This story appears in the Pre-Fall 2014 issue of Eidé Magazine. Read it here, or click to read it in the issue below.
Story by Jason Zygmont | Photography by Ian McFarlane
“Bam!” It all started with watching “Emeril Live” when I was 9 years old.
“Garlic! Garlic! Yay!” The crowd would explode in joy as the notorious chef added the seasoning to any dish. Emeril made me feel the intensity of working the line as I sat on the floor in front of the television screen. I remember feeling heat sweep across my face as he added sherry to a hot pan and set it ablaze in a sudden burst of flames. I was in awe of the spectacle, and it fed into an instinctual need. I knew I could cook before I cooked or tasted any of the things I drooled over.
Besides these fantasies, my food memories from childhood are pretty run of the mill. My dad could whip up a satisfying chicken stew and we would always have baked shells with spicy sausage when we went to visit my grandmother. My mom always made me and my brother this brilliant ice cream cake for our birthdays. She crushed up Oreos, mixed them with crunchy peanut butter (this recipe is the only proper use for crunchy rather than creamy) and layered this mixture with Breyer’s vanilla fudge ice cream. It was glorious. But I didn’t have exposure to anything of real gastronomic value until my brother went away to college in Athens, Ga.
On one visit during his freshman year, my dad took us to Hugh Acheson’s Southern fusion restaurant, 5&10. The place had been open for just over a year and Hugh was in full force behind the line. It was the first time I encountered sweetbreads (my dad made me eat them without telling me what they were), rabbit, summer succotash, raw oysters, buttermilk pie; the list goes on. The meal was dizzying and, at the time, I didn’t fully understand what had happened. I just realized that this was something different than the chain restaurants my friends’ parents usually took us to. The flavors were intense, and I walked out of the restaurant hypnotized by the idea that food could be something more than just fuel.
At that moment, I should have known food would be my life. I didn’t. I finished high school; studied philosophy in college. Only when I needed a job did I finally set about working in a kitchen — something I had absolutely no experience doing. I started working at Il Palio Ristorante inside the Siena Hotel in Chapel Hill, N.C. Within a year, they promoted me to sous chef, but I knew I was in no way qualified to run a kitchen. I left, and began a 7-year journey armed with the desire to be a chef.
Since then, I’ve travelled. I’ve cooked at Noma, currently ranked the No. 1 restaurant in the world by Restaurant Magazine and Per Se, the best restaurant in the United States, and staged (kitchen parlance for interning) in several kitchens throughout Barcelona. After making the long trip home, I was fortunate to cook in a few of the great Atlanta kitchens, too: Woodfire Grill, Restaurant Eugene and Empire State South. I’ve cooked food I couldn’t have imagined as a 16-year-old sitting in the original 5&10. But, the food isn’t what makes me proud of my accomplishments. The experiences, the community and the tight relationships that I have built over the better part of a decade have meant so much more than the day-to-day grind of living in kitchens.
In Barcelona, on the balcony of Restaurant Drolma, I stood watching as the Tour de France pedaled by, sipping a glass of champagne, not really believing where I was. In the test kitchen at Noma, with the best chef in the world, I considered a new dish of potato, elderflower and miso — discussing the relative strengths and weaknesses of torching cedar and letting it smolder as the plate was walked through the dining room. In Atlanta, at Crack in the Sidewalk Farmlet, I huddled under a makeshift tent with Ryan Smith (chef of the forthcoming Staplehouse), trying to not let the torrential downpour ruin our butcher blocks of aged duck terrines, soft-boiled duck eggs, butter poached morels and foraged herbs before they could hit the table. The dish was lovely, but it’s the last thing I remember about that day. We didn’t go down in flames and at the end of it all we had a story; something more than the food to hold onto.
I haven't always felt this way about my life in food. Prior to leaving Empire State South for Noma, I was, admittedly, the most arrogant cook in Atlanta. The only important thing in my mind was making sure every piece of fish I sent out had skin so crisp it shattered like glass and I didn’t care who I pissed off to make it happen. I thought I was the best. After cooking at some of the finest restaurants in the world, I realized that I’m not. Corey Chow, the executive sous chef at Per Se, blew me away when he brunoised three quarts of celery root in 15 minutes. I’ve seen flawlessness in Victoria Blamey, former sous chef of New York City’s Atera. She never made a mistake and devised incredibly clever technique. And no one has inspired me more than Matt Orlando, the head chef of Noma at the time, rallying the crew, running from station to station, making service succeed by sheer force of will. All of these chefs embody ambition and confidence, but what changed me was their humility. I saw in them what I wanted to become as a chef, and without this tremendous shift in attitude, Acheson never would have brought me on as the chef of his flagship restaurant.
Acheson has an endless devotion to his community, and he has taught me to understand the word in a new way. After my experiences and coming back into his empire, I realize that what community really means is letting go of your ego and building something that doesn’t necessarily benefit you directly. Working on my night off, I host a charcuterie night at The Old Pal in Athens to expose new guests to an amazing bar that I love and want to see succeed. I’ve started volunteering at Clarke County Middle School, helping a small group of students utilize an amazingly diverse garden to put on lunches for their families and friends. Kemyrus Harris, one of the students, gained so much confidence in his abilities that he challenged me to a “crepe-off”; we tied. I see my community in these moments of tangible growth and specific successes. Community becomes a cliché when those who don’t contribute anything comment on its qualities. I won’t be that kind of person, and I hope to inspire a few on the outside to come in and get to work.
It’s been a long, winding road back to 5&10. I have become the executive chef of the restaurant that taught me what food could be. Taking the reins of an establishment I have always had such respect for is daunting and has forced me to deeply consider the type of leader I’m going to become. I don’t want to be the kind of chef that throws plates, screams expletives and degrades my staff. I want to make my crew feel like that 9-year-old sitting, staring at the TV. I want them to have a passion that they don’t understand: to approach food with the same sense of wonder and awe that I had then. We work really hard to make our guests happy. The least we can do is enjoy doing it.