$20 Dinner with Jarrett Stieber
Eat Me Speak Me's chef cooks up a laid-back, local meal on a budget
??Pantry: canola oil, butter, salt, apple cider vinegar, sugar, honey, garlic?
??Jarrett Stieber, 25, is going to open a restaurant in Atlanta someday. The young chef's ideal eatery is a small, standalone joint, about 30 seats. It will feel homey and comfortable. The menu will list an ever-changing array of straight-from-the-farm dishes, the type of food Stieber puts out every weekend at his practically permanent pop-up restaurant Eat Me Speak Me. He envisions having a small, dedicated staff. In the eatery of Stieber's dreams, the traditional rivalry between the front and back of the house wouldn't exist, and his line cooks would be comfortable running food. He wants guests to feel like they're having dinner at a friend's house rather than a stuffy restaurant, and he wants to make it all happen sooner rather than later. That's the plan.
Until the stars — and funding — align, you can find Stieber running EMSM out of the tiny restaurant Gato (formerly Gato Bizco) near the intersection of McLendon Avenue and Clifton Road in Candler Park.
EMSM is one of the most fully integrated farm-to-table restaurant experiences in Atlanta, pop-up or otherwise. Stieber's menu of small plates generally holds its shape from week to week, but the ingredients change based on what farmers are pulling out of the ground. He'll usually do a soup, a salad or chilled veggie dish, two meat dishes, a fried tofu dish, a composed vegetarian dish that features an ingredient Stieber is excited about that week, some offal tacos, wild catfish (from a friend who goes fishing on Lake Oconee and will call Stieber if he catches anything), and one or two desserts. Apart from a few pantry items, everything Stieber serves is locally sourced.
"The farmers play the biggest role in my food," he says. "It doesn't matter how much I work or with whom or where I work, without them it's nothing."
As critics of local food often point out, using exclusively local produce is more expensive than, say, sourcing commodity produce from a giant regional distributor. Stieber is aware of the costs that get passed down to his guests. But a restaurant that uses all local food doesn't automatically translate to a dinner that's prohibitively expensive. Nothing on EMSM's 10-or-so-item menu costs more than 10 bucks. Stieber's most expensive menu item to date cost $9.50. In theory, you could go for dinner and order the whole menu for around $45.
Coming up with a $20-meal that feeds four and is made exclusively with local proteins and produce procured from the East Atlanta Village Farmers Market is business as usual for Stieber. Today, from his home kitchen, he'll cook ground pork tacos garnished with a nifty, use-whatever-you've-got-on-hand concoction he calls Yummy Sauce, alongside a leafy arugula and scarlet radish salad tossed in homemade young ginger dressing.
"I don't know how to go to a grocery store and shop for a dish in mind because that's not at all how I do it," he says, as he unpacks leafy greens and purplish radishes the size of jumbo carrots. "I get the stuff first and then figure it out."
Stieber lives so close to Ponce de Leon Avenue, you can practically hear the conversations on the Local's front porch. The kitchen takes up about a 6-by-8-foot space in the one-bedroom apartment he shares with his girlfriend. From the careworn wooden table and accompanying theater seats to the kitchen utensils on the wall lined up like surgical instruments, the place is spotless.
He sets up a heavy wooden cutting board next to the sink and explains that he didn't mean to open a pop-up restaurant, it just kind of happened. He chops two apples and tosses them, core and all, into a saucepan with whole garlic cloves, roughly chopped shallot, and hot peppers. This is the base for Stieber's Yummy Sauce, a recipe he often makes at EMSM because of its versatility, he says. You can sub out the apple for any fruit you have on hand: berries in the summer, persimmon in winter. In minutes the kitchen smells like butter and baked things.
Stieber approaches cooking the way an improv actor might approach performing: adapt, and go with the flow. Fresh produce drives EMSM's menu and serves as muse for the almost-psychedelic plating style Stieber's become known for.
"I was talking to the farmer from Woodland Gardens who delivered to me today," Stieber says. "And we were talking about sunchokes and how beautiful they are. I told him I was cutting them in a different way to showcase how beautiful the silhouette was — they're irregular, jagged shapes instead of those little rounds. I'm cutting them lengthwise in thin planks. I love that kind of stuff, or like Romanesco cauliflower, keeping the florets whole so they look like ice fractals."
