A day in the life of Empire State South 

A look at the work, hours, passion, and fun that goes into keeping this Midtown restaurant moving


Above: A day at Hugh Acheson's Atlanta restaurant Empire State South, from 5 a.m. on November 7 to 4 a.m. on November 8. Video by Dustin Chambers
Slideshow: A Day in the Life of Empire State South

5 a.m.: Lauren Raymond, assistant pastry chef, arrives. "It's nice when I first get here," she says. "So quiet." In the next two hours, she'll make muffins, scones, cinnamon rolls, croissants, biscuits, and more. All the pastries need to be on the table out front by 7 a.m. for opening.

6 a.m.: Matthew Harper, the breakfast cook, arrives. Between now and 10:30 a.m., Harper makes grits, oatmeal, bacon, and gravy, sets up for lunch service, makes breakfast orders as they come in, and prepares a family meal for the 10:30 line up.

6:30 a.m.: Emily Finkel, breakfast waitress and barista, arrives. Begins brewing coffee, testing espresso for correct pour. Counts drawer, sets up for opening.

7 a.m.: Doors open. A second breakfast waitress arrives. People begin trickling in, mainly for coffee and pastry to go.

7:30 a.m.: Cooks begin to trickle in, looking sleepy, heading back to the kitchen. At 8 a.m. another waiter arrives. Two customers sit at the bar, working on laptops. Three tables sit and eat breakfast. Apart from coffee and to-go orders, that is the entirety of the breakfast rush.

click to enlarge Lauren Raymond, assistant pastry chef - DUSTIN CHAMBERS

8 a.m.: Despite his scheduled start time of 9 a.m., controller Jonathan Aherin is here early. Controller: like a general manager who doesn't have to hire or fire waitstaff.

8:30 a.m.: Chef/owner Hugh Acheson stops in, speaks for a minute with Aherin, then leaves to go to a book signing for his just-released A New Turn in the South. "Book tours are crazy," he says, looking crisp.

10 a.m.: Bar manager Kellie Thorn arrives to do inventory. A new chest freezer is delivered. "Now we can have a proper ice program," she beams.

10:30 a.m.: Morning line up and staff meal. Aherin goes over the morning's business with the four lunch servers in the private dining room in back. He has a list with 22 items. The items say things such as, "Don't wear your apron to the bathroom. It looks gross," and "When dropping food, please pay attention to the protein. Face it the right way."

As servers and cooks crowd in for the staff meal, morning sous Jonah Merrell goes over the specials. "Who's familiar with Block Island swordfish?" he asks, and servers recite back to him the location of the island and the qualities of the fish.

Staff meal this morning is fresh baked biscuits, scrambled eggs, and a crazy jumble of sweet and sour fried squid and bacon.

11:11 a.m.: The first lunch customer arrives and is seated. Neil Young's "Cowgirl in the Sand" gives way to Joni Mitchell as the server recites the swordfish special.

11:30 a.m.: Executive Chef Ryan Smith comes in, toting a rollaway bag behind him. He's here for about an hour, after which he's on his way out of town for "fancy sausage school," a high-level charcuterie course held at the University of Iowa.

click to enlarge Kyle Jacovino, Ryan Smith and Jonathan Aherin work in the office - JAMES CAMP
  • James Camp
  • Kyle Jacovino, Ryan Smith and Jonathan Aherin work in the office

Smith knows that with the book release and Acheson's "Top Chef" run, ESS is about to get even busier. He's thinking about changing the way the kitchen operates, going from a system where cooks plate their own food to a system where two expediters - most likely the chef and sous - plate every dish of hot food in the restaurant, to take some of the burden of service off of the line cooks. "I called Hugh and told him that I was thinking of doing it like that," Smith says. "He told me I'm insane."

"We'll try it on a slow night. Though we don't really have slow nights anymore."

11:45 a.m.: In the kitchen, cooks banter in Spanish as they chop carrots. The evening crew starts to arrive. "It's Monday, so I showered," cook Christopher Hathcock jokes when someone comments on how fresh he appears.

Noon: Sous chef Kyle Jacovino arrives. He and Smith discuss the menu for the evening, which is written daily.

12:15 p.m.: The dining room slowly fills. A bartender from another restaurant in town eats solo at the bar. Smith sits and chats with him.

12:35 p.m.: In the kitchen, the sous chef calls to the cooks: "How long on that pork?" And "Please make sure your plates are wiped better."

Smith comes back for a final look before he heads out. He talks briefly about the recent announcement that chef Joshua Hopkins is leaving Abattoir. "That's my favorite restaurant," he says. Rumors are tossed up about Hopkins' plans, but all put aside as unreliable.

1:10 p.m.: All of a sudden, the din in the kitchen quiets. "That's it," the sous (Merrell) says. As quickly as it started, lunch is effectively done.

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