Food Issue - A day in the life of Empire State South

A look at the work, hours, passion, and fun that goes into keeping this Midtown restaurant moving

Thursday November 17, 2011 08:00 am EST

?Above: A day at Hugh Acheson's Atlanta restaurant Empire State South, from 5 a.m. on November 7 to 4 a.m. on November 8. Video by Dustin Chambers
?Slideshow: A Day in the Life of Empire State South

5 a.m.: Lauren Raymond, assistant pastry chef, arrives. "It's nice when I first get here," she says. "So quiet." In the next two hours, she'll make muffins, scones, cinnamon rolls, croissants, biscuits, and more. All the pastries need to be on the table out front by 7 a.m. for opening.

6 a.m.: Matthew Harper, the breakfast cook, arrives. Between now and 10:30 a.m., Harper makes grits, oatmeal, bacon, and gravy, sets up for lunch service, makes breakfast orders as they come in, and prepares a family meal for the 10:30 line up.

6:30 a.m.: Emily Finkel, breakfast waitress and barista, arrives. Begins brewing coffee, testing espresso for correct pour. Counts drawer, sets up for opening.

7 a.m.: Doors open. A second breakfast waitress arrives. People begin trickling in, mainly for coffee and pastry to go.

7:30 a.m.: Cooks begin to trickle in, looking sleepy, heading back to the kitchen. At 8 a.m. another waiter arrives. Two customers sit at the bar, working on laptops. Three tables sit and eat breakfast. Apart from coffee and to-go orders, that is the entirety of the breakfast rush.

8 a.m.: Despite his scheduled start time of 9 a.m., controller Jonathan Aherin is here early. Controller: like a general manager who doesn't have to hire or fire waitstaff.

8:30 a.m.: Chef/owner Hugh Acheson stops in, speaks for a minute with Aherin, then leaves to go to a book signing for his just-released A New Turn in the South. "Book tours are crazy," he says, looking crisp.

10 a.m.: Bar manager Kellie Thorn arrives to do inventory. A new chest freezer is delivered. "Now we can have a proper ice program," she beams.

10:30 a.m.: Morning line up and staff meal. Aherin goes over the morning's business with the four lunch servers in the private dining room in back. He has a list with 22 items. The items say things such as, "Don't wear your apron to the bathroom. It looks gross," and "When dropping food, please pay attention to the protein. Face it the right way."

As servers and cooks crowd in for the staff meal, morning sous Jonah Merrell goes over the specials. "Who's familiar with Block Island swordfish?" he asks, and servers recite back to him the location of the island and the qualities of the fish.

Staff meal this morning is fresh baked biscuits, scrambled eggs, and a crazy jumble of sweet and sour fried squid and bacon.

11:11 a.m.: The first lunch customer arrives and is seated. Neil Young's "Cowgirl in the Sand" gives way to Joni Mitchell as the server recites the swordfish special.

11:30 a.m.: Executive Chef Ryan Smith comes in, toting a rollaway bag behind him. He's here for about an hour, after which he's on his way out of town for "fancy sausage school," a high-level charcuterie course held at the University of Iowa.

Smith knows that with the book release and Acheson's "Top Chef" run, ESS is about to get even busier. He's thinking about changing the way the kitchen operates, going from a system where cooks plate their own food to a system where two expediters - most likely the chef and sous - plate every dish of hot food in the restaurant, to take some of the burden of service off of the line cooks. "I called Hugh and told him that I was thinking of doing it like that," Smith says. "He told me I'm insane."

"We'll try it on a slow night. Though we don't really have slow nights anymore."

11:45 a.m.: In the kitchen, cooks banter in Spanish as they chop carrots. The evening crew starts to arrive. "It's Monday, so I showered," cook Christopher Hathcock jokes when someone comments on how fresh he appears.

Noon: Sous chef Kyle Jacovino arrives. He and Smith discuss the menu for the evening, which is written daily.

12:15 p.m.: The dining room slowly fills. A bartender from another restaurant in town eats solo at the bar. Smith sits and chats with him.

12:35 p.m.: In the kitchen, the sous chef calls to the cooks: "How long on that pork?" And "Please make sure your plates are wiped better."

Smith comes back for a final look before he heads out. He talks briefly about the recent announcement that chef Joshua Hopkins is leaving Abattoir. "That's my favorite restaurant," he says. Rumors are tossed up about Hopkins' plans, but all put aside as unreliable.

1:10 p.m.: All of a sudden, the din in the kitchen quiets. "That's it," the sous (Merrell) says. As quickly as it started, lunch is effectively done.

