Food - Chefs to watch in 2015
Why we have our eye on chefs Jeremy Miller, Christopher Grossman, Hannah Chung, and Ryan Smith
Next year is already promising another bumper crop of new restaurants around town, and that crop offers abundant opportunities for chefs to strut their stuff. Here are four folks we'll have our eye on as the New Year unfolds.
What makes a chef worth watching? If he were the opening chef of a new restaurant in the ritzy, ambitious Buckhead Atlanta development, that might be enough. But what if he also started his career in Atlanta under acclaimed chef Guenter Seeger and then went on to spend four years at a few of the top restaurants in the country — the French Laundry in Napa and Jean Georges in New York? What if he started craft soda company Miller's Artisan Sodas in his spare time? And what if — gasp! — he hardly drank a drop of alcohol and he followed a full-on raw/vegan diet outside his professional duties? All those things, and more, make 32-year-old chef Jeremy Miller watch-worthy.
Miller finds himself at the helm of the forthcoming American Food and Beverage, a Fort Worth, Texas-transplant slated to open in January. Miller's fine dining pedigree might not be the most accurate predictor of what he hopes to do at the new restaurant. He self-describes his approach to cooking as "accessible," with an emphasis on fitting locally inspired dishes into a casual, family-friendly environment. Working in world-class kitchens taught Miller the value of preparedness, cleanliness, order, and great ingredients. It also taught him that he didn't want the rigidity of those frames of reference and his personal style to be the only things to inform his cooking. "Those experiences shaped who I am as a chef," Miller says, "but I realized I didn't want to be an ego-driven chef. I want to cook food that a range of people can love and appreciate."
Miller is currently in the process of finalizing the restaurant's opening menu. He says he intends to rely on local producers and avoid unsustainable factory-farmed meat, dairy, and fish. He also promises to make good use of the wood-fired rotisserie at the heart of the kitchen, and is playing with using the embers to incorporate smoke and char into dishes in a unique way.
As for Miller's aforementioned attraction to raw and vegan eating, don't expect that to be very visible to the average diner, but know that his belief in the benefits of raw/vegan is strong. "I read Charlie Trotter's book Raw, and it was a true eye opener — exploring the distinctions in texture and flavor with raw foods versus cooked. It's like looking into a whole other galaxy." Be on the lookout for a glimmer of that galaxy next month at American Food & Beverage. — Brad Kaplan
Buckhead's St. Regis has been without a signature restaurant since Paces 88 shuttered in November 2012. But they're ready to make a big splash with the opening of new restaurant Atlas in January. The venerable chef Gerry Klaskala, owner of Aria, has been consulting on the project and helped pick one of his protégés to lead Atlas' kitchen. Christopher Grossman, 36, spent four years as chef de cuisine at Aria before heading out to California in 2013 to work at the French Laundry (yes, we have two chefs to watch with ties to one of the country's very best restaurants). He spent nearly a year on that hallowed ground in Yountville, but now he's been called back to the South to weave together bits of his California learning, his Atlanta past, and a touch of St. Regis' classic elegance into something new.
Grossman is a supremely calm and collected fellow. His focus is on refining naturally pristine ingredients into equally pristine composed plates. A dedication to top-shelf produce is probably the strongest thread between the kitchens of Aria and the French Laundry, though the two clearly reflect their respective home turfs.
"You can't underestimate the importance of freshness," Grossman says. "Back at Aria, we were devoted to bringing diners the freshest ingredients, ideally serving them the same day they were picked. Same thing in California, but with different ingredients. ... At the French Laundry every dish was a series of simple steps, but you had to execute every one of them perfectly. "
At Atlas, expect Grossman to obsess over the smallest details of a dish, even ones that appear simple, to achieve layers upon layers of subtle flavor. He says the service and setting, too, will seek to blend that idea of detail-oriented execution with a healthy dose of Southern hospitality.
"I believe we are creating something unique and special with Atlas," he says. "We want to become a defining restaurant in the Atlanta dining scene." — BK
Local kimchi queen Hannah Chung, 33, of Simply Seoul Kitchen is positively killing it right now. Chung launched Simply Seoul, an all-local, artisanal kimchi and steamed buns company, in April 2013. During the last farmers market season, you could find one of Chung's stalls at seven different markets. These days, she makes kimchi and steamed buns for nearly 10 hours each day out of her commercial kitchen in Decatur. "And then I do deliveries, like, four days a week, and then I do three to four hours at night of administrative things."
Chung is fierce — and not in a Tyra Banks sense of the word, she jokes. As of November 2014, her kimchi became available in roughly 30 Whole Foods throughout the southeast. Chung's goal is to expand to an additional 44 stores in Whole Foods' North Atlantic region by next spring. "I'm calling it #kimchination," she says with a laugh. The next phase of Chung's plot to take over the world is a coveted food stall in Ponce City Market's Central Food Hall, which is expected to open next year.
