The last supper 

First Soto, then Blais and now Seeger's — why can't Atlanta keep its world-class chefs?

Atlanta is losing its greatest chefs at an alarming rate. When Sotohiro Kosugi closed down Soto and left town, we hoped that one day another master of Japanese cuisine would set up shop here. Then, when Richard Blais left town for a job in Florida, many of us thought that surely another young and talented boundary-pusher would eventually take his place.

But folks, it's time to panic. We will never find a chef to take the place of Guenter Seeger.

After 22 years in Atlanta and nine years of business at Seeger's, the chef has decided to sell his restaurant and leave town. Seeger cites personal ambition as his reason for leaving, but he has been plagued by financial problems and slow business in recent months. After the departures of Soto and Blais, this is an especially harsh blow for the Atlanta dining scene.

Restaurants are notoriously risky businesses, so closings and chef turnover are givens. But no city overflows with chefs who could be called visionaries, and Atlanta is no exception. We have plenty of great chefs, but there's a difference between good food and groundbreaking food. Soto, Blais and Seeger have all been considered true visionaries, demanding sometimes-unattainable levels of perfection and refusing to compromise on creativity or their ideals.

Atlanta has had an uneasy relationship with Seeger ever since he left the Ritz-Carlton Dining Room to open his namesake restaurant in 1997. His is one of only 13 restaurants in the country to hold the coveted Mobil Five Star rating, and he has been the subject of almost unanimous critical acclaim as a culinary genius. Seeger's food is a marvel of invention; the man can whittle out delight from the most seemingly incongruous combinations of ingredients. I've seen him turn slabs of daikon radish, sweetbreads and tongue into a dish of sweet harmony, treading that most delicate line between the truly inventive and the pleasure principle.

Lesser chefs veer too much to either side, forsaking ingenuity for safety or forgetting that eating should be a sensual, not just cerebral, experience. But the dining experience at Seeger's was just plain bizarre and uncomfortable, from the awkward pre-dinner seating in the foyer to the complete silence, which created ambiance like a funeral home rather than a restaurant. Those quirks of ambience, paired with the exorbitant prices, added up to very little business in recent years -- particularly since last year's redesign that left the restaurant smaller, quieter and even stiffer.

It is possible that in other cities, people would overlook these pretensions, even embrace them, for the sake of eating at the table of genius. It is also possible that Seeger has a lot to learn about running a business, and about the true nature of hospitality.

No matter how you feel about the chef, his food or his restaurant, it is undeniable that his years in Atlanta have had a significant impact on the city's reputation as a serious dining destination. Guenter Seeger's accomplishments in the kitchen are unparalleled in the city and the Southeast in terms of the international respect and attention he commands. Last Saturday, friends of Mr. Seeger flew in to eat at his restaurant one last time, including culinary royalty such as Daniel Boulud of Daniel in New York and Patrick O'Connell of the Inn at Little Washington. There are very few restaurants whose impending closing would send the country's greatest chefs running for the opportunity to dine there one last time, and yet Atlanta never embraced Seeger with the same level of enthusiasm that other cities celebrate their great chefs.

So do the departures of Soto, Blais and Seeger reflect poorly on us as a city, or do they say more about the nature of genius and its incompatibility with business? Last week, when rumors circulated that Bob Amick, one of the city's most successful restaurateurs, was in talks with Seeger in hopes of striking up a partnership and keeping the restaurant open with Seeger in place as chef, there was dismay on the foodie message boards, with people hoping Seeger would refuse Amick and resist "selling out."

Now that it is quite certain Seeger did, in fact, decide against a partnership, I wonder if the detractors are relieved. Wouldn't it make sense for our great talents to put business in the hands of those who care about business, and focus on creating? A Seeger-led kitchen, with Amick backing it, is far more preferable to no Seeger-run kitchen at all. Soto, Blais (the restaurant) and Seeger's all failed for business reasons, not for lack of talent but for lack of savvy.

It's true that this is not a city with a great tradition of chef-run restaurants, and glitz seems to go a lot farther here than personality or quirk. When Seeger was at the Ritz, he wasn't the controversial chef he was on his own, as if customers trust high prices and high ideas only under the umbrella of a brand. Great chefs surely can be considered artists, but great art isn't necessarily commercial; it takes thought and appreciation. Atlanta does not seem to have the patience for that.

It's a true shame -- there are a lot of great meals to be had in Atlanta, but none that you couldn't come close to in another city. Seeger's was an international dining destination, and it was the only one we had.

So the deals fell through, the customers weren't there, and we couldn't hold onto these guys. This will always be a good city for business, and one day maybe one of our businesses will support another restaurant that can truly be considered world-class. I would prefer to see a chef take the lead and for business to follow, but maybe Atlanta is just not that kind of city. We have a lot to thank Guenter Seeger for, and a lot to learn from his triumphs and failures. I wish him well, and wherever he ends up, I'll be there to eat -- wishing it were here.

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