Before I became a writer I was a cook and, for a brief couple of years, a head chef at a small, neighborhood restaurant. When I took over, the menu was like a pentimento picture — with layers of handiwork from previous chefs visible through the successive overlays.
The house specialties at the time were (pretty overwrought) creative Southwestern dishes, though there were “traditional favorites” that hearkened to simpler times when the kitchen was better known for its enchiladas and tortilla soup. Then, on the bottom of the menu, were the classics that dated to the original chef who opened the restaurant with a American comfort food menu of fried chicken, chicken fried steak and stuffed trout.
In other words, the menu was a minefield of dishes I couldn’t take off for fear of alienating our dwindling and increasingly geriatric customer base. Yet I had to make changes. We needed to cook with real butter and peanut oil, not hydrogenated fats. I refused to serve previously frozen fish or to make the creamy pasta sauce with (yuck) commercial mayonnaise and dried herbs.
I had to relent in some ways. Fried chicken stayed on the menu even though we only got a dozen orders a week and it wrecked our timing in the kitchen. I closed my eyes to the raspberry salad vinaigrette that contained pureed frozen raspberry. There was no way I was getting that thick glob of ketchup off the top of the meatloaf.
I managed to turn the menu — stealthily, surely — into one I took pride in. I think my greatest accomplishment was transforming the steam table, with its sad veggies and indestructible sauces waiting to be ordered, into an ice-filled cold display where the cooks could reach for fresh, raw ingredients.
New chefs taking over settled kitchens is the oldest story in the restaurant business. But unless it’s a superstar chef or an iconic restaurant, the public (or newspaper critics) rarely note the transition.
What happens when a chef takes over a well-liked neighborhood spot and has to or wants to make some changes, but also keep customers happy? Here’s what, in the chefs’ own words:
Chef: Todd Richards, 41. The former executive chef at the Seelbach Hilton Hotel in Louisville, Richards has run the kitchens at both One Flew South in Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and Rolling Bones BBQ in the Old Fourth Ward.
Prior to The Shed, the Chicago native has been earning kudos for his work at the Cafe at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead.
The Transition: Richards took over the kitchen at the Shed at Glenwood in Glenwood Park this summer from longtime chef Lance Gummere, who left to partner in the new Ansley Park restaurant, Bantam & Biddy.
“My last day at the Ritz was Aug. 3, and I started here Aug. 4,” says Richards. “I live in this neighborhood, and I’ve been coming here for four years. I loved the idea of providing really, really great high end food at not a really high price.”
What’s changed on the menu: “The menu has 95 percent changed. The integrity of what Lance developed is still there, and we still have slider night on Wednesdays (when the restaurant offers more than a dozen inexpensive sliders). But I’m just cooking the food that I’ve always cooked.”
What’s changed in the kitchen: “We rearranged the kitchen for the cooking techniques I use a lot. There was a six-burner stove in the back of the kitchen used for prep. I moved it to the front to saute more items. We have more sauces in pots, so we needed more burners. I’d like to bring in a Cryovac (vacuum-sealing) machine and (employ) sous vide cooking to make things more efficient during service. This restaurant has 86 seats, and they fill up pretty quickly on weekends.”
One dish you could never take off the menu: The “Ding Dong” will never go anywhere. It’s a chocolate cake with cream filling and a ganache covering. And we’ll always have sliders.”
One dish that shows your style: Seared scallops with apple relish and cauliflower gratin.
“The beauty of this dish is that it’s basically six ingredients,” says Richards. “The acid from the apple relish balances out the dish by cutting through the sweet scallops.”
The Shed at Glenwood:
475 Bill Kennedy Way, Atlanta, 404-835-4363, theshedatglenwood.com
The Chef: Adam Waller, 36. The Marietta native opened Cuerno restaurant in Midtown for Riccardo Ullio, who then moved him to run the kitchen at Sotto Sotto in Inman Park. He has also cooked at Abattoir and at STG Trattoria in Buckhead.
The Transition: Waller took over the kitchen at Bocado, the Westside bistro that serves creative sandwiches at lunch and a well-curated menu of small plates and entrees in the evening. Opening chef Todd Ginsberg left in late October to open the General Muir, a deli set to open in the new Emory Pointe complex in Atlanta. “Todd hung out with me for three weeks before he left,” says Waller. “It was good getting to know the staff and getting to know the feel of the place. Plus, I got a rundown on the different personalities in the kitchen and advice on how to work with them.”
What’s changed on the menu: “I’d say a good 35 percent to 40 percent of the menu has changed. Most of the freedom has come in the small plates. I’m on a health kick, incorporating more vegetables, grains and greens into my cooking. We have a garden in the back, so I’m using as much as I can from that — beets, cabbage and really nice arugula mostly. But really I’m just trying to keep the standards. It’s very simple food here.”
What’s changed in the kitchen: “Nothing at all. It’s a pretty straightforward setup. There’s a convection oven, a couple of flattops and a stove. I’d really like to get my hands on an immersion circulator one day.”
One dish you could never take off the menu: “The burger! It’s not going anywhere. There would be a riot on the streets if I took that burger off.”
One dish that shows your style: “The forbidden black rice bowl. It’s simply cooked steamed rice, seasoned with olive oil and vinegar and served with roasted butternut squash and a brazil nut pesto. You feel good eating it.”
Bocado: 887 Howell Mill Road, Atlanta, 404-815-1399, bocadoatlanta.com
The Chef: Ian Winslade, 48. He has run the kitchens of Atlanta’s buzziest high-volume restaurants, including Two Urban Licks, BluePointe and Shout. Despite his many years in Atlanta, Winslade still hasn’t traded in his native English accent for a Southern one.
The Transition: Murphy’s has been around for decades, so when Winslade took over the kitchen 15 months ago, he had to be cautious with customer expectations. “Some of the things have been on the menu so long there’s no way I could change them,” he says. “So the trick was trying to blend in my style — to try to push the envelope forward while respecting the past.”
What’s changed on the menu: “Well, it’s still about 60 percent the old menu and 40 percent new dishes. But what I’ve really changed are the ingredients. I’ve been trying to source better products and use better ingredients without affecting cost. For instance, I’m buying bread from H&F (Bread Co.) instead of what we had before. They were using this nasty frozen spinach in the spinach meatloaf before. Now we use fresh, and it’s not so waterlogged. I don’t want to be rude or disrespectful, but lots of the menu had been dumbed down.”
What’s changed in the kitchen: “A lot. I brought in a solid fuel charbroiler to replace the old gas grill. It gives a bit more dimension and depth to the food. We had to build a new hood for it. I also got (owner) Tom (Murphy) to invest in some combi Rational ovens (which provide both steam and convection heat), and they really make the food so much more moist.”
One dish you could never take off the menu: “So much of it. That meatloaf. The brisket braised in Guinness. The chicken burger at lunch.”
One dish that shows your style: “There’s a trout we serve with corona beans and a caper emulsion. It has capers, lemon zest and cream, and we give this sauce a nitrous charge for a little volume. It’s really very nice.”
Murphy’s: 997 Virginia Avenue, Atlanta, 404-872-0904, murphys-atlanta-restaurant.com