Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
Hugh Acheson and Ryan Smith [Justin Phillips/4squarephotos]
Although it opened in August of 2010, Hugh Acheson's first Atlanta restaurant, Empire State South, feels much older. The restaurant has already taken its place among Atlanta's best, but the road has not been easy. Empire State South's opening chef, Nick Melvin, was replaced just six short weeks into the restaurant's life by chef Ryan Smith, who had been knocking it out of the park as the chef de duisine at Restaurant Eugene and Holeman & Finch Public House. When Smith came on board, things really started to come together. We caught up with Smith and Acheson at Empire State South to talk about the restaurant's past year and what lies ahead.
How did opening go? What was the response when you guys opened? Were you full immediately?
HA: I think the response was really good. We were full immediately. We made a chef change shortly down the line. Nick is great guy. He was just the wrong chef for the style of service and dining that I am used to. And Ryan came on board. Ryan and I can make a menu in five minutes together that is an awesome menu. There’s an ease of working together. There’s respect.
What is the creative process like considering Hugh is obviously quite busy?
RS: When he is here and I’ve made changes or something, he gives me a lot of feedback and it’s not taken the wrong way. It’s always just him giving his opinion. It’s more of “maybe you could try this.” We tweak things a lot together. It just works really well.
HA: I don’t want to sink Ryan’s ability to write a menu and have complete oversight over this restaurant. I am not here all the time. I am here to provide assistance and experience and morph it into the restaurant I always wanted it to be. Ryan is very much a part of the puzzle. It’s made it much easier. He is gifted in ways that I am still earning. I am gifted in ways that he is still learning. It’s a good mix.
Do you guys consider yourself Southern chefs?
HA: We are both displaced Northerners. Me being far Northern. Him being Pennsylvania Northern. But we’ve been around Southern food for a very long time. I think a great Southern chef is someone who respects the agrarian landscape of what’s around us. And I think that we both do that very well.
It’s nice that you allow him (Smith) to shine and be at the head of the restaurant. Sometimes when there is a big celebrity chef in front of a restaurant, the chef de cuisine gets hidden.
RS: I am definitely grateful for that.
HA: I think that world is changing. I think chef means a lot of different things. I work with a number of great chefs and they all lead the restaurants that I own now. When you own three restaurants, you’re never going to be in the kitchen all the time. You just can’t do that writing and doing TV and all of that sort of stuff. You have to trust and push the careers of these people who you’ve got in your stable. I don’t have a big enough ego that this has to all be about me. I couldn’t care less.
What was the review process like especially considering you had a chef change so early out of the gate?
HA: I got some feedback from people in this business and other businesses, that if things weren’t going right, you need to be very decisive and make a change quickly. I had no trouble doing that. I think we changed course very quickly. The reviews started coming in and some of the reviews were based on meals with one chef and then Ryan. And you could see that in the reviews although they weren’t explicit. We fared pretty well for the blusterfumble that it was. We did okay. It was so hard. There should be a rule that no one is reviewed until they are past a year because there is so much to figure out. It is a lot of stress, a lot of 18 hour days. This industry is the most amazing industry because we get to learn and create every day. But it is also very hard. When it is hard, it is hard. And you are self-criticizing and bashing yourself around just as much as anyone else.
Did you notice the response change when you (Smith) came on board considering the first chef wasn’t a great fit? It certainly changed my perception as a diner when you came along.
RS: It definitely took some time. It was a big change for me to come on board of a big busy restaurant that does three services a day and there were some adjustments. But I definitely love the change that has been made.
But do you (Smith) feel you helped change the perception of Empire State South’s food?
HA: There were a number of factors at play there. We started out as this novel concept of a meat and three. The stumbles at the beginning were multifold but they were fixed. Restaurants need to fix things every day. Every day. 11 years in, I am still fixing things every day at Five and Ten. The problems were pretty magnified at the beginning and one of the issues was similar to the problems, I think, Tom Colicchio had initially with the first Craft. You can’t offer that many options. There are so many variables that go into food, that if I give the complete control over their plate every day, the possibilities are endless. And it was a really hard thing to execute in the kitchen. So, we made the decision to nix that. Ryan came in shortly after and, basically?in slang lingo, he was “picking up what I was putting down” much more readily than anybody else was going to be able to. He was understanding the pressure that was going into this. He wasn’t falling down under that pressure.
There’s great restaurants that start out of that gate great and awesome?I still haven’t figured that out. It’s a hard, hard thing to do. Opening up a restaurant is like grating your head on gravel over and over and over again willingly every day. From a diner’s perspective, a critical perspective, everyone wants it to be perfect out of the gate and it’s like, really? Really? We are under the critical lens all the time and we felt that this place was under a lot of critical lens for Atlanta because I’d been in Athens for 11 years and getting all this whatever. So, we were put to the test here. But, now, we are enjoying it. It’s fun and it’s well lauded.
Do you think this is going to be your last Atlanta restaurant?
HA: Probably not.
What about nationally?
HA: We’ve toyed with ideas and places. My problem with execution and fundraising. I have a great idea every day and I don’t ever think I’ll be able to execute every one of them. There’s a number of things we are thinking about, but the climate of the biz is still a little rough and tumble right now. Still, we are looking at a couple of concepts in and around Athens and Atlanta right now.
I can imagine with the whole Bravo factor that you are getting a lot of interest to go beyond Atlanta.
HA: Yeah, we’ve been approached about all the obvious locations, but it’s got to be the right idea. I’ve got to be able to build a team where it is. And that is never easy work. We’re being patient with what we’ve got.
How many days are you in Atlanta?
HA: When I am in Georgia, generally, I am here Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Ryan’s here the rest of the time. We’ve just got an amazing team with Cynthia Wong being on board now who is just a delight to work with. Kyle Jacovino, our executive sous chef, is awesome. Steve Grubbs doing all of the wine buying and sommelier work.
Everyone loves your wine list.
The wine list is great. It is what I want the whole restaurant to be?without the pomp and circumstance serving the best stuff. So, how do you do that? You know. Waiters walking around in a monibrow preservation society tees.
How did those t-shirts come about?
HA: After Top Chef Masters, I started getting all of these weird comments on the internet, blogs and twitters about how it was horrendous and I should shave it off. I responded to one woman. This is a person I have never met who is publicly commenting about my facial hair. So, I said I didn’t think she was as good looking as I thought she would be. And she got really offended. I was like really? How can you get offended after being really offensive. Develop a thicker skin because I will go after you. I am not scared. So, we created the t-shirts which was just very tongue in cheek, which is very much the person I am. I do not take myself very seriously.
Looking back over the past year, what would you do differently?
HA: Annie Quatrano looked at me years ago and said: “I love the second year of a restaurant.” And she is right. That first year is arduous and hard.
RS: I feel like since we have been changing so many things that I wouldn’t go back and change anything. Every month, we are trying to get better and better. I don’t like to look back.
HA: The position that we have carved out for ourselves has been very good. Are we the best restaurant in the world? Hell no. We think we are a good restaurant that is trying to get better every day.