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$20 Dinner with Kevin Rathbun 

Humble attitude and sophisticated style come together in Rathbun's kitchen

Just looking at the small but formidable empire of restaurants that chef Kevin Rathbun has built along Krog Street since 2004 — first Rathbun's, then Krog Bar and most recently Kevin Rathbun Steak — you'd be safe to assume a few things. One: Rathbun has done well for himself in the years since moving on from his role as corporate chef for Buckhead Life Restaurant Group. Two: He's got a hell of an eye for interior design. The striking darkness of Kevin Rathbun Steak, the intimate warmness of Krog Bar, and the open air of Rathbun's are all entirely distinct and integral to the experience of eating at those restaurants. Arriving at Rathbun's Morningside home, where he and his wife, Melissa, moved in less than a year ago, you realize that this is the place where those two things — the success and the eye for design — come together.

The guesthouse, on the back of the property, is separated from the main building by a thin, rectangular marble pool. In fact, rectangles seem to be a motif: a massive, black center counter runs the length of the kitchen, rectangular patterns of cabinets reach up into the high, high ceilings, and all of this is lit by a pair of thin, rectangular glass lighting fixtures that are so distinct and unusual-looking that they have the air of conceptual art. Think Mondrian with minimal colors or Bauhaus with more luxury. Before meeting him, you might be tempted to assume Rathbun affects a similar style, that his attitude might be a cool as that long marble pool. But spend just a few minutes with him and he'll say what is already clear: "I'm a T-shirt kind of guy."

Rathbun's humble attitude speaks more to his modest Midwestern beginnings in Kansas City, Mo., than his current status. He was 14 when his father had a stroke, which led him to pick up a job at Sambo's, that unfortunately named greasy spoon of years past, to help out with the family bills. "It was just about the money. You know — 'How much can you pay me?'" he says. By 17, Rathbun was already working in fine dining. He finished his last semester in high school through a program that allowed him to work full time instead of attend regular school hours.

Rathbun's professional history since then — working his way through the ranks in New Orleans, Dallas and Houston before arriving in Atlanta about 15 years ago — is full of storied names, business deals, hard bargains and the like, but the most telling detail is the way he handles a knife. Look away for a minute and you might miss him break down an entire chicken. He peels the skin off a tomato in a single, eloquent stroke of the blade and then turns that skin into a perfect brunoise cut — millimeter-sized perfect cubes of tomato. Is this one of the most difficult cuts for a chef to perfect? Yes. Could Rathbun probably do it with his eyes closed? Yes. Those are the skills of a man who has paid his dues.

Rathbun met Melissa while they were both working at Commander's Palace in New Orleans, and there is no doubt that she calls New Orleans home. When she ambles down to find him in the kitchen working away, she hollers in that unmistakable Yat tone, "What do you think you're doing to my kitchen?" They have a sweet rapport — he continues to cut and cook away as she follows him around with paper towels, playfully cursing and cleaning his every move. "Yeah, I tell you, you want chef Kevin to cook for you? You better hire a professional dishwasher." She pauses, looks around the kitchen and then adds, "Scratch that, make it two dishwashers."

Messy or not, Rathbun's cooking is the sort that demands attention. The tuna crudo — a dish he perfected for his namesake restaurant's first menu — finds perfect balance in its duel presentations: the powerfully spicy and citrusy sliced tuna and the refreshing cool of the finely diced tuna. That light starter is followed by a rich, hearty masa soup, a throwback to his Southwestern days in Texas, which combines a trio of fatty ingredients (chicken stock, fried tortillas, and crema) into smooth, simple decadence. His main course, a butterflied chicken breast stuffed with cilantro root and wrapped with the thinnest pieces of bacon imaginable, is smoky but refreshing, paired as it is with a simple side of grated, buttery corn and a refreshing topping of tomato and onion.

The fact that Rathbun's menu doesn't end there, that he pulls off a dessert as interesting as any of the dishes prior to that, on a budget of less than 20 bucks, goes a long way toward explaining his success in the industry. The peach and fig sabayon is sweet but bitter, light but rich, and visually simple while flavorfully complex. It's the sort of dessert that will leave you melting onto the floor. Will you need a little experience working a double boiler method before your sabayon is as perfectly smooth as Rathbun's? Sure, but he has an inspiring sort of confidence, the kind that makes you believe you can do anything, just like he has.

"I hire young people," he says, referencing his own teenage years working at the greasy spoon. "I like crunchy hippies, they got passion. I think there are a lot of people out there that don't go to school and don't get what they deserve, you know? They have passion, they have focus, they just don't know it. So, you give 'em a little creative freedom, teach 'em how to be and treat 'em with respect. Like I got."

Next: Eight delicious recipes from Kevin Rathbun

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