2012 Atlanta Rising Star Chef Whitney Otawka of Farm 255

2012 Atlanta Rising Star Chef Whitney Otawka of Farm 255
June 2012

Whitney Otawka’s leap into the culinary world was inspired by her inner Francophile: while taking French classes at the University of California-Berkeley, she responded to an ad for a waitress position at a local French creperie. While she didn’t get that job (no waitressing experience), she did get hired as one member of the two-person kitchen. The owner filled the menu with his mother’s Brittany-based recipes and spent evenings introducing Otawka to a world of gastronomy and fine wine. It was in this bare-bones, unassuming locale that Otawka discovered her innate discipline and rigor, and a passion that would allow her to thrive in the grueling environment of a restaurant kitchen.

Otawka continued her culinary schooling in restaurants throughout California, developing a keen appreciation for the farm-fresh produce and sustainable nature of the West Coast. In 2005, she headed Southeast to Athens, Georgia, where she quickly worked her way up to sous chef of Five & Ten under 2007 Atlanta Rising Star Chef Hugh Acheson. During much of this time, the tireless Otawka simultaneously worked as chef de partie for 2007 Rising Star Chef Linton Hopkins’ Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta, taking time out to hold numerous stages in some of New York’s finest restaurants, including Per Se and Le Bernardin, and to work with chefs and winemakers across Europe (a Francophile’s collective dream).

In 2010, Otawka left Athens for a unique opportunity to live on a coastal Georgian island to serve as executive chef of the prestigious Greyfield Inn of Cumberland Island. What eventually tore her away was filming “Top Chef Season 9” in Texas. After filming wrapped, Otawka returned to Athens proper to take over the kitchen at Farm 255. And there she approaches her menus with the goal of bringing new flavors to rustic cuisine while exhibiting utmost technique and craftsmanship—the kind of Cali-Franco-Southern flavors only she can produce.

Interview with 2012 Atlanta Rising Star Chef Whitney Otawka

Katherine Sacks: What is your style as a chef?
Whitney Otawka: I think it goes back to that idea of rustic comfort food. It’s what I aim for, but it’s also based on season and place, and also what I'm reading. My environment influences me. At the end of the day, I want it the best it can be.

KS: How did you go from cooking on an island to Athens?
WO: I knew the owner of Farm 255. I was down on Cumberland Island, and he called me and said you've been on the island for years. I was reluctant at first—Hugh [Acheson] is the main chef in town, and I knew I’d have to really bring something to Athens. But eventually I got talked into it. I came in, cleaned out the kitchen, and changed the staff. Being back working in the community has been great.

KS: What is the hardest thing you’ve done?
WO: I think sometimes you have to put your life on hold. You have to be committed to being a chef. I never detach from my restaurant. It’s all consuming. But that’s how it can be for any successful career.

KS: What are you most proud of?
WO: I think all the things I've accomplished. The stages I’ve done, at Per Se and Le Bernardin. Doing “Top Chef” was really fun. To think about all the things I’ve done, if you are vicious and you work hard, you can get anywhere. I'm hyper-competitive with myself.

KS: Where will we find you in five years?
WO: Owning several restaurants. I really like traveling, besides loving food. I cook to be able to travel. So I'd like to own one if not two restaurants and spend some more time traveling. I’m trying to go to Italy this fall.