Atlanta’s gastronomy is an expression of its past and present identities. Eric Crane asks two local chefs and a sommelier to share their personal stories and shine a light on this unique food destination
In the ever-changing American culinary landscape, certain places remain true food destinations. Some of these cities and regions are known for their unique style of cuisine, while others are famous for a particular dish. Then there are those that benefit from a rich food history found in the diversity of the people.
The latter is what makes Atlanta one of the great food destinations in the country. Many would have had a layover in Atlanta at least once, and sure, the airport – the world’s busiest – has great places to enjoy world-class pizza and cocktails, and even elevated dining in some terminals. But it is when you head out to discover the city that the true magic happens.
There is so much to discover in Atlanta’s food culture. The city is fortunate to have so many cultural influences on the dining scene. The Centennial Olympic Games of 1996 pumped a lot of life into the local restaurant landscape and it has only grown since. While classic Southern staples are easily found, the diversity of the population brings influences from Asia, Latin America, and all over the globe.
From award-winning chefs such as Hugh Acheson of Empire State South and Steven Satterfield of Miller Union, who are redefining Southern flavors, to Christopher Grossman who reimagines the American bistro at The Chastain, there are plenty of restaurants for the traditional diner. Elsewhere, local institution Lucian Books and Wine show how restaurants can be so much more than just a place to eat with its thoughtfully curated book selection, while a trip through Buford Highway sheds light on flavors from around the globe, from Korean to Thai to Indian. Even the diner is given fresh life, with Kevin Clark’s Homegrown serving up one of the best breakfasts in the country. The city is able to offer something to everyone, from the mind-blowing Lemon-Pepper wings at Magic City to the tasting menu at Gerry Klaskala’s Aria.
To get a fuller picture of what food and dining mean to Atlanta, we rounded up chefs Chris Hall of the Unsukay restaurant group and Aaron Phillips of Lazy Betty, along with the restaurant’s sommelier Marvella Castañeda, who shine a spotlight on this unique region and, along the way, share their personal culinary journeys.
What’s your favorite part of the Atlanta culinary scene?
Chris Hall: The camaraderie. Atlanta’s chefs really believe that a “rising tide lifts all boats” and there is a level of camaraderie, care and learning from one another that is inspiring. It’s collaborative and vibrant. The culinary scene here is growing and evolving with more great neighborhood restaurants now than ever before. There are more pop ups, more regionally focused ethnic dining places as well as destination restaurants.
Marvella Castañeda: It’s passionately alive, creatively vibrant, and pushing boundaries everyday. Atlanta is full of passion-driven professionals, whether in food or wine. No one does anything half-way, you can always experience 100 percent intention.
Aaron Phillips: The people. There is so much talent in Atlanta. The people working in restaurants make this an amazing place. Diversity is embraced and we are at the forefront of inclusivity and pushing the needle to embracing all cultures. Hopefully more cities can embrace Atlanta’s philosophy.
What cuisine (and wines) do you specialize in?
Chris Hall: One of my mentors told me something I have adopted as my culinary mantra: “You can’t argue with delicious.” I enjoy cooking many types of food and loathe boundaries so the philosophy of “cook delicious food” resonated with me. That said, I believe firmly in cooking seasonally and using the best ingredients you can find.
Aaron Phillips: I would say global eclectic, I don’t have any real parameters on me as far as what style of cuisine. My technique is clearly French-inspired with modern philosophies and old-school approaches. As far as flavors go; it could be Peruvian, Caribbean, Japanese or from anywhere. I’ll pull inspiration and flavors from all over the world.
Marvella Castañeda: Lazy Betty is a tasting menu restaurant, and since the food is culturally diverse and constantly changing, the wine program features selections from all over the world with the intention of exposing guests to new styles and regions.
Who have been mentors and what have you learnt from them?
Chris Hall: My two most formative mentors are (chefs) Gerry Klaskala and Gary Mennie who taught me about food and its many elements. As a young cook, they helped me with different techniques of cooking that became the metaphorical tools in my toolbox. They also taught leadership, how to run a kitchen, the financial aspects of the restaurant business and, most importantly, hospitality – the backbone of everything we do.
Aaron Phillips: As a young chef in New York, the list is vast: Ronald Hsu, Adam Plitt, Adrienne Cheatham and Éric Ripert have all been influential. A specific dish? Chef David Bouley taught me how to make a seared foie gras when I was 21 and that’s been on my mind ever since.
