tastes like pure peanuts. Caramelized coins of banana are strewn all over the plate, and the whole thing is drenched in maple syrup. Anyone who could finish this dish on their own is truly commendable.

I made what I thought was a pretty good dent in it, but still left with a family-sized portion in my doggie bag. Fortunately, this french toast re-heats surprisingly well—and makes an unparalleled late-night snack.

Highland Bakery, 655 Highland Ave NE; 404-586-0772; highlandbakery.com

 

Opening Soon: The Yogurt Tap

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Walking around in downtown Decatur on a recent blazing hot July afternoon, I made a beeline when I spotted signage for The Yogurt Tap, a new frozen yogurt shop that Micropundit put on my radar a couple of weeks ago. Sadly, there was still butcher paper up on the windows in the former Houseworks space on Church street, and I peeked inside to find a contractor hard at work on the unfinished space.

I was, however, able to chat with owner Lindsey Phillips, a stay-at-home mom who’s opening the shop with her husband, Stanford. The pair decided to get into the yogurt business after a trip to visit family in Los Angeles, where Pinkberry-mania has spawned numerous imitators. They ended up taking a month-long yogurt tour around California and returning home to Atlanta with lots of ideas.

The Yogurt Tap will offer tart-style yogurt—the kind that “actually tastes like yogurt, not like TCBY,” says Phillips. The most unique aspect of this addition to the yogurt scene? It’s all self-serve. The Yogurt Tap will offer six flavors at a time and a full bar of toppings; customers fill cups to their desire and pay by weight, 39 cents per ounce. Phillips says the original tart will be a staple, along with rotating flavors including dark chocolate, pineapple, green apple and strawberry.

Phillips expects to be open for business by the end of next week, after a few days of friends-and-family tastings.

The Yogurt Tap, 419 Church St., Decatur; theyogurttap.com

Q&A with pastry queen Heather Hurlbert

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Last week in Orlando, the American Culinary Federation held the final round of its competition for National Pastry Chef of the Year, and local chef Heather Hurlbert brought the title home to Atlanta. Hurlbert has worked in restaurants, hotels and country clubs in the Atlanta area since 1996—she’s currently executive pastry chef at the Cherokee Town & Country Club. Just back from her big win, Hurlbert talked with Sara Levine about the competition and all things sweet.

How did you originally enter into the running for the title of National Pastry Chef of the Year?

You have to first be nominated, and I was nominated by my boss Kevin Walker, the executive chef [at Cherokee]. He actually won the national competition two years ago for Chef of the Year. Once you get nominated, you compete on the regional level. I competed against two other pastry chefs for the Southeast title, one from Florida and one from North Carolina. That was back in April in Charlotte. We had one hour to make one hot dessert, four plates. Once you win that regional title, obviously you get to move on to the national. I competed against three other chefs, winners from the other regions—Northeast, Central and West.

Is there any kind of prize that goes along with the win?

You know, I actually don’t know! I think it’s just the bragging rights to have that national title. I don’t go into these competitions for any prize or monetary reward, I’m just trying to have fun and try to push myself to see how far I can go and better myself.

What were the desserts you prepared for the judges in the finals?

For the national level, you have to do a hot dessert and a cold dessert, 6 plates of each. And you have to do a cake or a torte. You have three hours to cook and half an hour to set up. One of the desserts has to have Splenda—they’re a huge sponsor of the ACF conferences and conventions. I decided to use it in my torte, which was kind of a play on a black forest cake. Classically, it’s vanilla, chocolate and cherry. I wanted to use seasonal fruits in all of my desserts, so in the torte I used Bing cherries. I twisted it a little bit using Thai basil with my vanilla and star anise with my cherries. I used classical flavors but with a little bit of a twist. I called it a Vanilla Basil Bavarian with Chocolate Cake and Bing Cherry Gelee. I think it had about 7 different components and layers, and mind you it’s all sugar-free!

For the cold dessert I did a cinnamon custard layered with oatmeal crumble for a little bit of a crunch, with a caramelized glaze made with fresh peaches and raspberries. It also had a layer of fresh ginger panna cotta, and a kind of bruleed caramel layer, which comes out like a little caramel disk on top.

For the hot dessert, during the three hours I made a puff pastry dough from scratch, which adds higher, more difficult techniques that they factor into your score as well. It’s important just to show that you are able to do them. I filled the puff pastry with lemon curd and served it with a warm local strawberry compote, frozen yogurt, and garnished it with passion fruit tapioca.

