Bacchanalia, which has long been considered one of the best restaurants in the South, specializes in fresh New American cuisine. But lately, traces of Ecuador have shown up on the dessert menu.
Carla Cabrera, Bacchanalia's pastry chef, emigrated from the South American country to the United States 10 years ago to study culinary arts at the Art Institute of Atlanta. Now, along with owners Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison, she's guiding the flavors of Bacchanalia's acclaimed desserts.
In Ecuador, Cabrera was a secretary, but she always loved to cook. "I was never happy sitting at a desk," she says.
Cabrera's family has history in Atlanta, beginning with two uncles who came here as surgeons 30 years ago. Her cousin was the first to suggest that Cabrera might attend the Art Institute.
"All my family, all my aunts, are very good cooks. That always inspired me," she says. "When I was a teenager back in Ecuador, I used to make cakes and sell them to people. That's really how it started." But when she learned about the Art Institute, it was the first time she realized she could make a career out of doing what she loved.
One of Cabrera's teachers told her that even though pastry was her real love, she should learn the rest of the kitchen as well, so after graduating she spent some time working in restaurants around town learning every station. She says the experience was invaluable to her understanding of the industry. Then she applied for a job at Bacchanalia and got the chance to try out for a day.
"Carla didn't have a ton of experience," Quatrano says, "but she was very eager and she just got it. We saw potential. We're not always right, but in Carla's case we were right on."
Quatrano says it's important for the food to have a story. "I think one of the things that we always want is for our food to have some roots and tradition."
It's easy to see Cabrera's influence, and that of her Ecuadorian culture, on Bacchanalia's dessert menu. The flan recipe Cabrera provided is an example from the September menu, as is a recent dessert of corn pancakes with iced coffee.
"I work really closely with Carla, but it's easy, too, because at this point we're thinking on the same plane," Quatrano says. "She'll say, 'This is something we do in our country,' and we'll work on it until we think that that's something that will work with the American palate as well."
Cabrera describes the process of translating Ecuadorian flavors into desserts for a fine-dining menu. "For example, I love to make corn pancakes, and back home we eat them with honey and cheese. In Ecuador you would eat that with a cup of coffee, so I think 'How can I implement that?' I can do coffee ice cream, or the iced coffee. And slowly it becomes more of a dessert that's right for Bacchanalia."
She sees Latinos influencing every aspect of the restaurant industry. "People work very hard," she says. "And maybe they start as dishwashers, but they work their way up to sous chef, and then they start to influence the menu. But it's also just a part of the labor model now."
Quatrano, too, sees the influence immigration has had on the labor force, but for her, that's not the point. "I know there's people who think they could never run their restaurants without immigrants because of the pay scale. I don't know if I necessarily look at it that way. We like to pay people fairly. We could get other people to work for the amount that we pay, but I don't know if I'd want to. They're like a part of our family. And we learn so much from our staff all the time."
Asked what she sees for her future, Cabrera says she wants to stay in Georgia. "I'd like to have a little restaurant, like a little coffee and bakery shop, making the things I grew up eating. If you grew up eating food from another country, you have a unique opportunity to try to represent it and make it nice, and turn your culture into maybe something that Atlanta will like."
Bacchanalia's Lemon Verbena Flan with wine-poached pears
4 cups milk
1/4 pound lemon verbena leaves
2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon water
In a medium pan heat 1 cup of sugar and 1 tablespoon of water over medium heat until golden brown. Pour immediately into a baking dish or individual ramekins. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat, steep the lemon verbena leaves and milk. Bring it to a simmer. Turn heat off and let it rest for 10 minutes. Mix eggs and remaining cup of sugar in a stainless bowl and slowly add steeped milk, mixing continually. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve and let stand for 10 minutes. Pour the custard into the baking dish or ramekins with caramel. Bake in a 325-degree oven in a water bath for 1 hour for a large flan, or 20-25 minutes for individual flans. Let it cool and serve by unmolding upside-down onto plate.
2 cups water
1 1/2 cup sugar
Juice of 1 lemon
2 cups port wine
Peel the pears and put them into a pan with the water, sugar, port wine and lemon juice. Bring them to a simmer; cook about 20 minutes, depending on the type of pears. Take them off the heat and let them rest for 10 minutes. Refrigerate until needed. Serve beside flan.