The wheels in this guy’s head keep on turning.
From the moment Gerry Klaskala and I sat down to lunch, it seemed his brain was constantly churning. Though soft-spoken, and bearing a gentle smile, he looked me squarely in the eye during our entire hourlong conversation, one that was supposed to be a get-to-know-you affair. No note-taking.
We met up for a “real” interview a few weeks later at Aria, his nearly two-decades-old restaurant situated in a converted house in the heart of Buckhead. It was midmorning on a Monday, a quiet time for many a fine-dining restaurant. Klaskala, however, already was busy at work. Donning a black chef coat and white apron, he welcomed me into the dining room. Only a few lights were on.
I was there because I wanted to pick the brain of a chef and restaurateur who has been a fixture in the Atlanta dining scene for decades. I wanted to understand his culinary journey, but, more than that, what drives him these days and gives him staying power.
“I’m weirdly visual,” Klaskala said as a one-liner explanation of his culinary career. “I used to think everybody was creative.”
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He has an artistic mind, and that creative penchant is one he began exploring as a youth in Buffalo, N.Y. While Klaskala was in high school, his mother drove him to State University of New York at Buffalo to take fine arts classes. He’s a realist, though, and said that he did not end up studying fine arts because, “there are no jobs as artists.”
It was also during high school, while working at a restaurant, that the chef there opened his eyes to food as a creative expression. “The chef was into visual stuff, the display of food,” he recalled.
Klaskala was hungry to learn more, so he showed up before his regular shifts, and worked for free to soak up what his newfound mentor could teach him. A pivotal moment: when the chef told him that “you can go to school for this stuff.”
What was this place called the Culinary Institute of America? “Nobody had ever heard of it,” he said.
Upon graduating from the CIA in 1976, Klaskala moved to Atlanta. He brought with him a drawing table that he soon got rid of because it was a “distraction.”
Ask Klaskala about his hobbies today and he’ll say he doesn’t have any. “To me, you’re cheating. You’re not doing it 110 percent. I want to really focus.”
More than 40 years into his professional career, Klaskala remains intensely focused on his work.
He’d just received a delivery of golden morels, he told me, then left the table, went to the kitchen and returned with a sheet pan full of the mushrooms, their gorgeous honeycomb tops scrubbed clean of debris. He ticked off his thoughts about preparing this springtime gift from Mother Nature. It would be a quick saute, made with no more than four ingredients. “I will feature them simply. The classic is morel with cream, but cream is the great taker-away-er.”
I asked how he knows which ingredients to use.
“My mind starts to imagine those four ingredients. I use an inventory of flavors, tastes and textures.”
That same culinary memory bank, he said, is what makes chef life easier — not harder — these days. Sure, one can find new ideas via social media, but “the problem with the internet is that it can be too visual. There is too much direct interpretation.”
He also would rely on what he’s learned to prepare soft-shell crab coming in from Florida. Without hesitation, he knew he would serve the crustaceans with a recipe he’s long carried in his back pocket: a dill shallot dipping sauce.
Klaskala isn’t a man to follow trends blindly. And, he envisions things in ways that others do not.
Like, knowing the exact place for a dining concept when George McKerrow, founder of LongHorn Steakhouse and Ted’s Montana Grill, approached him almost 25 years ago about doing a restaurant together.
“I have a great location,” Klaskala told McKerrow.
It was the old Robinson’s Tropical Gardens space at 199 Paces Ferry Road, on the banks of the Chattahoochee, a spot that Klaskala had eyed while paddling down the river with his wife, Sally. Canoe opened in 1995, and remains a fixture in the Atlanta dining scene. “There are only two restaurants that sit on the water in Atlanta. It’s a special location,” Klaskala said.
Aria, which unlocked its doors in 2000, and since has garnered national accolades left and right, started out much the same way. “That was another little spot we kept driving past. I thought this was a darling location. You have to imagine them for what they can be.”
Imagining comes naturally to Klaskala. It’s harder to know whether his mental rigor is innate or learned, but, he’s still in the kitchen at Aria every night.
“I will outwork you,” he said, defiantly. “Inside you is a finite amount of energy. I know I still have it.”
Where does the stamina come from?
“Imagine that the kitchen is like going to the gym every day,” Klaskala said. “It’s about attitude. If you look at it as drudgery, yeah, it is.”
For him, being in the kitchen isn’t work at all.
Mindset is one thing, but most facets of life require work. Klaskala soon will celebrate 40 years with his wife. There was a time, early on, when the couple moved 11 times in 10 years. How did they survive?
“You want a great marriage quote?” he replied. Klaskala, the visualist, pulled out his phone to find a GIF inspirational quote: “Marriage is more than finding the right person. It is being the right person.”
At one point, he handed me his phone, so I could scroll through photo after photo of Sally. The pair have been sweethearts since high school. Their two sons have fledgling families of their own, and Klaskala has a 4-year old grandson to bounce on his lap.
Whereas some people can be consumed by work, Klaskala makes the juggling act look easy.
He’s a regular among Atlanta chefs who devote time to charity functions. He mentioned having recently hosted a high school prom party at Aria. He hoped that the kids went away feeling like a million bucks.
“Every person you touch, you create a memory.”
Indeed, the Atlanta dining institutions he has built — Aria and Canoe — have created memories for many of us that we won’t soon forget.