One of Avalon’s latest concepts is Colletta, the modern Italian restaurant by Indigo Restaurant Group (who also owns neighboring restaurant Oak Steakhouse.) At the helm of the kitchen is Executive Chef Michael Perez, who leads an under-30 kitchen to create modern twists on classic Italian staples. Perez has travelled the country, working in high-end kitchens in Portland, Los Angeles, Hawaii and Charleston. Now he's settled into Atlanta, and he's found the similarities with his hometown of Portland. Here we chat with Perez about his love for the South, living in Avalon and spending $700 on a meal in Italy.
You’ve worked in Portland, Los Angeles, and Charleston. Why did you move around so much?
I’m about to turn 30, so it was important for me to hop around. I try not to spend two years at any one restaurant because I think it’s important to grasp and learn from several different chefs and piece together your own style. I think if you stick to one style of cooking then you narrow yourself.
You grew up in Portland. Do you miss it now that you’re in the South?
A lot of the South reminds me of Portland. People are conversational and hospitable; they hold the doors open for you and chat in the grocery aisles. There’s a humbleness to the people in both places, so it’s familiar to me.
Are there similarities to Portland’s food scene?
The foothills of the Georgia remind me of the Cascade Mountains. I had a woman knocking on the kitchen door the other day to bring me fresh morels. In Portland we would get that in August because of the climate. Here I see a lot of the foraged foods that we had out West, like ramps and fiddlehead ferns.
Do you have a favorite part of Atlanta?
The Buford Highway scene blows my mind. It’s like Toys R Us for a chef. There’s a Korean barbecue place that reminds me of KoreaTown in Los Angeles- two burners on the table, open late nights. When I go there I hang out until 1:30 in the morning.
What do you think of Avalon?
I actually live in one of the apartments at Avalon. It’s gift and curse. I get the phone call in the middle of the night. One time our fire alarm went off, so I showed up in my pajamas with my Chihuahua.
Talk about Colletta’s kitchen.
We’re a young kitchen, I’m the oldest guy in the kitchen at 29. There’s accountability throughout the kitchen and we really build off each other. When one of the cooks has an idea, then my sous chefs and I mentor them. We want to help turn concepts into dishes that can be on the menu. That gives me a reason to be at work- to push my younger chefs minds. It makes our kitchen flow more like a machine.
What makes Colletta stand out from other Italian restaurants?
In Italian cuisine, it’s important to respect tradition. At Colletta, we put a modern spin on some of the classic Italian dishes.
- We have a carbonara, but the way we plate it is elegant. You stir the yolk in tableside, so the guest sees the carbonara created right before their eyes.
- I always like to have an obscure Neapolitan pizza on the menu. The “Duck” features duck confit, tallegio, honey nut squash and chives.
- We sous vide our octopus for five hours at 84 degrees Celsius. Then we char it in a pan and serve it with traditional cannellini beans and pork broth.
What was your experience traveling in Italy like?
The Italians are pushing what it means to be an Italian dish. For instance, I went to Osteria Francescana in Modena for lunch. There are only 10 tables in the entire restaurant. We drank water and paid $700. But it was a 9-course tasting menu. My favorite course was their Parmesan dish that had five different Parmesans with five different preparations. So while that restaurant is a departure from what you think as Italian, everything is sourced locally. The Italians take pride in sourcing as local as possible, going to the market and knowing your farmers. That’s what we’re also trying to do at Colletta.