On the Friday before Christmas of 2012, a day that some people predicted to be the end of the world, chef Robert Phalen invited about a dozen chefs into his restaurant, One Eared Stag, to prepare an apocalyptic-sized feast. There is nothing convenient or simple about inviting 12 knife-wielding control freaks into a space built for one; conventional wisdom tells us what to expect from too many cooks in the kitchen. Logistics and proverbs be damned, Phalen and company expanded his cozy neighborhood kitchen into a sprawling makeshift cookery that included a storage room transformed into a banquet table for cold plating, a sidewalk commandeered for tabletop Binchotan charcoal grilling, a trailer-sized smoker parked outside the back door, and a kitchen line that turned over like a well-oiled revolving door. The kitchen worked late into the night, the world did not end, and, at some point, I realized that I had spent the last year worrying about Atlanta, about the past, and about the South in general. But by the end of the evening, I had also decided that I wasn't as worried about those questions anymore.
If that feels like an odd statement to make about what was, essentially, a bombastic dinner party, so be it. I find it increasingly hard to differentiate between my own experiences dining in Atlanta and an objective consideration of the restaurant scene here. That might be an indication of my failings as a reporter or, I hope, a sense of perspective that comes from trying to immerse myself in the culinary life of our city. Either way, what I'm saying is that the dinner felt to me like a sea change in Atlanta dining and I'd like to explain to you why.
On the Sunday before that dinner, I spent the afternoon watching a matinee dance performance at the Goat Farm. Afterward, a couple of friends and dancers and I decided to drop into One Eared Stag for cocktails and a few small bites. Not long after we arrived, AJC dining critic John Kessler walked in with a friend. A little while later, Atlanta magazine's dining critic Bill Addison arrived with Kim Severson, the Atlanta bureau chief for the New York Times and author of a number of food-related books. Picture that: a restaurant with a food writer for every table.
I spent some time that night trying to make a joke out of it. What's the punch line to "Four food writers walk into a bar ..."? At least for me, the gist of it was a minor existential crisis: "Is Atlanta really that small of a city?"
Most of the chefs I've talked with in recent months aren't wringing their hands and furrowing their brows about Atlanta's relationship to other cities in the country, about whether or not we have an image problem, about how much (or little) we're living up to that world-class city status that the Olympics supposedly cemented. They've got more pressing concerns, like food costs or how to find a line cook who'll stick around.
On the other hand, most of the writers I know in Atlanta are, at least occasionally, worried about those questions. This perception was perhaps exacerbated by my time as deputy food editor earlier this year at Atlanta magazine, during which I worked on a themed issue that gravitated around the questions "How Southern are we? (and should we even care?)" It is a good issue as far as magazines go. The editors there managed to wrangle a number of smart, articulate people to weigh in on those Southern concerns. I can't say that I had much of anything to do with it. I filed a few short features and occasionally sat at the conference table while discussions were had about it. But after the issue went to press, I was still troubling over those questions, turning them over until they became little polished stones, easier to look at than in.
When I wasn't in Atlanta, I spent a lot of time in New York this past year, mostly in the East Village, mostly drinking and eating as much as my body would allow. More than a few of those afternoons were spent sitting at Ssäm Bar, eating bowls of duck and rice with my girlfriend, and talking about what it means to live in a Southern city, or what it means for anything to be "Southern" at all. Eventually, that became a question of Atlanta versus New York or, more accurately, Atlanta's relationship to New York.
At Ssäm Bar, we always ordered a plate of country ham first, usually Benton's. Ssäm Bar treats that ham without kitsch or gimmick. The dish is simply a plate of good country ham served thin and uncooked, as literal as Pacific Coast oysters. Between those smoky, fatty bites, we tussled with a little problem: that almost nothing ever arrives from the South as unburdened and unadorned as that ham. Southern culture always seems to come with the kind of unwieldy baggage that threatens to upstage the thing itself, like a trout meunière drowning in its own sauce.