A boy named Sous 

To find Atlanta's up-and-coming culinary stars, it's worth looking at second in command

Adam Waller (from left), Kyle Jacovino, Richard Neal, E.J. Hodgkinson, and Doug Rouen

Joeff Davis

Adam Waller (from left), Kyle Jacovino, Richard Neal, E.J. Hodgkinson, and Doug Rouen

It's old news that chefs are the new rock stars. We watch them on TV, we talk and write endlessly about their talents and failures in these pages and beyond. A good chef is now not just a guy who can cook and run a kitchen — it's a man (or woman) who can be presented as a personality, the public personification of his food and restaurant.

But behind every great chef is a great sous chef.

The sous chef can be anything and everything in a kitchen, from a glorified line cook to the guy who actually writes the menu and runs the restaurant. Most sous chefs will tell you it's a case of all the work, none of the glory. These are guys who might not be quite ready to helm their own ships, but they know how to do just about every other part of a chef's job.

Meet the backbones of some of the best kitchens in the city, cooks who are also quite likely the next generation of Atlanta chefs. Stephanie Dazey talks to five guys who might just be tomorrow's culinary rock stars.

click to enlarge JOEFF DAVIS

Kyle Jacovino, Empire State South

Kyle Jacovino sits down on Empire State South's Midtown patio. It's one of those sunny fall days that makes you feel lucky you're in Atlanta. His voice is deep and deliberate. His glance is sincere as he shifts in his seat with just a hint of uneasiness. "I've never done an interview," he says. A trait not commonly associated with chefhood, the Pennsylvania transplant nonetheless exhibits a healthy dose of humility.

Case and point: When asked if he's ready to be an executive chef, Jacovino answers no. "I know what I don't know. There are a lot of things I'd like to learn first before I'm an executive chef. I'm only 25," he says.

Jacovino earned the title of sous chef by the age of 19, despite never setting foot in culinary school. "I was taught by a group of old-school apprentices who founded a high school culinary program in Hershey, Penn. I started when I was 17 and they taught me everything from garde manger to ice carving to butchering."

As fate would have it, Jacovino met a friend of Empire State South's executive chef Ryan Smith while working at Mirbeau Inn and Spa in upstate New York. Strings were pulled, emails sent, and plane tickets purchased, Jacovino says, "Ryan and I hung out, he took me to Holeman & Finch and Bacchanalia. It was cool. I didn't know much about charcuterie then, either, so watching Ryan do that was pretty inspiring."

Mentor secured, Jacovino went to work at Joël, enjoying the luxuries that come with working in a multimillion dollar kitchen. But the big break came when Jacovino ran into Smith as he was taking over the kitchen at Restaurant Eugene. Jacovino was invited to join him.

Since then, the two have continued to work together, even through Smith's move to Empire State South. Jacovino does not take his sous chef position lightly. "You have to be a hard worker, you have to be very dedicated. Being a sous chef is being there for your executive chef, you're his right-hand man." When the going gets tough and the hours get long, Jacovino is far from fazed. "I've always felt that if you're working long hours, it's for a good reason. This is a passion for me," he says. "It's what I want to do."

Although Jacovino claims that he's not yet ready to take on the role of head honcho, he's still quietly planning out his future as a chef owner and restaurateur. "I love pizza," he says, no doubt a by-product of his unmistakable Italian roots, and countless hours spent "throwing pizza" back in high school. "I want to open a pizza shop where we make all our own pepperoni, salami, and cheese. I want to make my own everything for my pizza." He describes a small and modest pizzeria, to perhaps compete with his favorite restaurant in town, Antico. "I'd like to do three to four small pies, make everything in house and do fresh pastas," Jacovino says. "Opening a really small Italian bistro would be my dream."

For Jacovino, cooking is "not a job, it's a passion. If you look at cooking as just a job, I don't think you're gonna get very far. It needs to come from the heart," he says.

But the fame and glory call to him as well.

"One of the awards I've always had my eye on is the Rising Star chef award," he admits. A coveted culinary accolade, the Rising Star designation is awarded annually by StarChefs, a widely respected culinary trade publication.

"I really want to get the Rising Star by 29. I think I can do it if I keep working hard. If I keep pushing myself," he says.

Even so, "I'm more concerned with being the best chef I can possibly be right now."

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