Food Issue - A boy named Sous
To find Atlanta's up-and-coming culinary stars, it's worth looking at second in command
It's old news that chefs are the new rock stars. We watch them on TV, we talk and write endlessly about their talents and failures in these pages and beyond. A good chef is now not just a guy who can cook and run a kitchen — it's a man (or woman) who can be presented as a personality, the public personification of his food and restaurant.
But behind every great chef is a great sous chef.
The sous chef can be anything and everything in a kitchen, from a glorified line cook to the guy who actually writes the menu and runs the restaurant. Most sous chefs will tell you it's a case of all the work, none of the glory. These are guys who might not be quite ready to helm their own ships, but they know how to do just about every other part of a chef's job.
Meet the backbones of some of the best kitchens in the city, cooks who are also quite likely the next generation of Atlanta chefs. Stephanie Dazey talks to five guys who might just be tomorrow's culinary rock stars.
Kyle Jacovino, Empire State South
Kyle Jacovino sits down on Empire State South's Midtown patio. It's one of those sunny fall days that makes you feel lucky you're in Atlanta. His voice is deep and deliberate. His glance is sincere as he shifts in his seat with just a hint of uneasiness. "I've never done an interview," he says. A trait not commonly associated with chefhood, the Pennsylvania transplant nonetheless exhibits a healthy dose of humility.
Case and point: When asked if he's ready to be an executive chef, Jacovino answers no. "I know what I don't know. There are a lot of things I'd like to learn first before I'm an executive chef. I'm only 25," he says.
Jacovino earned the title of sous chef by the age of 19, despite never setting foot in culinary school. "I was taught by a group of old-school apprentices who founded a high school culinary program in Hershey, Penn. I started when I was 17 and they taught me everything from garde manger to ice carving to butchering."
As fate would have it, Jacovino met a friend of Empire State South's executive chef Ryan Smith while working at Mirbeau Inn and Spa in upstate New York. Strings were pulled, emails sent, and plane tickets purchased, Jacovino says, "Ryan and I hung out, he took me to Holeman & Finch and Bacchanalia. It was cool. I didn't know much about charcuterie then, either, so watching Ryan do that was pretty inspiring."
Mentor secured, Jacovino went to work at Joël, enjoying the luxuries that come with working in a multimillion dollar kitchen. But the big break came when Jacovino ran into Smith as he was taking over the kitchen at Restaurant Eugene. Jacovino was invited to join him.
Since then, the two have continued to work together, even through Smith's move to Empire State South. Jacovino does not take his sous chef position lightly. "You have to be a hard worker, you have to be very dedicated. Being a sous chef is being there for your executive chef, you're his right-hand man." When the going gets tough and the hours get long, Jacovino is far from fazed. "I've always felt that if you're working long hours, it's for a good reason. This is a passion for me," he says. "It's what I want to do."
Although Jacovino claims that he's not yet ready to take on the role of head honcho, he's still quietly planning out his future as a chef owner and restaurateur. "I love pizza," he says, no doubt a by-product of his unmistakable Italian roots, and countless hours spent "throwing pizza" back in high school. "I want to open a pizza shop where we make all our own pepperoni, salami, and cheese. I want to make my own everything for my pizza." He describes a small and modest pizzeria, to perhaps compete with his favorite restaurant in town, Antico. "I'd like to do three to four small pies, make everything in house and do fresh pastas," Jacovino says. "Opening a really small Italian bistro would be my dream."
For Jacovino, cooking is "not a job, it's a passion. If you look at cooking as just a job, I don't think you're gonna get very far. It needs to come from the heart," he says.
But the fame and glory call to him as well.
"One of the awards I've always had my eye on is the Rising Star chef award," he admits. A coveted culinary accolade, the Rising Star designation is awarded annually by StarChefs, a widely respected culinary trade publication.
"I really want to get the Rising Star by 29. I think I can do it if I keep working hard. If I keep pushing myself," he says.
Even so, "I'm more concerned with being the best chef I can possibly be right now."