What was the most stressful moment of the competition?

It ran fairly smoothly. In any competition, you don’t know if the ovens are calibrated correctly, they bring in different types and they’re brands you’ve never heard of, they may be the new item on the market. They have to train you how to work some of these ovens. That was an issue that I had to take on, and the one I was working with was running a little bit hotter. You have to adjust, you go into any competition having to think about that. Also my freezer, it wasn’t very cold. So what I did was, I always take dry ice. You can make a dry ice freezer and it will always set up and freeze instantly. I prepared ahead of time, knowing the issues that may be presented.

How did you prepare and practice before going to Florida?

It helps that they give you requirements that you can think through. I wanted to do it seasonally and use fruits that were fresh right now and in peak season. That’s how I first thought about putting desserts together, I also wanted to think locally. I have a farmer that I work with so I’m able to get fresh peaches, fresh strawberries. I think I practiced at least 25-30 times before going to Florida. Setting up, doing a practice run-through, cleaning up—it takes a good 7-8 hours of your day. I practiced every day.

Will you add any of the desserts you created for the competition to your menu at the club?

I probably will, but maybe without some of the elements. A dessert you do for a competition is a bit different from a plated dessert that you’re going to serve on your menu and that your cooks will have to execute. Some of those desserts I have done, or I’ve done a twist on some of those things. While I was practicing, I did put some of it on the dining room menu so I could practice it every day.

Do you watch cooking competition shows on TV, like Top Chef and Food Network Challenges? Would you ever want to compete on TV?

Some of them add a little too much drama for sensational value, I think. I do watch those sugar and chocolate and cake shows, and I definitely understand the pressure that they go through. I haven’t gone on one of those Food Network shows, I was actually asked a couple of years ago but I had a knee injury so I had to back out. I think those are really fun to do and I would definitely say yes.

Where have you worked previously in Atlanta?

I’ve been in Atlanta since ’96. I’m from Pennsylvania and have worked other places, but in Atlanta the longest. I left for two years and worked in Pittsburgh, and then came back. I worked at Blue Ridge Grill, was pastry chef there for a little while, and a lot of clubs—Atlanta Athletic Club, Piedmont Driving Club, the Four Seasons. I’ve worked at hotels, clubs, and restaurants here and elsewhere. I think country clubs allow me to be more creative, you get to work in other areas you may not in restaurants. We make breads, wedding cakes, grooms’ cakes; we do high-volume banquets and have multiple outlets rather than just one kitchen. I like having that variety. One day I may be just making truffles and candies, rather than just doing plated desserts all the time.

What’s your personal favorite dessert?

I love ice cream, I love making it and eating it. 

Are you a chocolate or fruit-based dessert person?

That’s a hard one. I’d probably have to say chocolate. I can never say no to chocolate.

What other pastry chefs around town do you admire? Do you always order dessert when you go out to eat to see what others are doing?

Kathryn King over at Aria, I think she’s fantastic. I love her desserts because they’re simple and seasonal, clean in flavor, she’s not fussy with garnishing. I really like desserts that are approachable, easy to eat.

Do you bake at home? Cook?

Not really. I have a culinary degree, and I do cook at home. It’s a little different from what I’m doing at work, so it’s a stress reliever. If I have to bake I feel like I’m working.

How did you first get into pastry?

I started my pastry career at the Atlanta Athletic Club. They have their own pastry shop and I loved what they were doing. I’ve been studying art since I was 8 years old, and I thought, a lot of this is very artistic and very creative and hands-on. I thought, maybe I can work part-time and learn the basics of pastry. I think every hot foods chef should do that anyway, just to be more well-rounded. I was able to learn so I started doing that part-time and it was kind of an easy transition for me, I really really enjoyed it. They were doing gingerbread for a Christmas display and I found it fascinating how they were able to make this edible structure out of sugar and cookie dough and chocolate. That’s what really struck me about pastry—how artistic and creative you can be.

Drinks at DBA

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When I think of beverages to serve with barbecue, the obvious—cold beer—usually comes to mind. I’ve yet to sample any ‘cue at the new DBA Barbecue in Virginia-Highland, but I’m already a fan of the drinks. The other night after a home-cooked dinner, a friend and I went for a walk into the Highlands and, having worked up a sweat in this balmy weather, decided to grab a refresher. We passed El Taco, where crowds were two-deep at the bar for margaritas, and settled on the laid-back patio at DBA next door—the hostess said we were welcome to sit out there just for drinks. DBA has plenty of beer selections—Abita, Sweetwater and Terrapin on tap; lots of craft bottles—plus a full wine list, but the intriguing cocktails got our attention.

