A chef can easily be thought of as a public relations expert, with the utmost concern going into keeping the guest, and crew, happy. Rather than start the culinary route and learn PR basics on the job, Chef Peter Dale graduated from the University of Georgia in 1999 with a degree in public relations and headed to Capitol Hill.
But his childhood memories of traveling with his Ecuadorian mother and Greek father, and their rich family meals, quickly drew him to the kitchen. Dale got his feet wet back at home as a cook at Athens, Georgia-based Five & Ten, training with Chef Hugh Acheson. Although he planned to eventually attend culinary school, Dale found himself learning on the job, working his way through Acheson’s kitchen and then traveling abroad to Spain. Those cooking experiences—working in both top-notch European and rural kitchens—became the schooling he once desired. Returning to Athens, Dale worked with Acheson to open The National in 2007, a farm-to-table Mediterranean-inspired locale. The restaurant is a combination of Dale’s interests in cooking, travel, and food politics, inspired by Spanish, French, North African, Greek, eastern Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern cuisines.
Dale insists The National isn’t just the food of his travels, and we agree. Instead the chef combines the local, seasonal produce surrounding him—much of which is traditional to the Mediterranean—to create bold, bright flavors.
Interview with 2012 Atlanta Rising Star Chef Peter Dale
Katherine Sacks: How did you get interested in cooking?
Peter Dale: That’s a funny story. I studied public relations and went to DC. I’ve always loved food, and being in DC, I started cooking for myself. In the 1990s, Athens hadn't evolved as a food town. When I got to Washington, there was a farmers markets and really cool ethnic restaurants. It blossomed my curiosity in food. I came back to Athens to regroup. Five & Ten had just opened, and I decided to apprentice. Hugh [Acheson] kindly agreed, and I was there for about three months apprenticing, and then a position came open in garde mange. My plan was to go to culinary school, but I decided I liked working, and instead used the money for travel. I have family in Spain so I spent time over there.
KS: What is your style as a chef?
PD: When I was working in Spain, I staged at La Broche in 2005. It was the early days of molecular gastronomy, and it was a phenomenal experience. Immediately after, I worked at a smaller mom-and-pop restaurant. The food was out of this world; they sourced really amazing seafood and beef. That experience made me realize I was more interested in more rustic food. What I like to cook is something a little more different here in Athens. There wasn't anyone doing anything Spanish or with North African or Eastern European influences. You say Mediterranean and people think Greek salad. I wanted to highlight this huge breadth.
KS: What is the most challenging thing you’ve done?
PD: I think part of it is training your staff to do what you need and to find the right people, who you will click with and who will be motivated. I'm always asking the cooks to bring things to the table. This job isn't just cooking; it’s also being a manger. Hugh is a great manager. It’s not the same as learning how to cook. It’s a whole other thing.
KS: What are you most proud of?
PD: The community we've built. When we opened, there was a bar across the street, but even this end of downtown, there wasn’t a whole lot happening. Now there's a community around the employees and with our customers. It’s wonderful to see when our regulars come in and interact with the staff.
KS: Where will we find you in five years?
PD: You know, I helped open Empire State South. And what I learned is being part of the community is really important to me. I really want to be personally involved in what I do; I would love to be able to do other concepts in our area. I would love to have an oyster bar, a casual place.