E.J. Hodgkinson, Woodfire Grill
The lights are out and no one seems to be home at Woodfire Grill. The rustic scent of wood and smoke lingers in the deserted dining room, a souvenir from the restaurant's iconic wood-burning oven that blazes nightly. The only sign of life is muffled music coming from the kitchen. The song is familiar but unrecognizable until E.J. Hodgkinson emerges from the kitchen door, knife in hand and rocking out to Elton John's "Crocodile Rock." Surprised to discover an audience, Woodfire's sous chef chuckles and explains his deep appreciation for the other E.J. "I hated his music when I was a kid. I should probably write my parents a letter and thank them for making me listen to Elton John because he is freakin' awesome."
His love for music and Sir Elton aside, Hodgkinson's true passion lies in the kitchen. "My parents worked long hours," he says, "so I cooked for myself a lot as a kid, and I've been doing it ever since." He says he caught the chef bug at his very first restaurant gig as the dishwasher at a local coffee shop/gelato parlor/crêperie. A quick promotion to cook under the shop's French-trained chef sealed the deal; a budding food junkie was born.
By the age of 21, Hodgkinson had earned the position of executive chef at Tomei's, a restaurant in his three-stoplight hometown, Placerville, Calif. However, the pressure of such early success took its toll on the young chef. "I came to the realization that I was too young to be doing what I was doing and that I needed to get back to the basics."
Hodgkinson moved to Austin, Texas, where he obtained a culinary degree from the Texas Culinary Academy, Le Cordon Bleu, and graduated summa cum laude in 2007. "Culinary school was a breeze for me because I'd already been cooking for seven years" he says. While in Austin, Hodgkinson discovered the importance of local agriculture. "I fell in love with the farm-to-table movement and it's been a huge part of my cooking philosophy ever since."
Hodgkinson made his way to the A in 2008. After surveying the city's culinary landscape and playing the Craigslist game for days, he landed an interview at Woodfire Grill. At the time, the restaurant was changing hands and chef Kevin Gillespie was getting ready to become the executive chef in the house that Michael Tuohy built. "The interview went really well. Woodfire felt like a natural fit. I started out as the sauté chef and I've been here ever since."
In just less than a year, Hodgkinson was promoted to sous chef and is currently Woodfire's chef de cuisine. "I average about 95 hours a week," he says. On top of his responsibilities at the restaurant he's also in the process of helping to test recipes for Gillespie's forthcoming cookbook.
The young chef is now entirely responsible for Woodfire's kitchen and its daily operations. "At this point, Kevin has given me complete creative control over the menu," Hodgkinson says. "I can rewrite it at any time although Kevin writes dishes whenever he's available."
The two chefs have been working hand in hand for more than three years. "Our styles, in the sense of how we each view and think about food, have basically merged into one," Hodgkinson says. "The owners have full faith in me and they support what I do, but frankly, it's Kevin's restaurant and it's still his food."
Hodgkinson is completely dedicated to Woodfire for the present, but like most young chefs he dreams of owning his own place one day — places if it everything goes according to plan. "I love to cook breakfast food," he says, "and you typically don't see any really nice, upscale breakfast places. I would love to try and do that. I think that people would appreciate a perfectly fried egg or homemade English muffins."
He says another one of his passion projects would be very similar to Woodfire Grill. "My restaurant would still be locally sourced with a constantly changing menu, only I'd like to have a much smaller venue," he says. "It would be great to do a restaurant where I could concentrate even more on the food, the guests, and the service."
"I truly believe that if you're selling a good product people will buy it. Setting up shop here in Atlanta is a definite possibility for me, and if that happened it would be great. But right now I'm concentrated on Woodfire Grill. It's where I've put my heart and soul."
Doug Rouen, One Eared Stag
It's day five of Inman Park Restaurant Week. At 9 a.m., sous chef Doug Rouen walks out of One Eared Stag's kitchen looking harassed; red-faced and half-dazed. He dabs at the beads of sweat that have accumulated on his forehead. With a boyish grin he shrugs, "You gotta love restaurant week."