I can’t remember the last time I had a wine cooler, but perhaps they should come back in style, because DBA’s house-made ones are perfect for summer. The menu says “think Southern sangria”—a fitting description, except that there’s no fruit floating around in the glass. We sampled and enjoyed both varieties, peach-orange and pomegranate-raspberry. Just slightly sweet, they were extremely refreshing and still packed a little punch.

We were perusing the list for our next drink orders—spiked root beer or pickled moonshine martini?—when one of the owners, Matt Coggin, brought over tastes of their pineapple-infused moonshine. DBA doesn’t distill the alcohol—it’s Junior Johnson’s—but it is house-infused with fruit for several weeks. After finishing off the surprisingly sippable 80-proof shooters, we didn’t need another drink after all. Since I’m pretty much incapable of visiting a restaurant without sampling something from the kitchen, we ordered some boiled peanuts to snack on. They were well-seasoned and came in a cute tin pail—needless to say, it was soon empty.

Dining with Dad

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Last month, I put together a short list of foodie gift ideas for Mother’s Day. All of them should also work for the foodie Dad—I’ve never bought into the theory that women love chocolate more than men! But if your Dad is anything like mine, the special events of the day should revolve around eating (and golf, but that’s not exactly my area of expertise). Here are a few food-centric Father’s Day events happening around town this Sunday if you’re looking for something a bit more unique than a prix-fixe brunch menu.

Steak dinner plus a gift?

If Dad requests red meat for his Father’s Day meal, a pricey steakhouse dinner may preclude any gift you were thinking of buying him this year. But head to Chops this Sunday and Dad can have it all. The Buckhead power spot is giving all fathers a gift bag from the luxe Grooming Lounge—and it’s not just a bunch of throw-away product samples. A gift certificate entitles him to a complimentary haircut, hot lather shave, or “quick fix” facial (all retail for $50). Even if Dad’s haircut normally costs $8 at the local barber, a trip to the spa-like, men-only Grooming Lounge—where haircuts include drinks and a scalp massage—will be a relaxing treat.
Chops Lobster Bar, 70 West Paces Ferry Rd.; 404-262-2675; www.chopslobsterbar.com
Grooming Lounge, 3280 Peachtree Rd. NW; 404-467-7766; www.groominglounge.com

Eat for charity

Real Men Cook is a national movement with charity events all around the country on Father’s Day. Here in Atlanta, 100 men will be cooking for an estimated crowd of 3,000 from 3 to 6 p.m. at the Georgia Railroad Depot. It’s too late to sign up to cook on Sunday, but maybe Dad will be inspired to show off his signature dish next year: each man prepares 200-300 sample-sized servings to feed the crowd. Proceeds from ticket sales ($20 for adults; $10 for kids) go to several worthy causes including Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the YMCA, and Real Men Charities, Inc. Further inspiration? President Obama has participated in Real Men Cook events several times and wrote the foreword to the organization’s cookbook.
65 MLK Jr. Drive. 404-344-8496. www.realmencook.com

Sports, beer, and good views

This Sunday’s special brunch at the Westin’s Sun Dial restaurant may very well combine three of Dad’s favorite things: sports, food, and beer. The rotating restaurant is located on the hotel’s top floor, so great views of Atlanta’s skyline are a given. For Father’s Day, the 72nd floor becomes a “club house” where Dad can act like a kid again and get up from his pulled pork benedict with barbecue-spiced hollandaise to watch sports, practice his shots on a putting green, or challenge fellow diners to a game of Wii. There’s also a complimentary Sweetwater Brewery beer tasting, and beer pairings are just $5 extra if you splurge for the $40 3-course brunch.
Sun Dial Restaurant, 210 Peachtree St.; 404-589-7506; www.sundialrestaurant.com

Golf and (free!) brunch

Here’s one for you, fellow children of golf fanatics. Turns out, Dad might skip the greens this Sunday, opting for a comfy seat near a TV instead—the final round of the U.S. Open is on that afternoon. Take him to Stats, where plenty of the 70 high-definition screens will surely be airing the tournament. Come early, because from 11 a.m. to noon, Dads eat free as long as you purchase another entree. After brunch, Dad can stay right in his seat and relax—the round starts at 1:30 on NBC. Make an afternoon of it with beers (some tables have personal taps) and spiffed-up bar snacks like spicy grilled cheese wedges with tomato bisque “dip”.
Stats, 300 Marietta St.; 404-885-1472; www.statsatl.com

