Guenter Seeger

The mercurial chef’s austere style divided diners, but his brilliance brought us culinary stardom that we have never recaptured

I met Guenter Seeger in 1985, shortly after he was hired to take over the then unremarkable Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead. Seeger had previously owned a restaurant in Pforzheim, near Baden-Baden in southwest Germany, and his tenure there earned him a rare Michelin star. Recruited by an American company to become the chef in a Washington, D.C., hotel that never took off, Seeger was lured to Atlanta by fellow German Horst Schulze, then the Ritz’s general manager. When I asked him recently if he remembered his first impression of our city, he said, “Ja, Christiane, it wasn’t the center of the world—but Pforzheim wasn’t either.”

Seeger polarized Atlanta diners. His menu at the Dining Room—handwritten every day at a time when most restaurants distributed heavy tomes with everlasting entries—broke new ground for our city: warm belon oysters from Maine doused with a delicate cucumber vinaigrette, barely opaque lobster garnished with beet ravioli in chive sauce, thinly sliced rare venison sprinkled with bright orange chanterelles and beads of fresh apple, duck liver that quivered on the plate. Some of the Dining Room’s loyal clientele balked at food they perceived as undercooked. I loved it with all my French soul. Stars from critics and awards from the James Beard Foundation and the Mobil Guide, among others, started to pile up.

In 1997 he left the Ritz to open Seeger’s. The Buckhead bungalow, a former Pierre Deux furniture store, received a $2 million makeover that included a six-by-nine-foot red Morice stove custom-built in France. Committed to serving meats and produce from exceptional sources, he rallied the North Georgia farmers and spurred the creation of the Morningside Farmers Market. (He was born into farm-to-table culture long before it became faddish: His father was a fruit broker in the small town of Loffenau in the northern Black Forest.) Seeger’s would be to Atlanta what the French Laundry was to San Francisco or Restaurant Daniel was to New York: a highly personal beacon of artistic gastronomy.

Cooking on his own terms, the chef created one-bite masterpieces such as a quail egg yolk in a tiny nest of shredded wheat with precious pearls of osetra caviar. The level of seasoning in his dishes was almost homeopathic in its subtlety, with steamed razor clams tossed in nearly invisible shreds of lemon zest and a thinner-than-thin onion and white truffle tart sprinkled with a pixie dust of bacon. Atlantans who were barely aware of sushi swooned over Champagne and sea urchin soup with tiny leaves of chervil floating in spiny shells.

A passionate coterie embraced the restaurant. “The first years were very good,” Seeger reminded me recently. Esquire magazine named it Restaurant of the Year in 1998. Claude Guillaume, who came from the Ritz-Carlton Downtown and would later manage the Dining Room in Buckhead before it closed in 2009, set high standards of service when Seeger’s opened. His warm welcome helped defrost the formality of the still, quiet dining room.

But Seeger’s supporters numbered too few. Instead of rejoicing over mesmerizing courses served butler-style on silver trays, many diners decried the portion sizes and chilly service from the Armani-clad staff. They wanted ice water rather than the bottled Vittel poured into small glasses. Most of all, people complained about prices (a six-course menu cost $95 in 2006) that they routinely paid only in steakhouses.

I have always thought of Guenter Seeger as a superb piece of German engineering, like one of the low-slung Porsches he favors. Were we foolish to think he would adapt to our Southern standards of hospitality—become more comfortable, more like an SUV? Probably. In 2007—after several infusions of cash, a redesign that reduced seating by 40 percent, and the hiring of additional staff—the restaurant closed.

In retrospect, Seeger believes Atlanta was always too small a market for his level of refinement. I agree. People loved what he did, but there were never enough of them. “You need a world audience,” he said. Even in New York, it takes 8 million residents and 45 million visitors a year to sustain a handful of restaurants such as the one he created. “Hopefully enough people follow you . . . It didn’t happen. I tried it anyway.”

Seeger now lives in Manhattan. Over the past several years, he’s been consulting with large grocery chains in Canada, Australia, and, most recently, England. At lunch in February near his Midtown South apartment, Seeger seemed more relaxed than he did during his time in Atlanta, but his exacting disposition remained. “Supermarkets have become homogenized,” he said. “There is hardly any food anymore; they have killed almost everything fresh in the store.” Seeger has kept a low profile while revamping global grocers’ prepared foods to meet his standards of integrity.

I asked what he thought of the popular trends in the restaurant industry. “Nobody likes to take risks anymore,” he lamented. Many of his colleagues have switched gears and left the stove for TV studios, or to manage cookie-cutter replicas of the flagships that made them famous. “The chefs have gone in a completely different direction. They want to make money. The customers went for it. The press went for it. Why not?”

Don’t think that Atlanta killed his spirit as a restaurateur. “When the time is right, there will be another Seeger’s,” he said. He doesn’t want to be ruled by critical stars or the Michelin system, but for him, the art of the great restaurant must go on, in the same way the theater and the ballet must continue. He still wants to be one of the engines driving the discourse—it just won’t be in Atlanta. New York will most likely be the place to taste the uncompromising genius that put our city on the culinary map more than twenty-five years ago.