Michael Tuohy's roots aren't hard to find. His menu at the Woodfire Grill speaks volumes about his background.
He has a Californian's reverence for vegetables, and for letting the ingredient shine without a lot of fancy cooking or plating techniques. Okra is simply breaded and fried and served alone on the plate with a lick of honey. Beets are presented as the centerpiece for a plate of arugula with a touch of goat cheese. On every plate, the freshness and flavor of the ingredients drive the dish, and the pleasure to be found in simple vegetables, or simply cooked meats and seafood, can be startling.
When Tuohy brought his Californian sensibilities to Atlanta 20 years ago, he assumed he wouldn't be staying long. Originally from San Francisco, Tuohy arrived in 1986 to start the Chef's Café, a restaurant with a seasonal menu and a point of view that Atlanta hadn't seen.
"At that time, the restaurants here were very old-school, and everyone was doing similar things," Tuohy says. "When we started, I was adamant not to have a Caesar salad on my menu, or mashed potatoes. It was a year before I put mashed potatoes on the menu. I love mashed potatoes, but everyone had them with everything. I just wanted to do something different."
The organic food movement that informed Tuohy's approach has been a part of Californian culinary life since the 1960s. But in Atlanta, Tuohy didn't see much local produce until 1989, when the founders of the Georgia Grown co-op approached him.
"A woman named Cynthia Hyser got a bunch of growers together and asked me and Guenter [Seeger] if they would grow things for us, would we use them? And we said, 'Absolutely.'"
Since that time, Tuohy has been one of Atlanta's main supporters of locally grown produce, and of local farmers. Tuohy, satisfied he'd done all he could do with Chef's Café, left the restaurant after about a decade. He later opened his most recent project, the Woodfire Grill, in 2001. The Woodfire is among only a handful of restaurants in the Atlanta area that is dedicated to buying locally, and along with Bacchanalia, is credited with raising consumer awareness simply through the medium of taste. The quality of ingredients speaks for itself.
In the past year, the Georgia Grown co-op has disbanded, and Tuohy now works directly with farmers. But he believes Atlanta has a ways to come in its appreciation of seasonal and local cooking and eating.
"I've always felt like we are pushing a boulder here," he says. "Not just in this restaurant, but in Atlanta, with using seasonal ingredients and using local organics. When you gauge it in terms of the response we get from our clientele, it is wonderful, and we attract a lot of people who do get it. And I think it's evolved immensely from where it was years ago and continues to push forward. But I think there's still a lot of work to do and a lot of awareness needs to be created. People ask me where I go to eat, and it's a pretty short list.
"It is frustrating at times when you feel that people don't get it," Tuohy continues. "You have a slow night and you see other places that customers are just hanging from the rafters, and they aren't doing anything special and nothing significant."
Tuohy still believes that, slowly, young chefs and restaurant owners are beginning to see the value in using better ingredients.
These days, he allows for a Caesar salad every now and then: "We'll do a Caesar salad now, but only when we have really good baby romaine lettuce from a local grower."
His dedication to simple, seasonally driven and local food isn't wavering in the slightest.
"If I couldn't do this, if I couldn't cook the way we do here, I don't think I would cook at all."
Michael Tuohy's Roasted Butternut Squash Soup with Grated Pecorino and Saba
2 pounds butternut squash
1 quart chicken stock
1 onion, roughly chopped
2 stalks celery, roughly chopped
1 cup apple cider
1/4 pound butter
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon ground coriander
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons grape-seed oil
2 cups heavy cream (optional)
1 teaspoon white pepper
Kosher salt to taste
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. With a fork, prick holes in squash all over.
Place squash in oven on a sheet pan and roast until tender, about 45 minutes to 1 hour.
Remove squash from oven and let cool until you can work with it. Split squash in half lengthwise, scoop out seeds with a spoon and discard. Remove pulp of squash from skin and reserve. Discard the skin.
In a large sauce pot, heat grape-seed oil, add onion and celery and sauté until soft. Add squash pulp, cinnamon, ginger, coriander, chicken stock and cider. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Remove from heat.
Add butter, honey, white pepper and some salt; be sure and taste. Add cream, taste again, add more salt if necessary. Other spices can be used at this point to adjust seasoning if needed.
Using an immersion blender, puree until smooth.
Using a 6-ounce ladle, place soup in bowl, grate some pecorino or Parmesan directly onto the soup, drizzle some saba on and serve.
Notes: Cream can be omitted from soup. Vegetable stock or water can be substituted for chicken stock. Parmesan can be substituted for pecorino.
Saba is a condimento, from Italy, made of cooked grape must. It is similar to an aged balsamico, which would be an excellent substitute. Saba can be found online or in your local gourmet market.
Woodfire Grill. 1782 Cheshire Bridge Road. 404-347-9055. www.woodfiregrill.com.
CL's 2006 Food Issue