When Georgia-born Features Editor Caroline Hatchett came onto the StarChefs.com team last year, she brought more than a Southern twang and her adorable French bulldog Bruno. She brought savvy. And as we headed down to Atlanta last October and this January (after a four-year hiatus following our 2007 Rising Stars Awards), we were armed with Hatchett’s inside scoop on the city, a restaurant hub in one of America’s most bountiful and influential culinary regions.
Between checking in on old friends and meeting the new faces of this Dixie town’s culinary community, we quickly fell in love with the Deep South all over again. And in our minds, one thing couldn’t be clearer about Atlanta: everyone we met—from barkeep to culinary whiz kid—understands the use of acidity and how to balance flavors. It might be the ultimate goal, but not all chefs get it right—and after more than a decade, our taste buds can attest to that fact. But Atlanta’s got it down. Whether it's using pickling, mustards, and vinaigrettes to cut the richness and fatty flavors so common in Southern cuisine, or juxtaposing flavor combinations and textures to create playful presentations, balance is a pivotal element across the board in Atlanta.
This isn’t just some fluke-of-luck maestro seasoning work—we’ve had spot-on flavors in every tasting we’ve done, from the charming One Eared Stag to the bare bones Farm Burger (who put their pennies toward 100 percent grass-fed beef and local produce rather than fancy décor). We’ve seen these bright flavors in the abundance of comfort food concepts we’ve checked out—from the highly successful hamburger and hot dog outposts (like late-night haute dog spot HD1) to more upscale locales paying homage to the burger (fans of Bocado’s burger eagerly travel across the city for a bite).
From thoughtful studies on the South’s old-school ways to modern interpretations of what Southern cuisine could be, balanced seasoning is a vital element across the Atlanta landscape. Chef Joe Schafer uses hardwood ash to produce house-made lye for a creamy hominy at Parish Food & Goods. And Chef Zach Meloy is mixing his Georgia roots with South American inspiration at his pop-up Push Start Kitchen at an artist’s studio at the eclectic Goat Farm. Meanwhile Sous Chef Jason Paolini at Holeman & Finch re-enforces the focus on flavor in his staff meal lessons, drawing inspiration from culinary legends to help continue to educate his staff on the importance of even-handed seasoning.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that the region has a bevy of all-star ingredients to feature. Whether it’s showing some love to the Louisiana favorite mirliton, coupling traditional Southern ingredients with Michael Bras-inspired plating at Empire State South, or upping the fancy ante at one of the city’s few white-tablecloth restaurants, Restaurant Eugene, every dish seems to have some use of pickling, a brightness and clarity that makes its flavors pop.
And it’s that pop of Southern flavors that we just can’t get out of our heads. Luckily, we’re headed back to Atlanta in April for another round of tastings. But coming up first on our travel docket is New Orleans, where we’ll hold our Rising Stars Gala on April 19. We’ll also be heading to Hawaii, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Charleston, South Carolina, in the upcoming months, so reach out and give us your give us your nominations for chefs, pastry chefs, sommeliers, and mixologists we should check out in those cities. And as always, stay tuned to Facebook and Twitter for the latest updates on StarChefs.com