He likes al fresco, and tells me that he’s “creative when it comes to food” but “zero creative when it comes to names.” Already, I disbelieve him, Leif Johnson, executive chef and owner of Bellwoods Social House in Atlanta and Bite in Alpharetta, since he came up with “Gangsta Fries,” a delightfully gooey cheese, bacon and French fries combination. And recently, he’s upped the burger menu at Bellwoods to include seven in-house ground burgers, made with a mix of short rib, brisket and ground chuck.
Chef Johnson is affable, the kind of fellow you’d want to have a drink, pizza or any kind of food with. He likes food—a lot—and will tell you how he came to try any and everything just once. He’s a fun, story-telling kind of guy, which in it’s own way, mirrors the menus at both Bellwoods and Bite. “New American,” he calls them, which are influenced by his California upbringing, classical culinary training, hard knocks education and…I’ll let him tell the rest.
How would you describe your menu?
There are two different concepts. Bite is more fine dining and Bellwoods is more bar fare. Those menus are 'New American' which is almost a cop out, but it gives me the freedom to do all kinds of things. It’s taking dishes that are very familiar then putting our spin on it, such as Latin, Asian, southern or east coast. In part, it’s heavily influenced by my background and places I’ve lived.
What’s your best dish to date?
At both restaurants, our smoked chicken, shrimp and grits encompasses this idea of ‘the best’ because it’s everything wrapped up into one dish. When I moved here seven years ago, I had never eaten grits and had no desire to eat them. It wasn’t until I ate scallops and grits one day that I started to imagine what shrimp and grits could be. I spent the next year and a half making grits all the time, trying to perfect the recipe for myself. Of course, [in Georgia], everyone makes shrimp and grits, so how could ours make mine stand out? We do a lot of things on the Big Green Egg like smoking and barbecuing. To make the chicken, shrimp and grits dish, I smoke the chicken on the Big Green Egg then pull off the meat off. In the pan, I have chicken, shrimp, garlic, a little bit chipotle, which is part of the Los Angeles/Latin flavor profile, house-made red pepper pico de gallo, a smokey-flavored chicken stock and reduced wine. It’s finished with a little butter, cilantro and bacon on top of grits. This dish encompasses our style the best.
What three kitchen tools can you not live without?
A Big Green Egg. I use it every single day. Next is towels. I don’t know what it is, but I have a penchant for towels. I love towels. I like cleaning and wiping. I use them to grip knives, holding meat when I slice it and just about everything. That’s kind strange, right? (laughs)
It’s good to know you clean and wipe everything. I tend to check out the restrooms at restaurants before I eat and I have to say, the restroom at Bellwoods was clean when I was there.
I’m glad that you said that because that’s a huge pet peeve. At Bellwoods, everyone knows that the first place I [inspect] is the bathroom.
What’s your third must-have tool?
How did you come up with the title and concept for “Gangsta Fries?”
(laughs deviously) They’re something I’ve made for years. Initially, it was for my friends and I. We got together, drank late at night and there was a need for something that was super easy to make, quick, sharable and went great with beer. I’ve been making fries and potato chips with homemade blue cheese dressing or crumble, bacon and chili oil; the latter gives it a counterpoint of spicy. When we came up with the concept of Bellwoods, it seemed like a no-brainer to do those fries. ‘Gangsta’ is slang and refers to anything that’s great. So, we went with that and hoped people found it fun in it.
What’s your favorite dish when you’re dining out?
That’s a challenge because I don’t find a lot of free time between two restaurants and a catering business. So, typically, it ends up being end-of-the-shift, stumble out of the restaurant and anything that’s open will be what I eat, which means pizza. In Alpharetta, it may be Alessio’s since it’s right down the street from my restaurant.
What will you absolutely not eat?
I will pretty much eat everything. Part of being a chef is being open to trying anything. When I was little, my parents had a thing called the thank you, no thank you bite. No matter what [they] put in front of [me], [I] only had to take one bite. If [I] liked it, great; I could eat it for the rest of [my] life. If [I] didn’t like it, [they] never asked [me] to eat that again. That has stuck with me.
…the grungier the place, the better it is.
What was the last song you danced to?
(laughs heartily then towards the end, sings the song) I have a fourteen-month old and I danced to Elmo’s World; it’s ‘The Ball Song.’
Indoors or al fresco?
Al fresco. Always.
…creative bastards. They are your best friend and can be your worst enemy.
Jack and Coke.
Anything that is pecan pie-ish like caramel, salted pecans and ice cream is my jam.