New York chefs are invading Atlanta and taking over! Assemble the villagers and light the torches!
Why does this seem to be the reaction of so many once they hear big-name chefs have chosen Atlanta as an outpost for their iconic restaurants?
Recently, we've seen an influx of New York chefs opening restaurants in our fair city, including Tom Colicchio (chef/owner of Craft, Craftbar and 'wichcraft, and a judge on the hit Bravo reality series "Top Chef"), Laurent Tourondel (chef/owner of BLT Steak, BLT Fish, BLT Prime, BLT Burger and BLT Market) and Jean-Georges Vongerichten (the man atop an empire of restaurants including Jean Georges, Spice Market, Market and Matsugen).
Supporters of local chef-driven restaurants worry these big names divert business from local restaurateurs and chefs. Cynics argue the food and experience simply cannot be replicated away from the restaurant's home turf without the chef regularly overseeing quality.
But what is the real story? Why are these chefs here and how should we feel about their arrival? We spoke with chef Tom Colicchio and chef Laurent Tourondel to get their side of the story.
On the phone, Colicchio is all business, but genuinely passionate and warm. And it seems he did his research before deciding to open here. "Atlanta, for the size of the city, there's a lot of good, well-run, respected restaurants," says Colicchio. "We knew that it's a good food town. We knew we could get product from talking to some of the chefs there. It's a big city, there's gotta be an audience." The chef doesn't buy into the negative perceptions others unfortunately have of the South. "I spent a lot of time in South Carolina just south of Charleston in Kiawah. I spent some time at the Kiawah Island Club and a lot of members are from Atlanta and they are very food knowledgeable and savvy. Cities are cities. I've been asked whether I've tailored my menu to Atlanta. No. I think it is disingenuous to sort of dumb down a menu to a clientele."
Tourondel says, "There's good potential of having a successful restaurant in Atlanta. People in Atlanta are very sophisticated and ready to have different chefs come, and ready to just experience different food." The chef also has a personal connection to our city. "One of my best friends is Joel [Antunes], who left Atlanta and is in New York now." Tourondel has even hired one of Antunes' former sous chefs, Jean-Luc Mongodin, as the chef de cuisine for BLT Steak in Atlanta.
Theoretically, the successful replication of an original dining experience depends in great part upon the chef. Some are content to leave the fate of the restaurant to their staff with a few visits here and there, while others are more hands-on. It appears both of these chefs adhere to the latter philosophy.
"I will be there for the opening and will come back during the next three months a lot because I want to make sure I know it is working well," says Tourondel. "It's a big project because it's the whole hotel. It's room service, breakfast, banquets, the lobby lounge, lunch and dinner." When asked if he worries about controlling quality from a distance, Tourondel says, "It's always a concern, but I trust my team. You must make sure you have the right people working for you and go from there. People who are responsible and mature enough to run the restaurants when I am not there. It is training, conceptualizing. It is a big responsibility."
Colicchio agrees. "I don't open a new location unless I have a chef who has been with me for five years minimum, who's ready to take the next step. If I don't give them the opportunity, they're going to leave anyway and go do it. These guys have been with me a long time, they understand conceptually what I'm looking for, they know they have to source locally and look for great products. If I were there tonight, there wouldn't be much change at all in the restaurant – except I'm walking around making everybody nervous," he says with his trademark chuckle. "The same people are going to be cooking whether I'm there or not. I am not leaving my kitchen to a sous chef, I am leaving it to a chef."
As much as he trusts his staff, Colicchio is still very involved. "I am running these kitchens. I am not in them every day, but I am speaking with my chefs every day," he says. "When I am [in] New York – if I am in the restaurant – I am in the kitchen. I'm in the kitchen a lot more than people give me credit for. I don't just walk around my dining room. Especially now, people want autographs and pictures. It becomes disruptive to the diner who just wants to eat."
Attack of the 50-foot chef?
Both chefs made good points when they were asked what they would say to reluctant diners who'd rather support local chefs instead of their establishments.
Tourondel says he is "not trying to challenge anyone or put people out of business." He simply wants "to create a different experience of what is there and give people an opportunity to try what we do." He adds that he just wants "to please people."
"We're not out to crush the competition in Atlanta," says Colicchio. "In fact, I know we're successful, when five years from now, we become a local restaurant. The restaurant comes from New York, but there's 100 people that are working in that restaurant that are local. If you come to my restaurant in Atlanta, you're supporting local farmers and you're supporting the local economy. I don't buy into the idea that we're a bunch of carpetbaggers coming down from New York to open a restaurant in Atlanta and somehow hurt the local competition. In fact, from talking with a lot of local chefs, they think this just elevates the overall dining scene."
Would it be too far-reaching to take these transplant restaurant openings as a compliment? Do we need these chefs' approval? No. But their investment in our city speaks volumes. These restaurants add diversity to Atlanta's culinary landscape that, frankly, was not strong enough to hold onto upper echelon chefs like Joel Antunes, Guenter Seeger, Sotohiro Kosugi and Michael Touhy. It could even be said that those chefs may have stayed in Atlanta – instead of heading for greener pastures – if our dining scene had provided a more fertile breeding ground for their respective restaurants. A breeding ground that Craft, Craftbar and BLT Steak could help foster.
Colicchio says it best: "If the restaurant is good, if the food coming out is high quality, then the people should accept it for what it is." It's hard to find fault with such a well-reasoned approach.
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