Natural light beams into chef Gerry Klaskala's kitchen. From a back wall of windows, the light bounces off black marble counter tops, off the glass tiles of the kitchen walls, throughout his whole house, until it lands on paintings. Nearly every wall in Klaskala's home is covered with his collection of contemporary abstract works, paintings that seem to draw the light in. A massive, blue-hued painting by Anne Faber dominates his living room. Klaskala may be known for his considerable role in shaping the culinary scene in Atlanta, from launching the influential Buckhead Diner in the '80s to creating the fine-dining destinations Canoe and Aria, but his first passion was painting.
As a teenager growing up in western New York, Klaskala says he had hair past his shoulders, a '69 Triumph Bonneville motorcycle paid for by washing dishes, and an admiration for Mark Rothko's paintings that was only matched by his respect for the old masters. He kept up his artistic ambition even after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 1976 and bought a drawing table as soon as he moved to Atlanta for a restaurant job that year. As soon as he brought the table home, though, Klaskala says, "I thought, 'What did I just do?' You know, Michelangelo: You can't serve two mistresses. It's either one or the other."
Klaskala may have left behind the "mistress" of painting, but it's obvious his painting background has pushed him to approach cooking with the ambition and discipline of the fine arts. His kind of drive wasn't as common then, when the idea of fine dining was just beginning to set into American culture. "You have to remember that it had just started, the whole idea of restaurants was just starting," he says. "Back when we did Buckhead Diner, there were probably — I don't know — maybe 20 restaurants in Buckhead? Now there's maybe 300 or so. The Zagat guide would have been 12 pages."
Dining at one of Klaskala's elegant restaurants on a budget of $20 may be impossible, but he stresses that the lessons of fine dining can translate to the home cook on a budget. There are simple tricks — like heating the plates for an entrée or soup or chilling a dessert plate — that make the meal more of a pleasure. His advice for shopping is simple: Don't buy too much. His basket at the grocery store was filled with single items — a black radish, a lime, a celery root, a red bell pepper and so on — that added to the complexity and flavor of his dishes.
The central lesson of cooking for Klaskala, though, is planning. The most expensive item he bought, a small whole chicken, was also the most useful. The night before cooking this dinner, he butchered and set aside the breasts, using the rest of the carcass to make a broth for the soup and a reduced jus for the entrée. Before even so much as preheating the oven, Klaskala had every single vegetable chopped and each component prepped. This mastery of mise en place means that Klaskala does remarkably little while cooking, as each step has been reduced to the most basic act.
Klaskala says he's skeptical of the complex, scientific preparations that have become vogue for some chefs. "I'm not into radical cooking because I don't believe that years from now someone is going to go, 'Mom, could you please make that chicken with the foam sauce dipped in liquid nitrogen?'" he says.
For Klaskala, the dishes that transport us across time and space back to the place and moment we first tasted them, those simple, distinct memories of scent and flavor, are crucial to an understanding and appreciation of his art. Unlike Marcel Proust, who famously assigned this sort of memory to a single cookie — a madeleine — in Remembrance of Things Past, Klaskala says he can't whittle down his own memories to a single dish, that he remembers everything.
"I can remember being with my roommate up in Rhode Island and going out for lobster at a shack, tasting that lobster roll. I can remember going out with my folks and sitting down and having roast beef sandwiches on thick paper plates, dripping in gravy with a big stack of french fries. And going to a corner tavern and having a Friday night fish fry, the fish hanging over the plate it was so big, the coleslaw, the potato salad, the tartar sauce in the little white paper cup. You can smell it, more bar than restaurant. You know how those places smell like beer?"
Then, at that moment, Klaskala seems to catch himself and break out of his Proustian reverie. There are dishes here in his kitchen: the aromatic sweet potato and red pepper soup filling the air around him; the low sizzle of the chicken breast in a cast iron pan; and a trail of steam floating from the simmering jus. Klaskala doesn't need to say it because everyone in the room is already thinking, "These are the dishes that memories are made from."
Next: Three delicious recipes from Gerry Klaskala