Hot dogs and home cooking

Show off your culinary prowess and make dinner for Dad this year. He might even want to come shop for ingredients with you if you’re heading to the Briarcliff Whole Foods—a hot dog cart will be set up outside the store all afternoon (1 to 4 p.m.) and the first 30 Dads who show up get a free one. It’s probably a treat he doesn’t get to indulge in very often, and given that it’s Whole Foods, I’m betting that these dogs are free of bad-for-you nitrates. So grab a snack, then troll the market together for the makings of your Father’s Day feast.
Briarcliff Whole Foods, 2111 Briarcliff Rd. NE; 404-634-7800

Anne Quatrano dishes about Abattoir and the future

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Anne Quatrano is the talented chef behind Bacchanalia, widely considered Atlanta’s best restaurant. In late May, she and her husband, fellow toque Clifford Harrison, added Abattoir to their small local empire (they also own Quinones at Bacchanalia, an intimate restaurant-within-a-restaurant; the adjoining gourmet market Star Provisions; and Floataway Cafe in Virginia-Highland). Instead of $75 prix-fixe menus a la Bacchanalia, the new spot features rustic dishes meant for sharing, and many cost less than $10.

Their first “from scratch” opening in a decade (Quinones was added to Bacchanalia in ’05), Abattoir showcases the nose-to-tail cooking that Quatrano and her staff have become passionate about. They couldn’t have dreamed up a more fitting location: The restaurant is housed in a former meat-packing plant just down the road from Bacchanalia. This is the place to get adventurous and sample some offal, though Quatrano assures that even vegetarians can eat happily there.

This week, Quatrano took a break from her crazy-busy schedule—she’s been working days at Bacchanalia and nights at Abattoir—to chat with Sara Levine about her newest venture. She even hinted at another to come. Lucky for us, she’s not into the national-expansion thing, so the next opening will be here in Atlanta in the not-too-distant future.


Can you tell me a little bit about the inspiration behind Abattoir?

The idea first came to us about four years ago. These past four years we’ve been really focusing on the utilization of whole animals—we developed a charcuterie program here at Bacchanalia and started doing more terrines, pig’s feet, [using] pig’s heads…we really spent a good amount of time and energy on it. My staff, one of them being Joshua Hopkins, who is now our executive chef and partner at Abattoir, really were instrumental in that program. We put in a $40,000 aging facility for our charcuterie…and as a result, I’m not even exaggerating, 80 percent of the people who want to work here want to work in the charcuterie department. Chefs and cooks are really excited about this and want to learn how to do it. We thought that the public would be into it, too.


Did the idea or the location—a former meat-packing plant—come first?

The space became available and I started speaking to [the White Provisions building management] about 18 months ago, signed the lease a year ago. We always knew we wanted meat and protein to be a focus and because the space was a slaughterhouse, it really seemed to fit nicely into what Josh, Clifford and I wanted to do. The restaurant is actually where the cattle ramp was, where they drove the cattle in from. It made sense to us to have a meat restaurant. Many have pushed us to do a steakhouse, but I don’t think that the days of the high-end steakhouse are really viable. I don’t want to be a Bones or a Chops, they do a great job and I don’t think there’s room for another one like that. Something that’s quite a bit less expensive, with a broader menu, serving things that are interesting and people dig—I think there’s room for that.


How did Joshua Hopkins get involved in the project? Has he been working with you for a while?

Clifford and I are 50 now—we love the restaurant business and we want to continue to do it with people who, you know, are not 50. So when we find chefs like Josh who are energetic and have our work ethic and love it and get it, we want to do it with them. Josh has been working for us five years, and he has been chef de cuisine at Bacchanalia for four. He’s 36. He’s from Atlanta, his family’s here, he is so enthusiastic and really loved the meat concept, and the space loved the meat concept too.

It’s been a long time since you opened a brand-new place—how has this been different from the last time? Any lessons learned in the past that made this opening run more smoothly?