Stylistically, Rouen is both a culinary surrealist and an old-school purist. "Dishes like steak and kidney pie were amazing back in the day," he says. "It's a shame that nobody really does them anymore." Demonstrating a passion for anything odd and yet traditional, it would seem that the rustic eccentricity of his current mentor, Robert Phalen, has rubbed off on him. "I love manipulating flavors and showing people techniques they've never seen before," Rouen says. "But at the same time, good food never dies. I love doing modern interpretations of old classics."
Rouen is no stranger to the classics having received formal training at L'Academie de Cuisine in Maryland. After graduating, he spent the formative years of his culinary career working under some of nation's most prominent chefs in the D.C. area. "I spent six years working up the brigade system at a restaurant called 2941 in Falls Church, Va." A six-year tenure at one restaurant is almost unheard of in this industry. More often young chefs focus on shorter stints at various high-end restaurants in order to build an impressive résumé. Rouen, however, says that in his case, several well-known chefs spent some time running the kitchen at 2941 during his time there. "It was great. I had all these great chefs coming to me on my home turf. While I was at 2941 I was able to work with New York rock star chefs like Scott Bryan of Veritas and Bertrand Chemel of Café Boulud. I learned a ton from those guys."
Although the bulk of Rouen's training was spent perfecting the technical nuances of fine dining, he realizes that Atlanta's fluctuating food scene is unlike any other in the country. "Atlanta has a love-hate relationship with its restaurants and its chefs. Fine dining seems to be a dying niche in this town." As a playful gibe he adds, "Foodies and hipsters, I hate to say it, are kind of the same thing."
Atlanta's unique culinary climate has caused young chefs like Rouen to rework the old blueprints of a fine-dining cook's career. "It's a new world out there," he says. "It's all about offering as close to Michelin star quality food as you can, but in a casual, comfortable setting."
New world aside, Rouen's loyalty shows itself in his commitment to sticking around at One Eared Stag. "I think we're doing things right," he says, "and I've never been the type to jump ship." Rouen explains that loyalty along with humility and hard work were the cornerstones of his training. "It's important to see a place through to the next level, and to leave it better than when you found it," he says.
But running his own kitchen someday is his ultimate goal. "I'd like to open a place that puts out quality, affordable food," he says. "A place where I could showcase some of the tricks I've learned over the years."
For the time being, Rouen is content on making it happen for his executive chef. "I'm not in any rush.
"This city is all about being trendy right now, but I think there are enough people here who truly love food," he says. "All they need to do is show up and show their support.
"We'll be here, doing what we love, because in the end, we're doing it for them."
Richard Neal, Bacchanalia
Richard Neal laughs into his coffee cup, remembering his days as a fry guy down at the local family grill. "I started working in kitchens up in Virginia years before I went to culinary school," he says, "and for the longest time, I hated it."
Currently, Neal is a sous chef at a little place on the Westside called Bacchanalia, taking cues from some of the best chefs in the Southeast. His passion for the culinary arts is undeniable, but Neal admits that his attitude toward cooking hasn't always been a positive one. "I really didn't care back then," he says, "as soon as I got to work, I couldn't wait to be off again." In those days, cooking was a chore; something he did to pay the rent.
Even his decision to attend culinary school was half-hearted and heavily influenced by familial pressure. "When I turned 20, I realized that I needed get my life together," Neal says. "My mom was pressuring me to do something, anything at the time. I'd been working in kitchens forever, so I thought, 'Why not go to culinary school?'"
Nothing about cooking had particularly resonated with Neal before studying at the Art Institute of Atlanta. "Culinary school is where I really fell in love with food," he says. "One day, something inside of me just clicked and I've been on this ride ever since."
A ride is an excellent way to describe Neal's career. Before accepting the sous position at Bacchanalia, Neal worked all over the city, building his résumé and learning all he could from Atlanta's top chefs. In the fall of 2010, Neal decided it was time for a change. "I was about to buy a plane ticket to Portland when the opportunity came up for me to work at Bacc."