EMSM's Instagram account contains a stream of dishes that could fill the Mad Hatter's dinner table. A seared pork belly dish with kohlrabi, Japanese eggplant, and deep green kale puree resembles a praying mantis hanging out in some tall grass; a Zen-looking bowl of scarlet turnip soup with pearl couscous, fennel, and pole beans seems as if it belongs in a tranquil Japanese garden. The look of a lone, glistening chicken drum with sunchokes, squash, and twig-like spears of okra is extraterrestrial.
"A lot of times I'll just see colors of things and be like, those would look really cool together and put a dish together around that. I don't want stuff that's all monochromatic unless it's something really striking, but if it's just a bunch of brown crap on a plate, no one's gonna want to eat it because it looks thoughtless. ... It's fun trying to push yourself and not just do the same old things when you grab a spoonful of sauce and put it to a plate ... to not just do the same drop and drag you always do, and try and go in a different direction with it and be more creative."
Stieber caught the food bug at age 15 watching "Emeril Live" on TV. He was moved by Emeril Lagasse's genuine love of food and enthusiasm when it came to favorite ingredients. In high school Stieber worked at Alon's Bakery in Morningside on weekends. Later his mother and father, a successful humor writer and prominent liver transplant surgeon, respectively, supported his choice to leave UNC Asheville and go to culinary school instead. After graduating from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in 2008, Stieber began working at Atlanta's hottest new restaurant at the time, Holeman & Finch, where he met his first mentor, Ryan Smith. He stayed at H&F for nearly two years before leaving to work with Josh Hopkins, who at the time was the chef of Abattoir.
After a yearlong stint at Abattoir, Stieber left in 2010 to once again work under Smith, who had taken over the kitchen at Empire State South. At ESS, Stieber assumed the all-purpose roles of charcutier and butcher. In early 2013 Stieber agreed to do a small pop-up with friends, the owners of gone-but-not-forgotten Steady Hand Pour House in Emory Village, in his spare time. The pop-up relocated to the deli counter at Candler Park Market last fall, but the space was ill-suited for a fancy, pour-over coffee operation, and the Steady Hand crew dropped out. Stieber, however, kept cooking, eventually increasing service to five nights a week.
"I think it was after doing five nights ... at Candler Park Market when I realized running the pop-up was so time consuming for me without any staff that I didn't have time to do anything else," he says. "Then I realized, 'I don't think I want to do anything else. I like working for myself. I love it.'"
There are advantages to running a pop-up restaurant. You get to be your own boss and set your own hours, all while enjoying the freedom to experiment, hone, and incubate dishes for your restaurant before investor money is on the line.
"EMSM gives me freedom to play around and gives me a way to refine my food and my technique and my style. When you open a brick and mortar you kind of need a concept. That's a huge part of how you build clientele when you open, people need to know what to expect," he says.
More than halfway through cooking today's meal, Stieber's kitchen is still immaculate. He assembles the salad of peppery arugula and shaved radish in a huge metal mixing bowl and throws a sheet pan of corn tortillas into the oven. Once the apples and onions in the saucepan are ready to fall apart, Stieber deglazes the pan with a splash of apple cider vinegar. Next he turns to a hot frying pan full of ground pork, butter, and kosher salt for the taco filling. The pastured pork is pristine and almost smells grassy. The fat melts away, collecting in shiny beads around the pan's edges.
Running a pop-up restaurant comes with its own set of challenges, though, a reality with which Stieber has grappled since taking on EMSM last fall. Like any small business, it's exhausting. Stieber is the owner, the head of marketing and social media, the creative director, the chef, the line cook, and the prep guy. The only time Stieber has any help is from a support cook, a dishwasher, and a waitress when people are physically in the restaurant.
"It's not taken as seriously as a brick and mortar restaurant — people just see it as a cute side project," he says. "But this is what I do for a living. People are like 'what else do you do? What's your day job?' This is it. ... I feel like the term 'pop-up' just became this hot buzzword. People are trying to figure out what a pop-up is and how to understand it. It's become a catchall for anything nontraditional like supper clubs, restaurant takeovers, etc.. I feel like I've been lumped into this category as a 'pop-up chef' instead of just a chef. I don't think of myself as just a pop-up anomaly, but I think I'll always be thought of as that until I open a brick and mortar."
