A pilot who runs a kitchen

When I first walked into the Lawrence, a restaurant located at 905 Juniper St. in Midtown, my intention was to say howdy to operating partner and beverage director Eric Simpkins.

Mutual friends had connected us, and Simpkins agreed to give me the lowdown on Atlanta’s drink scene. He did, but he also introduced me to the Lawrence’s new executive chef, Perry Griffith. That night, I had dreams I hadn’t had in 20 years. I dreamed of airplanes.

Griffith is a 2003 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy. I should be a ’94 USAFA grad, but I left in 1991. I quit. Griffith didn’t.

Griffith went on to become a pilot. His nine years in the military took him to Air Force bases in Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arkansas and Florida. He was also deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Griffith was special operations, flying a Lockheed MC-130P Combat Shadow, which he modestly calls a “fun aircraft.” That plane has assisted with evacuations, search and rescue, humanitarian and other support missions.

In 2012, after nine years of serving his country, Capt. Perry Griffith returned to civilian life. He subsequently enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Atlanta. Concurrent to completing Le Cordon’s one-year certificate program, Griffith joined Kevin Rathbun’s team at Rathbun’s. He started as garde manger and worked his way up to sous chef, splitting time between Rathbun’s, Krog Bar and Rathbun’s Steak Bar. The chef gig at the Lawrence opened up and Griffith was hired.

Griffith has always liked food, he told me. He worked at diners and fast-food joints during his high school days in Cleveland. He soaked up foreign cuisine when abroad, then re-created those dishes when he landed on home soil. But, there is more driving his career choice.

“I wanted to find something high-paced,” said Griffith, who holds a B.S. in special operations.

Flying commercially, often the next move for ex-military pilots, did not interest him. He didn’t want to bring a plane to altitude and set it on autopilot.

Working on autopilot is not what he did while deployed from 2009 to 2012 — one tour in Iraq and three in Afghanistan. Those missions required him to fly at low altitude and to be highly alert. “You always had to do something or you weren’t doing your job,” he said.

Movement is where Griffith sees the connection between restaurant and military life.

“I love the pace of the kitchen,” he said.

And he enjoys leading a “small brigade.” His current team includes 10 people. Together, they manage to churn out 100 covers on a weekday and between 150 and 200 on weekends.

The 34-year-old Griffith also stays busy off-hours. At 5-feet, 9-inches and a trim 140 pounds, he’s a member of the Atlanta Track Team. Running is something he’s done since junior high school. It’s also what kept him fit and focused when deployed.

Griffith sees his military background as key to tackling his current duties, especially on the managerial front, whether directing people or calculating food costs.

“Management is one of his strengths,” Simpkins said. “We hired him for his leadership abilities.”

How about Griffith’s culinary prowess? “He has to grow as a chef,” Simpkins candidly replied.

Griffith would agree. When discussing the menu at the Lawrence, Griffith was quick to credit sous chef Michael Kelso for masterminding dishes. The pair are focused on bringing the food to a level that matches the restaurant’s progressive cocktail program. A new lunch menu recently debuted. After that, the pair will focus on brunch and dinner offerings.

Griffith said that, apart from using local, seasonal ingredients and preparing dishes he’d like to eat himself, he is not wedded to a cooking style or philosophy. Rather, he’s focused on figuring out how to make the Lawrence a food destination.

“We have Empire State South down the street to compete with. That’s the level we are trying to get to,” Griffith said.

Just as in the military, success in the restaurant world is earned by a team. No one single person can do it alone.

With many parallels between piloting a plane and navigating a kitchen team, perhaps Griffith’s professional career move isn’t so odd after all.

Yet, he’d probably agree that his current personal hurdle is one he could never have predicted: He just purchased his first home, after having moved 13 times in nine years (“I could literally fit my life in a Honda Civic,” he said of his moves while in the Air Force). The stovetop in his new home is electric.

Installing gas — well, that’s not his mission right now.