Athens chef shares recipes for elegant Southern brunch buffet

“Creating community, celebrating local farmers, and telling a story through food” is how Heirloom Cafe and Fresh Market in the Historic Boulevard neighborhood in Athens describes its mission.

Chef Jessica Rothacker owns Heirloom with her father, Atlanta businessman Travis Burch. But before she decided to open the homey restaurant in 2011, Rothacker traveled several different paths that eventually converged.

She graduated from the University of Georgia, where she studied English, and thought about becoming a novelist.

“I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but I got very scared of rejection,” Rothacker said one recent morning, sitting on the front porch of the Athens home she shares with her husband and two young children.

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

“I took a year off, and ended up going to culinary school at the Art Institute of Atlanta. I thought maybe I could be a food writer. But I started working at Muss & Turner’s in Smyrna, fell in love with working in kitchens, and wanted to see where that would take me.”

Later, Rothacker followed Muss & Turner’s chef David Sturgis to Athens to work at Farm 255, where she became the sous chef. Then she honed her pastry skills at Ike & Jane, an Athens bakery and cafe.

As it turned out, each of those places influenced what Heirloom Cafe would become.

“I wanted to bring together the things that I really loved about the previous places I had worked,” Rothacker said. “I was really fond of the management style, and the way Muss & Turner’s treated their people.

“I also wanted to bring in the farm-to-table side of things that I learned at Farm 255, so we do lots of local sourcing. All of our meats are sustainable and humanely raised, and the majority of our vegetables are coming from local farms. With Ike & Jane, I just loved that they were very small, but very community centered, and in a very walkable neighborhood.”

Of course, like every restaurant, Heirloom has been adapting to these pandemic times, currently offering online ordering, curbside pickup, and outdoor table service only.

“We are all wearing masks and gloves, and we’re requiring our guests to wear masks, unless they are eating or drinking,” Rothacker said. “We feel like that’s only fair to provide for the safety and security of our servers.”

Though Heirloom serves lunch and dinner, and features a full bar, brunch is what I usually go for when I’m in Athens. The likes of pulled pork hash, biscuits and gravy, or eggs and Comfort Farms sausage are always a welcome remedy on a Sunday morning, after a Saturday night in the “Classic City.”

When I asked Rothacker if she would share some brunch recipes to make at home, she offered three dishes and a cocktail that would be perfect for a summer buffet served on the porch.

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Her Smoked Trout Deviled Eggs is a dressed-up Heirloom catering staple. “It’s very Southern to sit on the front porch and eat deviled eggs and drink iced tea,” Rothacker said.

Summer Farm Box Vegetable Hash is a good way to use up the bounty of a CSA (community supported agriculture) box. “Everything that’s in the hash came out of the farm box I got last week, but beyond potatoes, you could use just about anything you have, and throw an egg on top,” Rothacker said.

Baked French Toast With Skillet Fried Peaches, Butter Pecans, and Whipped Cream is a decadent baked dish that comes out a bit like bread pudding, and could easily be eaten for dessert. “It’s a nostalgic thing that goes back to my grandfather, who was very fond of butter pecan ice cream. Baking it makes it very hands off, so you can do other things while it’s in the oven.”

Finally, there’s the Watermelon Wake Up Cocktail, which was born when Rothacker was gifted with “two big, beautiful watermelons.” And perfected by her husband, Jordan A. Rothacker, a writer by day and sometimes bartender by night. “He has enjoyed a renewed fascination with mixology during quarantine,” Rothacker said.

RECIPES

These recipes from Jessica Rothacker, executive chef and co-owner at Heirloom Cafe in Athens, add up to an elegant Southern brunch buffet at home.

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Baked French Toast With Skillet-Fried Peaches, Butter Pecans and Whipped Cream

“Peaches and butter pecans signify late summer to the little girl in me,” Rothacker says. “This dish brings together those childhood memories and puts them on the table for brunch, although if you were to substitute ice cream for the whipped cream, I would never tell.”

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Summer Farm Box Vegetable Hash

“One of the easiest ways to use up a veggie box is to throw it all into a hash,” Rothacker says. “While the potatoes are a must for hash, really anything else would be delicious mixed in.”

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Smoked Trout Deviled Eggs

“This is one of my favorite hors d’oeuvres to take to catered events,” Rothacker says. “Downhome and humble, these deviled eggs straddle the line between breakfast staple and afternoon snack. Make sure to follow the instructions on how to boil an egg for a magic peeling trick.”

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Watermelon Wake Up Cocktail

“My husband, Jordan Rothacker, experimented his way to the perfect low-proof hydrating brunch cocktail,” Rothacker says. “Don’t forget to add the salt and pepper. It somehow makes the watermelon juice taste even more like watermelon.”

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