At Bacchanalia, Neal is one of three sous chefs. "It is definitely intense," he says. "It's such a big machine with a lot of gears turning all day every day." Neal says working at Bacchanalia is unlike any other kitchen he's worked for. "Everyone there is super professional and focused on the goal of being the best in the city." But despite being one of Atlanta's most highly respected restaurants, Neal says that he and the rest of the staff are looking for ways to improve. "With this comes a ton of stressful days, but at the end of it, we're proud of what we do."
Stylistically, Neal describes his cooking as rustic and traditional. "If we get a whole animal in, or a terrine needs to be made, I'm all over it," he says. "I love butchering and making homemade charcuterie."
"I like real food," he says, "pure, ingredient-driven food with the least amount of manipulation."
If he were to open his own restaurant, Neal says he would focus on the most neglected meal in the city: breakfast. "The hardest meal for me to find is a chef-driven breakfast," he says. "I've always wanted to do something like that, and not just during normal breakfast hours but late night especially."
Neal says he's not quite sure where he'll be five years from now. "I know I'll still be cooking," he says. "Right now I'm really focusing on the present — my fundamentals and just getting better."
Adam Waller, Sotto Sotto
Adam Waller sits at Sotto Sotto's bar hunched over a clipboard, cell phone tucked between his neck and his shoulder. A tattooed forearm races from side to side across a product sheet marking orders, while his other hand absentmindedly fingers an elegant Bordeaux stem filled with red wine. A server approaches; there is a snag in the kitchen. Waller excuses himself with a warm politeness that quietly contradicts his rugged, if not slightly intimidating demeanor. He emerges from the kitchen promptly and satisfied. "Problem solved," he says.
Before restaurants, Waller worked as an ammunition tech in the military. And although his work in Explosive Ordnance Disposal still required him to say "yes sir" a whole lot, Waller's previous employer (the U.S. Marine Corps) was noticeably tougher when it came to uniform violations. His military training did, however, prepare Waller for high-pressure situations, even if disarming bombs is slightly more intense than cooking dinner.
Waller spent two years stationed in Japan, where sampling the local flavors became a favorite pastime. "I was able to leave the base and go out and eat. The food in Japan was some of the best I've ever eaten," he says. And it was there, amongst the modest noodle houses and sake bars of Okinawa, that the Marietta native began falling for food.
Toward the end of his contract with the military, making the transition to the culinary field seemed like a logical choice. "I started thinking about what I'd like to do with my life and I thought I'd like to cook food. I enjoy eating it, I might as well cook it."
Waller returned to Atlanta in 1999 and began taking classes at the Art Institute. There he met chef, instructor, and future mentor Todd Annis. "He was probably the one instructor I did like," he says. "He wanted to teach you, he wanted to develop you into a better cook. I really appreciate what he did for me."
Waller continued to cook and learn in several prominent kitchens. At Brasserie Le Coze, Waller recalls many memorable, stress-filled lunch shifts. "I was basically sweating my ass off, working on the line, cooking skate wing for Eric Ripert and owner Maguy Le Coze."
During this time, Waller worked two jobs, getting up at 6 a.m. and leaving one place to go set up for a dinner shift at another, not finishing until around midnight.
"I worked and worked and worked," Waller says. "It beat me down, but I kept coming back for more. You learn from all of those experiences and that's what gets you to the next level."
The next level is currently where the former burger flipper/Marine/line cook can be found today. Waller is chef Riccardo Ullio's right-hand man and chef de cuisine at Sotto Sotto in Inman Park.
Although he specializes in Italian, his culinary passion lies elsewhere. "After working at Cuerno Ullio's now-closed attempt to bring Spanish food to the masses, I started appreciating Spanish food and learning about it."
"I envisioned myself going to Spain and learning from chefs over there," he says. "Not necessarily at El Bulli, but tapas bars. I'd like to bring that traditional Spanish element back to the States."
With Ullio currently busy with other ventures, Waller bears a considerable amount of responsibility for the execution of the food at Sotto Sotto, but that's the way he prefers it. "I want to have my hands in the food," he says. "I want to be the guy preparing it and making people happy. If people leave my restaurant and they have smiles on their faces and have had a good meal, then I know that I've done my job."