Since the pandemic, little has changed at the two Kelz Kitchen locations, on Forsyth Street in downtown Atlanta and Old National Highway in College Park, except the hours. Because the restaurants had limited seating and always focused mainly on takeout, they were able to proceed pretty much as normal. “We never missed a beat,” Johnston-Chavis said. “We realized what was created in the very beginning, fine food in a to-go box, still works.”
Chavis’ “coastal Carolina cuisine” pays tribute to his roots. Though he sometimes visited his mother in Harlem, he was raised by his father and grandmother on James Island outside Charleston. “We didn’t go out to eat,” he said. “We grew everything. We farmed, and we fished, so we were always cooking.”
Chavis, 50, jokes that he took to the kitchen as an escape from the fields. By age 13, he had landed his first paying job, as a dishwasher at a Greek restaurant in Charleston. By the time he graduated from high school, he was an expert at the grill.
Later, he cooked at a high-volume Houston’s Restaurant in New York, where he learned about the importance of fresh, quality ingredients. He got to Atlanta just in time for the recession of 2007-2009; after working in the construction industry, he found himself jobless, so he went back to the stove.
Before opening his namesake restaurants, Chavis was a night-club chef, first at Onyx Atlanta, and later at Blue Flame Lounge. In the beginning, he was frustrated by the style of cooking (bar food), and the quality of the products (everything frozen). This wouldn’t do for a Houston’s-trained chef, so he asked his boss if he could upgrade the menu.
He started making collards, macaroni and cheese, and fresh seafood. The guests took notice and started asking who was in the kitchen. “I kind of changed the way food is cooked in strip clubs,” Chavis said.
In 2015, Chavis and his wife opened Kelz Kitchen downtown, followed by College Park in November, 2019. (Johnston-Chavis, 44, has a separate career as a TV and film producer; in 2011, she launched Atlanta Pitch Summit, a networking event that connects content producers with film-industry executives in search of new material.)
Perhaps because I gave up my late-night shenanigans some years ago, I hadn’t heard of Kelz Kitchen until recently. When a chef I interviewed praised it as the “best soul food in the city, bar none,” I had to try it.
On Saturday afternoon, I placed an online order and drove out to College Park. Quite honestly, I didn’t sense much low-country or Gullah-Geechee influences in the dishes I tried.
But, man, those shrimp! Absolutely fresh tasting and impeccably fried, they were among the best I’ve had in Atlanta, on a par with the Colonnade’s nearly definitive version. The pork chops, though thin, were wonderfully seasoned and quite good. And, when I tasted the collards and the rich, decadent macaroni and cheese, I could see why people flocked to the Blue Flame for the food as well as the entertainment.
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Menu: seafood and home-style cooking
What I ordered: grilled pork chops with loaded mashed potatoes and green beans; veggie plate with fried okra, collards, mac and cheese, cucumber salad; lemon pepper wings with fried okra; shrimp basket with fries, plus two pieces of whiting. The food was very good, with one slight quibble: They forgot to add the fish to the shrimp basket.
Service options: takeout and delivery via Grubhub, Uber Eats, Postmates, Door Dash, ChowNow
Outdoor dining: no
Mask policy: yes, for staff and guests
Address, phone: 156 Forsyth St. SW, Atlanta. 404-330-8004; 5015 Old National Highway, Atlanta. 404-500-2034
Hours: Forsyth Street, 12-9 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; Old National Highway, 12-8 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays
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