Waffle House is so near and dear to chef Chris Hall that he once created a Waffle House-inspired dish – asparagus scattered, smothered and covered – and put it on the menu at Local Three. His edible love letter to the Atlanta-based 24/7 fast-food chain resulted in a cease-and-desist order that was “lovingly delivered” by Fran Rogers, wife of Waffle House CEO Joe Rogers Jr., and a Local Three regular.
“I was trying to do something to tip my hat to them,” Hall said in defense.
But trademarks are trademarks, and in keeping with Waffle House’s ethos of equanimity, not even three-time Waffle House Smackdown culinary champ and proud Waffle House jukebox owner Chris Hall was above a hand slap. He has since framed the letter and hung it in his office.
“It’s very flattering when chefs do that,” said Waffle House director of public relations and external affairs Pat Warner of Hall’s menu tribute. “What is really flattering, and appreciating, is when they pay respect to our grill operators, our line cooks. We have folks with some real skills out there.”
Hall, who has undergone Waffle House training sessions, is in awe of the company’s line cooks. “They are calling tickets. Everything is verbal. It’s a whole different culinary language. I can speak a little of it but to be fluent is incredible.”
Hall holds the Smackdown champ record (“We have retired Chris. He’s in the hall of fame. He’s not allowed to compete anymore,” Warner said.), but his Atlanta peer Kevin Gillespie has also competed.
“It was one of the hardest food competitions I’ve ever done,” said Gillespie, who rose to national prominence after his performance on the TV show “Top Chef” in 2009. “Their food is hard to do fast. Waffle House has a table time of eight minutes. When a guest comes in, they should be eating their food and get their check dropped off in eight minutes. That is brutal.”
The chef winner of a Waffle House Smackdown (renamed Waffle House Showdown when it moved last year from the Charleston Food and Wine Festival to Callaway Resort and Gardens in Pine Mountain, Georgia) then must go head-to-head with a Waffle House corporate trainer. In Gillespie’s competition year, he was runner-up to Houston chef Chris Shepherd. Contest organizers allowed the pair to go two-on-one against the Waffle House pro. “He beat the snot out of us,” Gillespie said. “It’s an extremely humbling experience.”
“They judge on presentation, accuracy and taste,” Hall said. “It’s impossibly hard. You have to do it exactly how Waffle House does it.”
On Aug. 18, Gillespie and Hall will team up for the second year in a row to cook at the Waffle House on Piedmont Road in Buckhead for a private event to benefit local nonprofit Giving Kitchen, which provides assistance to food-service workers in crisis. For this Waffle House takeover, each course will feature WH-inspired dishes, and could include repeats from last year, like a cheffy rendition of the Cheese ‘N Eggs with Raisin Toast or a cake made with the company’s waffle batter mix.
Waffle House has agreed to these antics, so the pair of chefs won’t see a cease-and-desist order. Chef Ron Hsu is probably safe from one, too, since his rendition of Waffle House’s steak and eggs on the chef’s counter tasting menu at Lazy Betty is highly Japanese-inflected. Steak and eggs with wasabi and ponzu-beef jus is not just an homage to Waffle House, but also to his mother, the recently deceased Betty Hsu and restaurant’s namesake.
“That was her favorite dish there. I never understood the concept of it, but that’s what my mom always ordered,” he said.
As for himself, his go-to order would be the patty melt. But rejiggering it for service at Lazy Betty is a conundrum. “I don’t know how I can spin a patty melt at Lazy Betty,” he said.
Yet, Hsu’s memories and appreciation for Waffle House are about more than the food. Growing up the son of immigrant restaurant operators, “it was a very rare occasion that my family got to spend quality time away from the restaurant together,” he said.
“It’s more than a place to eat,” said Gillespie, who grew up in Locust Grove, a town with exactly one restaurant: Waffle House. He called it “as much a community center as anything else.” As a business owner, Gillespie admires the restaurant’s work culture. “People who work for them are ultra-loyal. They take care of their folks.”
“It’s genuine service with genuine people in a really interesting atmosphere,” Hall said. “There is zero pretension to Waffle House. Everybody’s equal.”
And anybody can get a cease-and-desist order.
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