The balcony of chef David Sweeney's third story loft apartment is overgrown with wisteria. The climbing vine runs across the railing in tangled, beautiful clumps of green and brown and reaches all the way down to the soil below. As a chef who has staked his whole career on simple, good ingredients, on the connection between his food and the soil it comes from, it seems right that he lives in a place quite literally rooted to the earth.
Though he was born in Georgia, Sweeney grew up in Europe, an Army brat following his father to assignments in Germany and Belgium. When his family moved back to the States, though, Sweeney stayed behind, living mostly in Munich and working in fashion for houses such as Gucci and Ralph Lauren. But he says, "I was always having dinner parties, always entertaining, and I dreamt of having my own place." Sweeney says he wasn't interested in becoming a chef: "I didn't go to culinary school. I studied nutrition, but I did that auto-deductively." Instead it was a passion for healthy food, for what he calls "the peace of mind" granted by clean food, that led him to leave fashion and start a small health-conscious catering business that served Munich's thriving film and fashion industries.
Buzzwords like "local," "organic," and "natural" are thrown around so often now it's easy to feel like they mean nothing, especially when you can buy a bag of "Natural Cheetos" that sports a picture of rolling farmlands. But in the midst of that trendy faking, eating with Sweeney is a reminder that those words actually have real, direct meaning. When talking about working with farms to source ingredients for his first restaurant in Atlanta, the much-beloved but now closed Dynamic Dish, and about the pleasure of making clean, healthy food for people as he does now at the Bakery at Cakes & Ale, he pauses and then says, "This is my mission in life."
With that sort of evangelical passion, it should come as no surprise that he's planned a dinner with much more in mind than just the finished dish. "I wanted to put together a local meal with the individual with a bike in mind, to make sure that the true urbanite could do this," he says. He bought a number of his ingredients from Sevananda, dried chickpeas, couscous, spices, and so forth, but the meal's standout ingredients were picked up from the Grant Park Farmers Market and Truly Living Well, an urban farm located in the Old Fourth Ward.
Sweeney has a remarkably balanced manner in the kitchen, neither slow nor hurried as he works his way through peeling sweet potatoes or trimming mustard greens. He sips at a glass of red wine while toasting a Moroccan mixture of spices in a cast iron pan. He has a distaste for flash, for gimmicks and tricky preparations. "Those molecular chefs, they're just reinventing the Dorito," he says. As the aroma floats through the room, he instead talks about his admiration for Rashid Nuri, the founder of Truly Living Well.
Sweeney and Nuri met about five years ago, when Sweeney moved to Atlanta to be closer to his family. Walking through the farm with Nuri, Sweeney says, "I took one bite of the arugula he was growing and immediately had this nostalgic rush of eating a salad in Sardinia." Praising the farm's methods, he says, "The way I think of ingredients for a soup is the way he thinks of the ingredients of his soil. He has this energy and he puts that energy into his food."
The meal that Sweeney cooks is simple, unfussy. Instead of showing off his culinary chops, he's focused on making the techniques accessible for this dinner, so that true urbanites can pull it off. He worries for a moment that not everyone has a coffee mill to grind the spices, but then interjects, "But everyone has a towel and a hammer right? They could just do that, right?"
He casually arranges a vegetable tagine, couscous, and mustard greens in a bowl. He drops a few springs of fresh, potent mint into mugs for a refreshing mint tea and brings the dishes up to the rooftop deck above his loft. It's the opposite of flashy. There's nothing gimmicky on the plate, just as there was nothing tricky about his work in the kitchen. The food, though, is humbling. The soft, savory greens are perfectly balanced by the crunch of mustard seeds. There's an unmistakable warming comfort in the tagine brought on by the intoxicating play of cumin, fennel, coriander and peppers. Even his simple couscous comes alive with the depth of ginger. It's a meal so vibrant with fresh ingredients, you could close your eyes and imagine yourself standing in an idyllic farm far, far from the city. Yet, here it is on a rooftop in the Old Fourth Ward, with the sun setting between skyscrapers and graffitied walls as the MARTA train rattles into the distance.
Moroccan-style vegetable tagine with couscous and braised mustard greens
• 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
• 1 average-sized onion, diced
• 4 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
• 1 1/2 cups chickpeas, soaked overnight
• 1 average-sized sweet potato, boiled until tender, peeled, sliced
• 2 small red jalapeño chiles, seeds removed
• 3 tablespoons minced fresh ginger (save peel for couscous broth)
• 2 mild banana peppers, seeds removed
• 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
• 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
• 1 teaspoon mace leaves
• 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
• 1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
• 1/2 teaspoon peppercorns
• 2 lemons (save peel of one for couscous broth)
• 1 can crushed tomatoes or 1 3/4 cup peeled and diced tomatoes, with their juice
• 1 1/2 cups leftover chickpea broth
• Fresh cilantro• Salt and pepper
DIRECTIONS: Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Bring 4 cups of salted water to boil for at least four minutes, then add sea salt and chickpeas. Simmer the chickpeas for at least 45 minutes, occasionally skimming off the foam. Drain, saving stock and set aside.
Toss sliced sweet potato with one tablespoon olive oil and salt and roast for about 20 minutes until they become somewhat firm again and dry on the outside (having absorbed the olive oil). Set aside.
Warm remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic and two teaspoons sea salt. Turn the vegetables over with a wooden spoon for about five minutes, then add the jalapeño chiles, banana peppers and ginger. Reduce heat to low or simmer, cover and cook for about 15 to 20 minutes.
Toast cumin seeds, coriander seeds, mace, paprika, fennel seeds, and peppercorns in a skillet or saucepan on low to medium heat for a few minutes. You want the seeds to pop and toast just a little but be very careful not to burn them. Toasting will set free the oils and flavor. Grind in mortar or coffee mill. Add them to the garlic and onion mixture and stir until they get sticky, about one minute, then add tomatoes and sweet potatoes, chickpeas and 1 1/2 cups of reserved chickpea water. Reduce the heat to low, simmer uncovered for 20 to 25 minutes until thickened somewhat but not too thick. Ideally you want the tomato sauce to be somewhat loose with broth so it will soak into the couscous.
Adjust the seasoning with salt and fresh lemon juice to taste. Serve with cilantro garnish.
Braised mustard greens with toasted black mustard seeds and garlic
• 1 large bunch mustard greens (stems removed and saved for couscous broth)
• 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
• 2 large garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
• 2 tablespoons mustard seeds
DIRECTIONS: Bring 5 cups of salted water to boil. Add greens for not even a minute, quickly drain, and squeeze out remaining water.
In a skillet on medium heat, toast mustard seeds for about three minutes until they pop a little. Set aside. In the same skillet add olive oil and garlic and sauté for about three to four minutes on medium heat. Add mustard greens, seeds and salt and sauté lightly for about three minutes, making sure they don't overcook. Serve immediately.
• 14 ounces organic couscous
• 14 ounces water (or vegetable stock, if available)
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
DIRECTIONS: Boil water and add the leftover ginger peel, mustard green stems and peel of one lemon. Simmer for two minutes (like making tea).
Place couscous into a large bowl and add the hot broth while filtering the stems and peels out through a mesh strainer.
Seal bowl immediately with a secure lid or plastic wrap. Set aside for four to five minutes until broth has absorbed and then gently loosen the grains with your hands. Couscous needs to be light and fluffy, not wet and sticky.