Chef Shaun Doty does not have the right size meat mallet in his kitchen at home. The Yeah! Burger impresario pulls a miniature mallet from a drawer with a look of disappointment, like a fifth of whiskey that's been replaced by an airplane bottle. This is a common theme for chefs: Their kitchens at work are invariably more well-stocked and organized than their kitchens at home. Despite whatever glamorized images television game shows like "Top Chef" might suggest, chefs like Doty are often dealing with the same handicaps as anyone else at home: dogs and kids running around, a mallet that isn't the right size, a blender lid that seems to have disappeared. "A chef always wants to have the right tool for the job," he says with some reticence, shrugs his shoulders, and then proceeds to beat a pork chop into a thin, tender schnitzel with the mini-mallet, anyway.
The trajectory of Doty's career — from chef Guenter Seeger's right-hand man at the Ritz-Carlton and Mumbo Jumbo to running the four-star namesake Shaun's to starting a local burger chain — is easily one of the most unusual in Atlanta. Though the mention of Shaun's still inspires nostalgia for some diners who remember his fresh take on pork schnitzel and legendary pomme frites, Doty says that he's moved on. "I was hardheaded at Shaun's," he says. "I only wanted to do it exactly how I wanted to or I didn't want to do it at all." In 2009, he bragged to Atlanta magazine that it cost one hundred bucks a pop to fill the fryers at Shaun's with duck fat. That style didn't prove to be recession-proof. Doty closed Shaun's in late 2010 to focus full time on Yeah! Burger.
It might seem odd that a chef who trained in Michelin-ranked European kitchens and worked on glitzy projects in Atlanta for about a decade would shift to running a place where you could order a burger at a counter, but Doty insists that's part of his point with Yeah! Burger. Fast food is supposed to be the domain of semitruck deliveries of frozen foods, not locally sourced fresh food. "Why can't we make it better?" Doty asks rhetorically. He sources local, grass-fed beef, the bread is baked locally from his recipes, and very little comes from the freezer. "We should have an agenda to push, to enlighten people about ingredients, and I think people are really recognizing that."
Doty credits the German-born Seeger for showing him the ropes of sourcing from local food networks, what was then a European style much before it became the ubiquitous trend of today. That European influence is still quite pronounced in the meal that Doty has planned today. A mousse, a schnitzel, a cheese course: You might think this was straight off a Bavarian menu if it weren't for his subtle Southern touches of chicken livers and bourbon in the mousse, a pork chop instead of veal for the schnitzel, and pecans foraged from Inman Park in the apple and cheddar salad. "I didn't grow up snapping beans on a porch," Doty says, reminding me that he's from Oklahoma. "But I've been in the South long enough to claim it."
Doty's recipe for mousse is remarkably simple. A pile of raw livers is probably not the most appetizing sight for anyone, but a few minutes in a cast-iron skillet, a quick deglazing with bourbon, and a purée in the blender with heavy cream leaves a silky, delicate mousse. The transformation is almost magical. While the mousse cools, he sets into working on the schnitzel and the apple salad.
Doty is very relaxed in the kitchen, moving around at a steady pace from each pan while "Will the Circle be Unbroken" plays softly in the background. He is very specifically unfussy while cooking. Once a schnitzel goes in the frying pan, for example, he doesn't touch it again until it has to be turned. Once the food is on the plate, Doty is more than eager to open bottle of wine, spread the plates across his table, and start eating.
Each dish seems to inspire a memory for Doty. He talks for a long time about his first trip to Europe, back when you could still smoke cigarettes on a plane. When he talks about Amsterdam, smoking hash, hitching rides with people, it's easy to get the impression that his stories of kitchen excess could go toe-to-toe with someone like Anthony Bourdain. But he also vividly recalls an apple pie that introduced him to the combination of apples and poppy seeds, which create a perfect crunch in the salad tonight. He talks about the German friend who he first started making schnitzel for. Doty's a yarn-spinner, a real storyteller. You could almost believe that he grew up snapping beans on a porch.