Dear Atlanta chefs,
I write this letter with respect and admiration and, in some instances, love for all the hard work you do. But I have to deliver a tough message, and it is this: You need to up your game.
Four months ago I started dining out again as a restaurant critic for this newspaper after a five-year hiatus. I haven’t hit every major restaurant yet but have been to enough to witness a real change from my last go-round at this job. The standards aren’t what they used to be.
The economy hasn’t been nice to the restaurant community. In particular, the decimation of the top tier — the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, Seeger’s, Joel — means fewer young chefs get the kind of exacting, old-school European training they need to run their own kitchens.
This May, thousands of visitors are going to descend on our city for the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, and they will be eager to see the vibrant, exciting contemporary Southern cooking that we’re known for. Let’s show it to them. But first, consider these 10 requests — pleas, really — that will make Atlanta a better place to chow down.
1. Please work on your execution: Set high standards, train your cooks well, and if you don’t yet trust them to execute the food as well as you do, don’t leave the kitchen. I can’t tell you how many good restaurants have served me limp salad greens, pan-fried fish without crisp skin, steaks without sear and seasoning that is all over the place.
2. Dazzle us with your finesse: People go out to restaurants to eat the kinds of dishes they can’t make at home. We want to marvel at how you cut that amazingly tender braised short rib into such a perfect square or how you coaxed that infinitely velvety texture from a parsnip.
3. Think about our health: When I look to the stars, it appears the heavenly body that brought us this Age of Meat is in retrograde. People are starting — gingerly — to speak of vegetables and sensible eating again. But the “gluttony-is-good” ethos just won’t go away. Pork fat and bacon are delicious — even more so in moderation. I hate that feeling of going home clutching my stomach, even after leaving half the food on my plate.
4. Show some wit: Each dish should be a story well told, even if it’s one that has been told many times before. Maybe you are making a beet and goat cheese salad, or macaroni and cheese. Instead of cutting the beets into wedges, you might sliver them into carpaccio rounds. And with so many La Brea truffle oil pit versions of mac and cheese around town, wouldn’t it be fun to envision one that is surpassingly light and delicate?
5. Don’t be afraid of sauce: I don’t miss the days of sticky and overly salty reduction sauces with meat and wading pools of butter with fish. But I do long for dishes with a small pool of sauce bridging the flavors of protein and garnish — those bites of food that register on the palate as three-part harmony. These days I see many dishes that are damp and greasy with butter, but none have that one perfect spoonful of beurre blanc that clings to a perfectly warmed plate and resonates with the flavors of shallot and wine.
6. Be casual in the right way: I’ve eaten a lot of simple down-home food from gorgeous plates in design meccas of urban rusticity in this city. Now I’d like to eat an amazing plate of thoughtful food in a crappy little room with mismatched chairs and plates. Don’t set the stage for casual; just be casual and cook like there’s no tomorrow.
7. Work toward the new fusion: Atlanta is one of the country’s best cities for new immigrant cooking. Our mainstream restaurants need to better reflect the reality of today’s multiethnic South. Have you heard of the Indian vegetable called drumstick? It can be as delicious as artichokes. Have you tried mashing boniato sweet potatoes, which are as white as clouds? Have you ever tried a sprig of fresh fenugreek at the DeKalb Farmers Market? Might you consider trying local goat for a winter special? If you like to go to Korean joints on Buford Highway, do you ever think about how to incorporate those flavors (chile, garlic, sugar, fermented vegetables) to a smart, wine-friendly dining sensibility?
8. Make one thing really well: This whole food truck mania is not about the pleasures of diesel fumes and plastic forks. It’s about young cooks who make brilliant pizza, or serious ice cream, or bizarrely original tacos. Every chef needs a signature dish that is all hers or his, a lure to the restaurant, a mouthful of nothing-else-like-it that diners dream of days later.
9. Surprise us: I recently went to a restaurant I really like and have to say my heart sank a bit when the waitress said the soup special was butternut squash. What’s special about that? Everyone makes it. Is anyone trying a cream of turnip, or kohlrabi, or escarole, or carrot with cumin, or Sea Island red pea with country ham, or wild lamb’s quarters with black cardamom and ginger, or …
10. Finally, show us your unique POV: I know many of your customers want a burger, or a steak, or the same sorry dish you’ve been making for 10 years and, well, sure: The customer’s always right. But you went into this line of work to show us who you are as a chef. Show me something that you, personally, in your most uncompromising state of mind, want to eat. Try and advance the agenda. This city needs you more than ever.