Marvella Castañeda: The education of wine is an entire language, and I’m fascinated with the history, the laws, the climate and geographical influences. I get to work with such intelligent and helpful sommeliers, wine specialists, representatives, distributors, even influencers. It’s a community that I’m grateful for.
How has you cooking evolved through the years?
Chris Hall: There are very few chefs that are doing something “new” with food, and I’m certainly not one of them. Instead I tend to take familiar dishes and flavor combinations and tweak them, and cook with a sense of humor. Food should be evocative: if it brings back memories, then that is incredibly powerful. At Unsukay we’re constantly evolving our food. As I’ve grown as a cook, I have tended towards simplicity. As a young chef, there’s the tendency to try to prove something, demonstrate your skills. Now I try to let the ingredients speak for themselves. Less is more.
Aaron Phillips: All dishes are a natural progression and evolution. I want my food to inspire creativity in other chefs. How can we make a dish be the best version of itself? That’s the evolution of food: having the freedom to be creative, and pushing dishes to be better than they have ever been.
What style of cuisine has a surprising wine pairing affinity that is not traditional?
Marvella Castañeda: Fried food, 100 percent. Pairings such as fried chicken and Champagne, or Lambrusco, Riesling, Furmint, Grenache, Assyrtiko and Chablis. There are endless fun possibilities.
Who are your typical customers and guests?
Chris Hall: We run neighborhood restaurants, and we are fortunate to cultivate relationships with so many of our guests. I am beyond fortunate to have formed so many friendships with people who dine in our restaurants: guests are now friends. That has enriched my life immeasurably.
Aaron Phillips: We welcome anyone who wants to have their life changed by food and the experience. Our mantra is about respect and inclusivity. We want them to be treated in a way they have never experienced, taste things they have never had before, and most importantly to transport them from the stress of everyday life.
How does the restaurant experience enhance the taste of food?
Chris Hall: My goal is to transport people away from the daily grind and provide them with an experience, so we focus on the experiential as opposed to the transactional. So, the atmosphere matters, the decor, and the music play a role. The biggest differentiator for us is our staff who care deeply. Their excitement for a dish or a new cocktail or bottle of wine is transferred to our guests.
Aaron Phillips: The restaurant experience is a symphony, a play, an orchestra. There is a holistic team energy that has to be achieved from the host to the dishwasher, and to work together in unison. It can’t be fake, it has to be real. If we achieve that within our ranks then the staff can transport guests to something more than food on a plate. I am inspired by our team; they’re the ones doing the work, creating the restaurant experience.
Do you use a curated wine program to help elevate the flavors?
Marvella Castañeda: Over 50 percent of our Lazy Betty guests will opt for the wine pairings. They are designed to be a part of the food; to not just pair easily, but intentionally enhance the meal evolving into an immersive experience with educational wine descriptions.
Chris Hall: I curate the wine programs at all our restaurants so yes, wine is an integral component to our dining experience from pizza to foie gras. Wine can elevate food and vice versa. It’s something we work on constantly.
Aaron Phillips: It is absolutely crucial. And just as important is the front of house staff knowing how important that experience is. It is more than just pouring something in a glass. There are stories to be shared which is another element that adds to the experience.
How does the restaurant experience enhance wine service?
Marvella Castañeda: The price has to match the quality. Perhaps they try a wine or a pairing that they will never forget. This means that we work with high-end quality wines and rare gems in the regular menu. Servers are well equipped with information necessary to explain the wines. We let the guests know that the wine pairings are a full service experience; we pour and we talk about the wine and answer questions if any, and then the food is served. The food is also described in detail.
What is your best or most interesting food and wine pairing experience?
Marvella Castañeda: My top three moments are: Kopke 1979 Colheita Port with tamarind-banana tart with caramel and coconut sorbet; Tissot ‘Traminer’ Savagnin 2018 with a yuzu-poached halibut in bonito beurre blanc; and Au Bon Climat ‘Hildegard’ 2020 with white alba truffle and parmesan risotto.
Chris Hall: I’ve been fortunate to have some incredible meals with brilliant chefs and sommeliers. I tend to like to pair the rare with the common: homemade onion dip & chips with caviar. Cheeseburgers and First Growth Bordeaux, pizza and old Barolo.
Aaron Phillips: I had a memorable dinner at Per Se and asked for the “full glass” serving for their food and wine pairing menu and it was unbelievable. It was excessive and over the top and I still remember it to this day since it was the perfect culmination of my love of food and wine, and expertly delivered hospitality.
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