Originally from State College, Pennsylvania, Ryan Smith has called Atlanta home for the last 10 years. Like many chefs before him, Smith took up an interest in cooking when he found himself washing dishes as a college student at Penn State University (the restaurant lifestyle, and not the dishwashing part, was the source of inspiration). Smith decided cooking would be his career and chose to attend The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. He graduated in 2000 and was drawn to Atlanta by a fellow culinary student, who heralded the emerging national fascination with Southern cuisine.
Since his arrival in Atlanta, Smith has worked with some of the city’s most influential chefs. He got an early appreciation for the city working with Chef Anne Quatrano at Bacchanalia, then made his way over to the kitchen of Canoe. Smith also spent formative years working as chef de cuisine for 2007 Rising Star Chef Linton Hopkins at Restaurant Eugene and Holeman & Finch. While working with these chefs, Smith gained kitchen confidence and a sincere fondness for the history and traditions of the Southeast.
In 2010, Smith teamed up with 2007 Rising Star Chef Hugh Acheson as executive chef of Empire State South, where he combines his well seasoned passion for Southern ingredients and techniques with a playfulness and artistic flair. Working alongside Acheson, Smith is helping Empire State South to quickly become one of Atlanta’s most in-demand locations for regional cuisine and, like Smith himself, very much part of the Atlanta community.
Interview with 2012 Atlanta Rising Star Chef Ryan Smith
Katherine Sacks: What inspired you to get into the kitchen?
Ryan Smith: I was 15 and I needed a job. I started washing dishes. I was always kind of intrigued by the chaos of the kitchen; I wanted to get my hands in food. I got a job in Penn State Catering during college and [I] loved learning.
KS: What goes into creating a dish?
RS: A lot of it’s talking with farms and working down a produce list. There is a difference in spending a lot of time on conceptualizing and needing to make a change on day to day availabilities. We try to talk with farmers and ask what they can't get rid [of]. At the end of market on Saturdays the farmers come here and we buy pretty much everything from them.
KS: What else are you doing to run a more sustainable kitchen?
RS: Anything and everything we can do to support the local community. It’s more than terminology; the community is what’s important. Instead of it being a selling point, it should be assumed that’s what we do. We're very active in reaching out to new farms, and we try to give a little to everybody. Farms call us all the time that have 50 pounds and we buy it all to pickle. We also try to take field trips as a staff, to see who is on the other side.
KS: What is the toughest thing you’ve done in your career?
RS: Opening this restaurant. I started here after it was six weeks old; I inherited an open restaurant rather than opening it. It was hard to make it mine at first.
KS: What trends do you see emerging?
RS: I hope it’s independent good food and drink. There are a lot of corporate restaurant groups here. We are a little guy who likes to support the little guys.
KS: If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?
RS: Wood working. It’s kind of a hobby of mine.