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California Dreaming

Michael Tuohy and the doctrine of local/seasonal ingredients

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During the first few years of the '90s, I commuted frequently to California, where I worked as part of my studies for a master's degree in psychology. The facility where I worked was nestled in the mountains of Sonoma County. The woman who ran the kitchen there was a fanatical follower of the California movement to cook only with seasonal and local ingredients.

Besides buying produce from the numerous small farms in the area, she maintained a fairly large garden on the facility's grounds. One of my keenest memories of there is walking into the garden one morning and plucking a squash blossom from a vine. I ate it - and a tomato - and I'll never forget the effect. The intensity of flavors produced a feeling of wellbeing that was almost spiritual - and a mystery to me.

Such experiences are no mystery to Mike Tuohy, chef/owner of Woodfire Grill (1782 Cheshire Bridge Road, 404-347-9055). "It's all about taste," he told me recently. "People make all kinds of arguments for cooking with local, seasonal food, but it really comes down to taste. The difference is phenomenal."

Tuohy, whose own squash blossoms stuffed with goat cheese I await to come into season, gained his affection for local seasonal food while working at Joyce Goldstein's historic Square One in San Francisco after attending culinary school. Upon moving to Atlanta, he became the first chef in our city to advocate the still relatively new Northern California-style of cooking at his first restaurant, Chefs' Cafe, which closed in 1996 after 10 years. Chefs' Cafe was my favorite restaurant in Atlanta. Its closing was something I lamented in this column for many years.

After Chefs' Cafe closed, Tuohy worked at several restaurants in town, opening Woodfire Grill almost three years ago. "There's no question that food consciousness in Atlanta has evolved in the last 10 to 15 years," he said. "When I opened Chefs' Cafe, we had a seasonal menu. I changed it four times a year. That was considered radical then. Now I change it daily. We have such improved access to fresh foods that it's not unusual for me to be making menu changes as late as 5:15. I don't even have a freezer big enough to hold more than some ice cream."

Tuohy acknowledges that the definition of seasonal ingredients has become vague. "Some people argue that there is no such thing as seasonal food now because everything is in season somewhere at any given time. They buy stuff from halfway around the world or that's been in storage for months. I'm not going to buy fish from Peru or use a gassed, hothouse tomato. I'd rather use better-tasting canned San Marzano tomatoes until the local tomatoes come into season in July. I do think we have a 'food clock' that's tuned to our location. It sometimes happens that something that's in season here may not be as good as it is in California, so I'll order the California product. But mainly I try to support local farmers like those at the Morningside Farmers Market."

That "food clock," he argues, "also influences the way food should be prepared. "I don't do any braising in the summer. Instead of roasting, I cook more on the rotisserie. I use lighter salsas and chutneys. As is common in many Southern areas, I cook spicier in the summertime. This is all driven purely by instinct, although people have to recover that in themselves. More and more chefs ask me about this."

The best way to grasp Tuohy's claims is, of course, to sample his food. I visited last Monday, when he was offering a five-course dinner featuring asparagus, most of it from Cimino Farms in Reynolds, Ga. The standout was the third-course asparagus panna cotta, topped with a parmesan frico whose salty crispness contrasted dramatically with the pale green custard. Dots of 12-year-old balsamic vinaigrette hooked up the two flavors.

There were grilled asparagus with God's favorite mushroom, morels, and criminis washed in a fig essence and scattered with grada padano cheese. There was French white asparagus - chilled and succulent - with an earthy boiled-egg vinaigrette. The entree was an amazing lasagna baked in the restaurant's signature wood oven. Layers of fat pasta contained crisp asparagus, satiny robiola cheese and three mushroom varieties - porcinis, criminis and morels. A San Marazano tomato sauce topped the lasagna.

The asparagus did not make it to the dessert course. That was simple strawberries, halved and drenched with Limoncello. All of the courses were paired with wines ($75) or could be ordered without them ($50).

We also sampled wood-grilled sardines in a sweet-and-sour onion chutney with currants, a crispy soft-shell crab from the Gulf Bay, and wild Alaskan halibut over a stew of cannellini beans and tomatoes with gaeta olives and roasted fennel. A dessert of caramel-soaked medjool dates with Greek yogurt mousse and a little buttermilk cake made me yearn for the fresh figs that Tuohy loves and will be using when their season arrives this summer.

Why the wood grill? Tuohy waxes almost poetic about it: "It's perfect from my perspective. It's primordial. It adds distinctive flavor because of the wood and smoke, but it also produces a beautiful aroma that hits you as soon as you walk in the restaurant. It's not a piece of equipment for a restaurant that's not chef-driven. It requires learning to cook in a new way and it's very high maintenance."

When we chatted, Tuohy had returned from Italy where he dined in several enotecas, the popular wine bars with grazing portions of food. It was partly in preparation for a change coming to Woodfire in June. Admitting that his prices make Woodfire a special-occasion restaurant for most people, he is opening a comparatively inexpensive adjunct, the Café at Woodfire, in the front bar area of the restaurant. It will allow diners to enjoy his food for $15 to $20 per person.

"But," he says, "the quality will be no less than the restaurant's. It will also feature seasonal, local ingredients but in more informal dishes."

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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