Stieber whips up a quick dressing of apple cider vinegar, canola oil, honey, and minced ginger in the blender, and dinner is done. The toasty tortillas are ready to be filled. The crusty sear on each crumble of ground pork tastes like caramelized salted candy. Before Stieber starts assembling his plate, he cracks open a beer and takes a swig.
In some ways, EMSM is the perfect avatar for what's happening in Atlanta food right now. It's hip and adventurous. It's built on symbiotic relationships with farmers, the seasons, and the community. It's pushing boundaries and helping redefine the way nontraditional restaurants are patronized and perceived.
"The last five or six years have changed so drastically here with how open-minded people are and how much the food scene is growing," Stieber says. "There's just more pressure from the talented pool of chefs in the city. You can't just do mediocre stuff anymore. You used to be able to get away with it because there was a lot of mediocre stuff, and there still is to a certain extent, but now there's a lot of pressure to push yourself, because if you take your foot off the pedal for one second you're going to be a dinosaur."
For the sauce:
?• canola or corn oil
?• 5 cloves garlic
?• 1 small shallot, chopped
?• 1 or 2 hot peppers (depending on desired heat level), halved
?• 2 apples, chopped
?• 1/2 stick butter
?• kosher salt (to taste)
?• Splash of apple cider vinegar
?• white sugar (to taste)
?Coat a medium saucepan with canola or corn oil and heat over a medium-low flame.
?Add the whole garlic cloves, shallot, the hot peppers (split in half, seeds, stem, and all), and the chopped apple (or seasonal fruit of your choice).
?Sweat them gently until they all begin to soften and slowly caramelize. When the ingredients start looking sexy, season everything with kosher salt and turn the heat up to medium high.
?Deglaze the pot with a good splash of apple cider vinegar and sprinkle in small handful of sugar. Cover with water.
?Next add half of a stick of butter and bring the mixture to a boil, then turn the heat down to a simmer.
?Once the liquid in the pan has reduced by half and ingredients look mashable, puree the sauce in a blender. Be sure to hold the lid down when blending hot liquid so it doesn’t explode everywhere. Pour the sauce into a dish and season with salt and sugar as necessary.
For the tacos:
?• 1 pound ground pork
?• 1 tablespoon butter
?• 1 bunch bok choy, chopped
?• 1 bunch radishes, sliced or shaved
?• corn tortillas
?While the sauce is cooking, sauté the ground pork in a little butter until the meat is nicely browned. Season with kosher salt only.
?While the meat is cooking, cut the bok choy into thin shreds. Mix the shredded bok choy with a splash of vinegar, a dash of sugar, and a little kosher salt to taste. Allow the bok choy to marinate at room temperature.
?Shave the radishes on a mandolin or as thinly as your knife can get them, both for taco toppings and for part of the salad.
?Turn off the heat and let the meat sit in the butter and rendered fat to stay warm (I have never seen a Mexican cook drain grease off taco fillings, so neither do I!).??
For the salad:
?• 1 bag arugula
?• green tops from one bunch of radishes
?Tear or cut the arugula and radish greens into manageable pieces for the salad.
For the dressing:
?• 1 small nob of young ginger, chopped
?• 1/4 cup honey
?• 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
?• 3/4 cups canola or corn oil
?• kosher salt to taste
?Pour the honey and apple cider vinegar into a blender along with the ginger. Stream the oil into the blender while it’s running to make the vinaigrette for the salad. You can whisk the dressing by hand, but if you are doing that, be sure to mince the ginger.? ?
To assemble the salad
?Season and dress the salad and serve alongside the tacos as a side dish.
To assemble the tacos
?I recommend heating the tortillas, to make them more pliable and comforting, in a low temp oven. Add some meat to each tortilla, slather the yummy sauce on the meat, and then garnish with the marinated bok choy and radish. If you feel up to it, rice or beans would certainly be a welcome addition. Lastly, and most importantly, enjoy with good company and ample ice cold, cheap lager!__