Gunter Seeger polarized Atlanta diners from the mid-1980s until he left town in 2009, first at the Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton and then at his eponymous Seeger’s in Buckhead. Some said they had the best meal of their lives at Seeger’s; some couldn’t understand the steakhouse prices for chilly service and stripped down platings of razor clams with lemon zest or slabs of foie gras steamed inside fig leaves.
“I often defended Seeger’s to readers, who found it stuffy and unsatisfying,” wrote former AJC critic John Kessler in 2015. “They also hated the restaurant’s early policy of adding a non-negotiable surcharge for bottled water.” That same year, Kessler said that Seeger’s food “could be nice, but it wasn’t begging to be loved. It wasn’t that sloppy dog kiss of a Holeman and Finch burger.” (This year, Kessler later called Seeger “the best chef I ever reviewed.” Even food writers have a hard time determining how they feel about Seeger.)
Get him or not, Seeger will return to Atlanta on October 26 to cook with Linton Hopkins at an already sold-out dinner at Restaurant Eugene. He hasn’t been back to Atlanta for longer than a day at a time since he left nearly ten years ago, but he’s been watching from afar. “I see there’s a lot of new places,” he said, noting Ponce City and Krog Street Markets.
“You need a world audience,” he told us in 2011, saying that Atlanta was too small a market for “his level of refinement,” as our dining writer Christiane Lauterbach put it. But he hasn’t exactly been welcomed in New York City—where he opened Gunter Seeger New York last year—as a conquering hero. “Insufferably pretentious,” declared the New York Post. And New York Times critic Pete Wells gave it just two stars out of four, despite praising Seeger’s “lyrical” style. Eater (and former Atlanta) critic Bill Addison noted only five people in the 34-seat restaurant at 6:45 p.m. one weeknight four months after opening night. That said, Gunter Seeger New York garnered a coveted Michelin star this year for “boldly [going] against the tide of others offering serious cooking in casual setting.”
We talked with the chef about his past few decades and his future.
Atlanta has seen development, but not as much in the fine dining realm. Like the rest of the nation, the city has been experiencing a casualization of dining out.
But that’s a very good thing, you know? Because we can’t have a fine dining restaurant on every corner. There’s just no room. And the reality is, we didn’t have more fine dining restaurants before than we do now. There always has been a certain amount of them, and they’re still there. There’s not a lot of room for new ones. And a high-level restaurant is very, very hard [to operate], and it’s even harder than it was 10 or 20 years ago.
In what ways it is harder now?
Operating costs, labor costs, internal operating costs, rent, utilities . . . everything you look at is very expensive.
Your food is so ingredient-driven—and so vegetable-driven, specifically. In a story that Kessler recently wrote for Gravy, I got the sense that you think produce is better here in Atlanta than in New York.
You always can find great produce anywhere, of course. [But I really love] the small farmers markets we have in Atlanta because it’s a different approach and a different business. The farmers who come there—there are not that many, but everything they bring is absolutely pristine. They’re not leftovers and they’re not planning to sell them the next day in another market. These farmers bring to the market what they think they can sell. We have some people like that in New York, but then there’s also a lot of others. It’s just very big. A real market for me is when the farmers bring to the market what they picked the day before and sell it.
How would you describe what it is you’re trying to do with your cooking now? What’s your approach at Gunter Seeger New York?
Well, as we find our partners out there—the growers, as we refine them more and more—my approach is to do less and less to the product. The cuisine is done in the fields, not so much in the kitchen. I mean, we still have to cook, but in a very minimalistic way. I like getting a beautiful beet and just brushing it with coffee oil and baking it in a clay pot. And then I serve it just like that with a little smoked salt. This type of cuisine becomes very pure.
If you’re doing so little to it, how do you justify the high price?
First of all, that product is extremely expensive. And then it takes a lot of labor to do that, because it has to be so precise. It’s very labor intensive, actually.
Have you had trouble finding the right team? Nationally, there’s been a conversation about how finding good cooks is more difficult now.
It’s more about finding the individual who has the drive and the discipline. That’s more important than who is a good cook. We have a very young team and it took a lot of teaching and coaching.
Why did you leave Atlanta? Some critics have said that the city didn’t understand your food. What do you think about that?
I don’t think there was a problem, you know? I was there 25 years, so it was time to move on. New York is a great city—it’s a big city, there’s a lot of people, there’s a lot of international people, and it was a good decision for me. Also—don’t forget—there was a very difficult financial landscape across the whole country [when I left in 2009], and when I saw business really dropping, that had a lot to do with that financial landscape.
Do you feel that people in New York are appreciate what you’re doing?
New York is a very difficult place when you operate a very high-end restaurant because of costs and logistics and finding a place in the big market slowly, but we’re doing okay.
Some of the reviews have been harsh.
I’ve been in this business for 50 years. We work really hard every single day, and we do the best we can. What else can we do? This is one person’s opinion, you know? People have different ideas, and then there are politics . . . I don’t really want to participate in that. We have a very high guest rating, and our goal is to provide the best we can for every single guest. That’s what we do.
What made you want to come back now to participate in this dinner series and cook with Linton Hopkins?
Well, it’s really an invitation from Michelin, you know? [The event, which pairs two chefs who transformed a city’s dining scene, is hosted by Michelin.] And for me, on top of that, [it’s an opportunity] to come back and cook a dinner for friends and guests in Atlanta. I could never say no to that.
What do you think about Linton’s cooking and what he means to Atlanta?
I think he’s done a really fantastic job keeping a white tablecloth alive.
What is it that you love about fine dining?
It’s a cultural thing, you know? We have to protect a culture, we have to protect knowledge and art. It builds more than just an expensive restaurant. We are cultivating a big landscape. You love it or you don’t, but I always have been very intrigued by that and challenged. Losing fine dining restaurants would be like losing the ballet or the opera. We have to protect this cultural heritage we have.