Chung was born in San Francisco, but she was an army brat who moved a dozen times before turning 11. In 1998, at age 17, she joined the United States Marine Corps. "I was a Korean linguist and intel," Chung says. She had a security clearance and studied Korean eight hours a day for a year.
After Chung hung up her combat boots she used her G.I. Bill to attend college at Seattle University. She majored in psychology and briefly started her own dog-walking business. "And then I decided to pursue counseling," Chung says, "Because I'd been through so much and wanted to help people."
In 2009, Chung came to Atlanta to work as a counselor with domestic violence victims. But on an impassioned whim, and with zero formal training, Chung talked her way into an externship at one of the city's most prestigious restaurants: Bacchanalia. She did it by offering to cut and peel onions twice a week for chef Anne Quatrano for free, she says.
"Going into the culinary world was such a perfect fit for me," she says. "The classical culinary world where I come from is very military-esque. There's a hierarchy, there's rank, there's order. I'm the kind of person who needs a lot of structure."
After six months at Bacchanalia, Chung spent short stints at the Porter and Miller Union. Next, she set her sights on New York, staging for several days at famed chef Eric Ripert's crown jewel, Le Bernardin, in 2011 and working through the holiday season at the insanely busy West Village restaurant the Spotted Pig. After nearly five months, Chung returned to Atlanta and landed a gig working for yet another Atlanta icon chef Linton Hopkins at Holeman & Finch. And then, in 2012, it hit her. "I just had one of these crazy light bulb moments. I was like, 'Omigosh. I'm supposed to make kimchi.'"
Chung hopes to begin "slingin' buns" in her PCM stall by March 2015. She makes her steamed buns from scratch through an intensive seven-hour process she has perfected over the last few years. They are stuffed with fillings such as Riverview Farms grass-fed beef bulgogi or spicy pork. She'll also serve her signature vegan bun filled with lion's mane mushroom bulgogi. The stability of a permanent location will also allow her to do weekly specials, she says, like Korean braised short rib, Korean chicken barbecue, and other vegetarian options.
"I didn't do the full 15-year fine dining career and then start my own thing," Chung says. "I did a little here and a little there, learned what I needed, worked with some good people, and then peaced out ... I don't want to come off like, 'Oh, I cooked at all these places. I'm this amazing culinary professional.' Not really. I went to some cool places, and I worked really hard, and I got really lucky. That's my story." — Stephanie Dazey
Ryan Smith, 34, says he's "itching to get back into the game." The former Empire State South executive chef has been on the sidelines since he left that kitchen in September 2013 to focus on his new restaurant, Staplehouse. Like many new restaurants, Staplehouse has encountered a tortuous path of municipal red tape on the way to a hoped-for spring 2015 launch. "We're at the tail end of permitting," he says, "and we're still hoping all the stars align with construction, but it's hard to predict."
Smith came to Atlanta just over a dozen years ago, fresh out of culinary school, and jumped into the city's top kitchens — first Bacchanalia, then Restaurant Eugene, then Empire State South. At this point, the seasonal and local approach to cooking is fully infused into his DNA. The time away from a full-time kitchen job has been a bit hard on Smith (though he has done quite a bit of work with Kimball House, and Empire State South as well since his formal departure from the latter).
For Smith, Staplehouse is not just a restaurant — it's a key component in a charitable endeavor that is the lasting legacy of chef Ryan Hidinger, Smith's brother-in-law, who died after a yearlong battle with cancer in January 2014. "This will be a very emotional thing when we finally open up," Smith says. "It's pretty much all I think about on a daily basis." Staplehouse is intertwined with the Giving Kitchen, a local nonprofit dedicated to raising money to support Atlanta's restaurant workers in need. While Staplehouse is a restaurant with its own culinary mission, it also aims to serve the community, both through its food and through the profits it hopes to hand over to charity. As for the culinary aspects, Smith has spent months tinkering with menu ideas, jotting down inspirations in a notebook. He's a thinking chef, but also one who is able to turn flights of fancy into incredibly tasty bites like the blissful bologna soup dumplings he served at an event in 2013 (TV personality Andrew Zimmern raved about them on Instagram, and so did I.)
So what will Smith make of Staplehouse? He's quick to admit that the reality of the restaurant hasn't fully formed yet, despite the fact that so many people around him and the Giving Kitchen are practically bursting with anticipation. "We're now talking about the menu being a mood-driven thing," Smith says. "While it will have a core philosophy around being healthy and built for sharing, the specific dishes could change daily or weekly. I'm constantly writing mock menus, and I was looking through my notebook from the past year. It's fascinating to see how things evolve over time." — BK