About a decade ago, when chef Zeb Stevenson was spreading his wings at the Livingston at the Georgian Terrace Hotel in Midtown, he cooked up the idea for foie gras hot dogs and offered them as a special. Genius? He sold not a one.
While Stevenson still will go on record about the deliciousness of this dish, the chef who once held a reputation for spherification since has taken a different route with his cooking, and he has no plans to combine luxe duck liver with lowly sausage links in unholy ways any time soon.
Stevenson’s next venture sees him joining forces with former Watershed on Peachtree co-owner Ross Jones to open Redbird in the west Midtown space previously occupied by Bacchanalia. In discussing those plans, he said that he wants to “get back to traditional cooking.” For him, this means to “get in touch with the food, use all our senses, our intuition” and to shift away from “fancy and goofy modernist cooking techniques, get rid of sous-vide and all of these traps we’ve fallen into.”
He added, “I really think there is an anti-modern cooking thing a-brewing.”
Funny. Lately, I’d been mulling over the same thing. But, I also wonder whether it’s a premise built on my own current biases toward tradition and away from of-the-moment avant-garde.
Example: Not an hour after speaking with Stevenson, I found myself in the dining room at Holmes, the house-turned-restaurant that opened this summer as part of the new Alpharetta City Center development. There, chef-owner Taylor Neary and his crew dish up small-plate American fare using local, hyper-seasonal ingredients.
I still can’t get the roasted baby carrots out of my mind. Everything was treated with such tenderness — from the orange blossom honey glaze to the drizzle of spicy Moroccan chili oil to the careful crisscross arrangement of the root veggies themselves, their intact stems and roots a reminder that real baby carrots aren’t uniformly sized and don’t come from a bag. The orange hue contrasted with the light green disks of finely sliced scallions and the black and white dots of sesame seeds, all resting on a rustic white clay plate. This was edible art. It felt original, and yet wholly familiar and soul satisfying. And, it didn’t take a freeze-dryer or a centrifuge to make it.
Stevenson said he seeks more than ever to serve food, not an experiment. He recalled why certain meals, such as one at French restaurant Le Cou Cou in New York, resonated with him. “There are no tricks there. They just do it with care, selection of ingredients and technique.”
Craig Richards, executive chef at Hampton + Hudson, and formerly top toque at St. Cecilia, shared similar sentiments. Citing sous-vide cooking and the use of xanthan gum or powders, he noted: “You can explore those things, but they are to highlight simple, traditional cooking. It starts with finding the best ingredient and highlighting that ingredient.”
Richards believes that keeping close to the traditions of a cuisine doesn’t mean sacrificing originality; it leads to heartfelt food that people can connect with better. “You can find originality in making something delicious, nailing it by making it the way it’s been made for hundreds of years. There’s a simple honesty to it, more love, compassion and hospitality. As I get older as a chef, that becomes apparent to me.”
Chef-restaurateur Kevin Gillespie of Revival and Gunshow also views shifts in a chef’s approach to cooking as part of the maturation process. “I started in a traditional kitchen. I came up in a European model. As I was more exposed to food, I gained confidence and the desire to experiment and play around with food,” he said. “I’ve kept the modernist techniques I like, and thrown away the others I don’t care for.”
Gillespie said the re-emerging trend among chefs to explore childhood foods influences the techniques brought to bear on them. “As you see a higher concentration of people getting excited about the food they grew up with, people have a hard time finding a way to add that modernist pantry into those things, because they seem to be in stark contrast with one another,” he said. His prediction? “As time goes on we’ll see more modernist techniques inserted into the cuisine of our childhood.”
Through the years, veteran Atlanta chef-restaurateurs Linton Hopkins and Ford Fry have seen innovative cooking techniques and equipment deliver groundbreaking moments for restaurant kitchens. They consider these tools to be beneficial — when used purposefully.
“I love technology, but I only love technology when protecting the integrity and quality of how we cook our food,” said Hopkins, whose modernist pet peeves include too many gels in food. “Tech should not be the goal. Human interaction and deliciousness should be the goal.”
“When combi ovens went into play, that really elevated the game,” Fry said. Circulators make things better “when you are circulating the correct stuff,” he said. “Where it’s gone wrong: circulating stuff that doesn’t need to be circulated, or that manipulates the texture of the meat in a bad way.”
As for modernist cuisine as a whole, “I don’t need to be wowed by art so much more these days. I’ve kind of seen it,” Fry said. He also thinks expressing oneself on the plate is secondary to having a solid cooking foundation. “When we first opened JCT Kitchen, I found there were lots of chefs who could do cool things, but couldn’t make a stock to save their lives. These are just basics.”
An undercurrent that surfaced in my conversations with chefs was their sense of responsibility toward equipping the next generation of chefs with tools for success. Fry doesn’t see a circulator as the greatest training device for up-and-comers. “They are not really learning how to cook. You just set it in a bag and put on the timer.”
“We’re not doing them any favors by teaching them to press buttons,” Stevenson echoed.
As it turns out, it was Fry who did Stevenson a favor that night of the foie gras hot dog special. “Ford made the remark, ‘You aren’t going to sell any of these,’” Stevenson recalled. “Deep down, I knew he was right. Out of the table of the chefs I respected, he offered a truthful, if hard to swallow, opinion.”
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