Atlanta Orders In: Ethiopian chef calls humble spot ‘Ritz-Carlton of Clarkston’

This takeout feast from Chef Winnie’s Kitchen in Clarkston includes injera, fish curry, gomen be sega (collards with meat) and the vegan sampler.
Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal Constitution
Caption
This takeout feast from Chef Winnie’s Kitchen in Clarkston includes injera, fish curry, gomen be sega (collards with meat) and the vegan sampler. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

A few days ago, a friend sent me a message about the food photos I post on Instagram.

“Just scrolling through your feed, it’s undeniable that something magical is taking root in Atlanta,” he said. “So many cultures jamming up against each other that Korean spicy oxtail and ghormeh sabzi pizza are around the corner.”

How about an Ethiopian-style quesadilla? Does that count?

Made on a red tortilla with grilled chicken, sautéed veggies, shredded Swiss and Ethiopian spices, this multi-culti dilla is one of the signature creations of Chef Winnie’s Kitchen in Clarkston. Like the namesake chef herself — an Addis Ababa native with an extensive resume in hotel-restaurant management and a wall full of culinary degrees — it is colorful, fun and unforgettable.

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Chef Winnie’s Kitchen makes an Ethiopian-style chicken quesadilla. 
Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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Chef Winnie’s Kitchen makes an Ethiopian-style chicken quesadilla. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

Dressed in a red chef’s smock with a matching cap, Woinshet Legesse Emory, 62, is the undisputed star of this tiny restaurant. Ask about her life, and she’ll tell you she was born into wealth and privilege, but she always has loved to work. That’s where her energy comes from.

“I look like a 25-year-old!” said the vivacious grandmother of three.

After marrying an Ethiopian politician who was jailed when a new government came to power, she fled to the U.S. with her daughter in 1991, married a second time, and had two more children. All the while, she supervised the food service programs at big-name hotels (Hilton, Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons). Still, she felt something was missing.

“I was the manager, but I didn’t know the kitchen,” Emory said.

So, she returned to college and earned a bachelor’s in culinary management from Le Cordon Bleu and a master’s in business administration from Johnson & Wales University. She has done most of the work toward her doctorate.

She eventually fell on hard times, however, and lost her home. Her credit rating plummeted. And, just before the pandemic, she hit rock bottom. She was driving an Uber — at night — and worried for her safety.

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After years in hotel-restaurant management and racking up a wall of culinary degrees, Chef Woinshet Legesse Emory opened her first restaurant, Chef Winnie’s Kitchen, at 62. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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After years in hotel-restaurant management and racking up a wall of culinary degrees, Chef Woinshet Legesse Emory opened her first restaurant, Chef Winnie’s Kitchen, at 62. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

That’s when a friend came to her rescue and helped underwrite her first solo restaurant. Hidden in the back of a shotgun-style commercial space on East Ponce de Leon Avenue, Chef Winnie’s is a little dining room with big flavor.

Though the bulk of the menu is Ethiopian, you also will find wings, burgers, cheesesteaks, Jamaican-style fettuccini Alfredo and curries. Many items are available as vegan versions, developed from jackfruit or other meat substitutes.

“I didn’t want to be only for Ethiopians, because of my education background,” Emory said. “I created a menu that touches everyone. I have Hispanic food, because I learned that (from co-workers). I have French food, because I learned that (at culinary school). I have Ethiopian food, because that’s who I am.”

Takeout boxes are lined with house-made teff injera and filled with the likes of gomen be sega (collards with meat), kitfo (steak tartare) and the veggie combo (lentils, split beans, cabbage and carrots, collards and a fresh salad).

Stopping by on a Sunday for takeout, I sipped a cup of strong coffee and watched in awe as Emory and her one assistant did it all, calmly and gracefully. Emory waited on guests, breezed in and out of the kitchen, packed up the food, ran the register.

Her first restaurant may be a “teeny-tiny hole,” but she’s unfazed, happy, ambitious. “I call it the Ritz-Carlton of Clarkston,” said the elegant chef with the sparkling, movie-star eyes.

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Woinshet Legesse Emory displays her culinary degrees above an Ethiopian coffee service at her Clarkston restaurant, Chef Winnie’s Kitchen. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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Woinshet Legesse Emory displays her culinary degrees above an Ethiopian coffee service at her Clarkston restaurant, Chef Winnie’s Kitchen. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

CHEF WINNIE’S KITCHEN

Menu: Ethiopian and international

Alcohol: no

What I ordered: Ethiopian-style quesadilla, veggie combo, kitfo, gomen be sega, fish curry. Everything from this sweet, peaceful little spot was delicious, fresh, and made with care, and the portions were generous. I especially loved the veggie combo and the curry, and was very impressed that Chef Winnie’s makes its own teff injera (which, by the way, is gluten-free). And, I loved the way the quesadilla was grilled to a proper char and oozed with cheesy goodness.

Service options: dine-in, takeout or delivery via Seamless, Grubhub, DoorDash, Postmates and Ubereats

Outdoor dining: yes

Mask policy: the staff is fully vaccinated, but will don masks upon request; customers may decide for themselves

Address, phone: 4238 E. Ponce de Leon Ave., Clarkston; 404-228-9152

Hours: 12 p.m.-12 a.m. every day

Website: chefwinnieskitchen.com

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