We opened Quinones in 2005, and although we did build a new kitchen and that new dining room, it wasn’t building from scratch. We moved Bacchanalia [from Buckhead to Howell Mill Road] in ‘99 and opened Star Provisions—that was a huge move. We opened Floataway in ’98. Those were two really hard years there. So it’s been ten years. There’s a lot to think about when you open a new place, but I have an amazing staff—I should say it like 100 times. I have people who are committed to this business and to us and our food, so it was not nearly as hard as it could have been. I am a detail-oriented person but I couldn’t have gotten all of the details together without all of these people. Kitchen staff from Bacchanalia would come over here to Abattoir after they finished service and spend 3-4 hours of their own time here to make sure we were okay. That’s how committed they are.

How do you think Atlantans are responding to “nose-to-tail” cooking? Are people ordering the more adventurous dishes from the “offal” section of the menu?

The menu, I was counting it the other day, it’s biggest menu we’ve ever worked with—48 items. Maybe 15 involve anything that is slightly unusual. But yes, that section is huge. We sell a ton of sweetbreads, both veal and lamb. We sell out lamb kidneys whenever we put them on the menu. It’s not easy to get these things, with only two in an animal! I think we’re attracting a certain type of person who wants to try that, but they’re also bringing their friends and family who maybe don’t and they also have lots of options. A vegetarian could definitely eat here…there’s like 10 items just in our vegetable section and it keeps growing because we’re in our summer produce. We’ve had more than a few vegetarians here so far, actually.


Does any of the meat come from Summerland Farms, where you live?

Up until now, we have not slaughtered any of our animals. They come from other people, local farms. I think we are going to start raising pigs this year though, that’s our plan. We wanted to make sure we had someplace to slaughter them that we liked, that did it the right way. Raising them is the easy part. There are two places that are near us up in Cartersville that we think would work.

How often are you in the kitchen at Abattoir? Did you and Hopkins work together in creating the menu?

We’ve worked together in creating menus for five years, so I think we’ve got it down and know what each other likes. Almost for a year, maybe longer, we’ve been trying out dishes at Bacchanalia. Josh is an incredible chef so it wasn’t hard. I am at Abattoir every night for now—I will probably devote my nights there for a year, to get it running smoothly. The ultimate plan is three nights at Bacchanalia and three at Abattoir. For now, I work during the days at Bacchanalia. Clifford is everywhere but at night he runs the kitchen at Floataway.


Plans for Abattoir obviously began before the economy took its turn for the worse, but it is at a price point (nothing on the menu over $20; a lot under $10) that works in these tight times. Was that the original plan?

I think that we always thought this would be our most reasonably priced restaurant. Prices are low but they’re also sharing portions—they’re not huge, they’re small portions of really great food meant to be shared and enjoyed together. We certainly didn’t know what was going to happen this year. I’m not even sure if we would have opened if we’d known in advance! Thankfully, it’s been very busy.

What’s your favorite thing on the menu?

I really love the burger. I love a hamburger and ours is pork and beef—we salt it and vacuum-seal it so it self-cures. It’s this little firm, moist patty—well maybe not so little, it’s 8 ounces, and it stays nice and pink on the inside. It’s like something between a sausage and a burger. I just think it’s great. There few times I’ve had that I’ve actually gotten to sit down and eat, I’ve had [the burger twice] and thought that they were the bomb. We eat in the back, on the porch out by the dumpsters!


What chefs, local or otherwise, have inspired you in your career? Are there any restaurants that inspired Abattoir?

I worked under Judy Rodgers at Zuni Cafe in San Francisco for two years, and I loved everything that was going on there in the mid-80s. I would have to say that Alice Waters was part of my initial culinary education, we did a lot of fund-raising back then and everybody in the area was involved. We raised money for AIDS and I worked with Alice and Judy and others like Joyce Goldstein and Barbara Tropp in those events—it was a great community of great chefs and women chefs. Really unusual in 1984.

I don’t think there’s anything exactly like Abattoir, but definitely restaurants that I like a lot that offer some of the whole-animal items. St. John in London is unbelievably awesome. A16 in San Francisco—Nate [Appleman] has a way with off-parts of the animal that is delicious. A restaurant that’s small and I don’t even know if it is still good is Resto in New York—I just loved the food there too.

Are more restaurant openings in your future? In Atlanta or elsewhere?

I don’t think outside of Atlanta. I really like to be involved in my restaurants, so I’m not interested in doing anything far away. An hour away is enough for me to drive home! I do think there will be more restaurants, probably on this side of town, possibly something very soon. I’m in discussions right now —I can tell you that it will be something real simple and even more casual than Abattoir. It might be in 2009. I guess that’s the MO, you wait ten years and then open two in the same year!

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