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Adam Waller sits at Sotto Sotto's bar hunched over a clipboard, cell phone tucked between his neck and his shoulder. A tattooed forearm races from side to side across a product sheet marking orders, while his other hand absentmindedly fingers an elegant Bordeaux stem filled with red wine. A server approaches; there is a snag in the kitchen. Waller excuses himself with a warm politeness that quietly contradicts his rugged, if not slightly intimidating demeanor. He emerges from the kitchen promptly and satisfied. "Problem solved," he says.
Before restaurants, Waller worked as an ammunition tech in the military. And although his work in Explosive Ordnance Disposal still required him to say "yes sir" a whole lot, Waller's previous employer (the U.S. Marine Corps) was noticeably tougher when it came to uniform violations. His military training did, however, prepare Waller for high-pressure situations, even if disarming bombs is slightly more intense than cooking dinner.
Waller spent two years stationed in Japan, where sampling the local flavors became a favorite pastime. "I was able to leave the base and go out and eat. The food in Japan was some of the best I've ever eaten," he says. And it was there, amongst the modest noodle houses and sake bars of Okinawa, that the Marietta native began falling for food.
Toward the end of his contract with the military, making the transition to the culinary field seemed like a logical choice. "I started thinking about what I'd like to do with my life and I thought I'd like to cook food. I enjoy eating it, I might as well cook it."
Waller returned to Atlanta in 1999 and began taking classes at the Art Institute. There he met chef, instructor, and future mentor Todd Annis. "He was probably the one instructor I did like," he says. "He wanted to teach you, he wanted to develop you into a better cook. I really appreciate what he did for me."
Waller continued to cook and learn in several prominent kitchens. At Brasserie Le Coze, Waller recalls many memorable, stress-filled lunch shifts. "I was basically sweating my ass off, working on the line, cooking skate wing for Eric Ripert and [owner] Maguy Le Coze."
During this time, Waller worked two jobs, getting up at 6 a.m. and leaving one place to go set up for a dinner shift at another, not finishing until around midnight.
"I worked and worked and worked," Waller says. "It beat me down, but I kept coming back for more. You learn from all of those experiences and that's what gets you to the next level."
The next level is currently where the former burger flipper/Marine/line cook can be found today. Waller is chef Riccardo Ullio's right-hand man and chef de cuisine at Sotto Sotto in Inman Park.
Although he specializes in Italian, his culinary passion lies elsewhere. "After working at Cuerno [Ullio's now-closed attempt to bring Spanish food to the masses], I started appreciating Spanish food and learning about it."
"I envisioned myself going to Spain and learning from chefs over there," he says. "Not necessarily at El Bulli, but tapas bars. I'd like to bring that traditional Spanish element back to the States."
With Ullio currently busy with other ventures, Waller bears a considerable amount of responsibility for the execution of the food at Sotto Sotto, but that's the way he prefers it. "I want to have my hands in the food," he says. "I want to be the guy preparing it and making people happy. If people leave my restaurant and they have smiles on their faces and have had a good meal, then I know that I've done my job."
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