2:13 p.m.: The evening is shaping up to be bigger than an average Monday. A 50-person cocktail party is planned for the bar area to launch a new liquor brand, and there are numerous large parties booked. Jacovino asks Becca Grant, the special events planner, if the menu has been nailed down for a party in the private dining room. "I called three times and sent two emails," she says. "Did you give them a cutoff time?" Jacovino asks. "I told them I need it by 3." Jacovino nods as he stands chopping carrots, celery, onions, peppers, and bacon into precise cubes.

2:30 p.m.: Service manager Scott Shackelford comes on duty. Service manager: The manager who hires and fires waitstaff.

3 p.m.: Shackelford and Jacovino stand in the hallway to the kitchen and discuss the night's service in hushed tones. There's a definite feeling of foreboding settling on the restaurant, a high-tension prickle in the air. "Get ready for Armageddon," Shackelford says, and they high-five. "It's a lot of shit," Jacovino says, matter-of-factly.

3:45 p.m.: The private dining room in back starts to fill up with the evening crew. They fold napkins and gossip. "It's hot as a ball sack in here," one waitress says as she enters the room.

4 p.m.: Evening line up in the private dining room, but this time people spill out into the regular dining room. Shackelford addresses servers first. "Welcome to a wonderful Monday," he says. "It's gonna feel really hectic tonight. We have a 10-top, two eights, a 16-top, an 11, and a 50-person cocktail party. I'd like to tell you it's spaced out, but really it isn't." Service issues that come up: towels, Sunday's crazy brunch service, clearing tables, folding enough napkins, turning tables, a celebrity chef who came in and was very nice and drank a lot of beer. He then turns the floor over to Jacovino.

"There's no off-menu specials tonight," Jacovino says. "But please don't say 'there's no specials tonight.'" He goes over the charcuterie, oysters, corn beef terrine, rabe in the ravioli (twice), the saltiness of the trout dish, the way the "crisp bone marrow" is made and how it tastes, how to explain the tasting menu to customers. "OK. Have a good service, guys."

"What day is Hugh coming in?" one of the waiters asks.

"He could be here any night. Any time at all," Shackelford says.

4:30 p.m.: Evening family meal is served. Potatoes, veggies, chicken. Dinner has the feel of a convivial college dining hall, with cooks and servers eating together. The entire crew takes up eight full tables. One waiter takes cell phone photos of two others, one sitting on the other's lap. "To the Internet!" he declares, admiring his work.

5 p.m.: The entire kitchen line is wiped down, one cook scrubs with water, one squeegees, a third follows with a rag. It's a fresh start for dinner service. In the dining room waiters and bartenders set up for the evening.

5:55 p.m.: The bar area is filling up. Peter Dale, Acheson's business partner and chef at the National in Athens, sits at the bar to have dinner. Shirley Franklin comes in and asks to be seated at the bar. She's told she's welcome to but that a large party is about to be there for a liquor launch. She decides against it and leaves.

7 p.m.: Merrell, the morning sous chef, leaves. Raymond, the assistant pastry chef who's been there since 5 a.m., helps put together a giant cheese and charcuterie board for the cocktail party. She'll be here for another hour. A waiter takes the board and as he rounds the corner to the hallway, a jar of pimento cheese goes crashing to the floor. It's swept up and the floor is wiped down in a matter of seconds.

Tickets come in like crazy, many of them 10 inches long. There are six people behind the line, two in front, and three in pastry. "How long on 82?" Jacovino calls. "I need another minute, chef."

8:12 p.m.: Bar area is packed. Private dining room is seated. Tables are full. At the wait station, a server talks to Shackelford about a woman at a table who is irate about the noise levels.

10:30 p.m.: All of a sudden, it's quiet. In the back room, waiters are polishing glasses, gossiping about the night. "Paula Abdul Pandora is the best Pandora of all time!" one exclaims. "Who wants to go in on wine?" another asks, and a pile of money starts to form on the table in front of her.

10:43 p.m.: Cooks are up on the grill, scrubbing under hoods. The whole kitchen is soapy.

11:30 p.m.: Jacovino and Hathcock finish the orders for the next day. They talk about projects they need to work on for the rest of the night. Monday is charcuterie. As some of the cooks leave, others set up to work on the evening's projects. Jacovino will be here for another couple of hours.

1 a.m.: The cleaning crew arrives. They start in the dining room to allow the sous chef to finish up in the kitchen. They'll be here until about 4 a.m.

4 a.m.: No one is in the restaurant for approximately one hour until the pastry chef arrives at 5.

Photos: A Day in the Life of Empire State South

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