Cookbook author, Amateur Gourmet blogger, and self-proclaimed "self-taught home cook" Adam Roberts is in town promoting his second book, Secrets of the Best Chefs, which tracks his journey cooking with fifty great chefs from all over the country, Linton Hopkins, Hugh Acheson, Anne Quatrano, and Asha Gomez. He learned directly from the chefs, then interpreted his findings for amateur cooks like himself. The result is chef recipes filtered through the sensibilities of a home cook and neatly packaged into one book that will be released in November. Roberts went to places like New York City, DC, Portland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, DC, and, of course, Atlanta, which also happens to be the city where he completed both his undergraduate and law school degrees— and where he started his blog.
Today, he's speaking at 2 p.m. in Emory's Dobbs University Center (gnocchi will be involved) and signing books in the Emory Campus Bookstore at 4 p.m. He'll also be at Empire State South tonight for a prix-fixe, three-course dinner inspired by Secrets of the Best Chefs starting at 6:15 p.m. A few seats are still available, and a signed copy of the book is included in the $70 cost of the meal. Below, the author talks about the role Atlanta and its chefs played in his work.
How did you select your Atlanta chefs?
There were a couple I knew of right away. Anne Quatrano, when I lived in Atlanta, Bacchanalia was the nicest restaurant you could go to, and it seems like it still is. All that food is so wonderful— I think Bacchanalia is up there with the best food in the country. Just how elevated it is, how seasonal. It's very smart, carefully prepared food that's also surprising and regional, which is great.
I'd been reading a lot about Linton Hopkins, and he was such an interesting character. Only in the South would you meet someone like him; he's very much of the South. And Asha Gomez was a pretty incredible piece of luck for me. I was looking for a home cook and I went to cook with her in her house when she had the supper club. It was just this incredible experience, and the crazy thing is that after this all happened, she opened her restaurant Cardamom Hill and got all this national press. I had no idea she would become a restaurant cook. I also asked her if she knew any great Atlanta home cooks and she recommended this guy named Omar Powell. He's a Jamaican home cook who makes this really amazing Jamaican food and I cooked with him at his house in Duluth. What's really interesting is now he's the head chef at Cardamom Hill.
And Hugh Acheson?
Hugh Acheson was probably the biggest celebrity I cooked with in Atlanta, especially because he's Top Chef judge. What I liked about him is that his perspective of Southern food is informed by the fact that he's from Canada. The fact that he's an outsider cooking Southern food is really interesting as me, since I'm also an outsider. We're doing a dinner with him tomorrow night at Empire State South.
What's great about Hugh is that he talks about the "burgeoning South" so he's interested in not just classic, Southern food but in Southern food that reflects the diverse communities of the region. One of the dishes he taught me was pork belly on kimchee rice grits. That dish is amazing because it has kimchee and he's combining it with the rice grits, which date back to slavery. The slaves would sift the rice and whatever fell through went to the slaves and whatever remained went to the owners. So the slaves would use the detritus to make these rice grits.
What else did you make with chefs here?
Anne Quatrano taught me how to make this seared duck breast cured in all these herbs that she grows herself. She lives on this farm and brings the herbs to her restaurant— it's part of that local, agricultural thing that you can really only get in the South.
One of my favorite experiences was cooking with Angelish Wilson of Wilson's Soul Food in Athens, which unfortunately has closed. She was so warm and loving. She was just a feeder of her community, she fed all the students up there and people would bring her things that she'd use in her restaurant, like fresh pecans that she'd put in pecan pie. She had such a great spirit and was really lovely person. A lot of my book is about how people's personalities are reflected in the food they make. A lot of the cranky, serious chefs would make really serious food and the warmer, loving people would make much more crowd-pleasing food. You know, certain chefs that have very intense personalities and they're the ones doing things like foam and deconstructed dishes. Some chefs are in the middle, like Linton Hopkins is a serious chef who's also very warm so his food was a combination of comforting things that were very well plated and executed.
With Asha I made a beef curry; she called it her version of beef bourguignon. The main thing I learned from her is to use fresh curry leaves. It makes such a huge difference— I had friends come over for dinner when I was testing her recipe and they said it was one of the best Indian meals they ever had, and all I did was use the fresh leaves.
Why didn't you pick Richard Blais?
I love Richard Blais and I loved him on Top Chef. Years ago, when I was at Emory I went to his first restaurant in Atlanta, Blais, and had a 21-course tasting menu which I'll never forget. But I had to be careful with the molecular chefs— and I know he'd never want to be called a molecular chef— because the idea of the book was that I was adapting the recipes for home cooks, so I really wanted to focus on chefs where I could go home and replicate their recipes. Cooking Anne Quatrano's food or Hugh Acheson's food is something that home cooks can aspire to. Even though the ingredients are very refined, the basic techniques that I learned can be applied to anything. Whereas high-tech stuff like using liquid nitrogen or juicing aren't things the people are going to do at home. That's reason I didn't cook with Richard Blais, but I do really admire what he does.
I felt an emotional tie to Atlanta because I'd gone to school here and I started my blog here. And I felt like, if I was going to go to the South, Atlanta was a good city in terms of covering all kinds of chefs. I thought the diversity and eclecticism were interesting— you get a little bit of everything. Like Hugh said, it's the burgeoning South, it's the "South of Buford Highway." I think it's an under-celebrated food city, and it should be celebrated. There's really fantastic food here.
Do you have any good Atlanta stories? What was most surprising?
Asha served us a meal that we had to eat with our hands. We sat down at the table and there was no silverware, and I was kind of surprised, but I learned a lot from that because it really does change the experience of eating food. You're feeling it, you're experiencing the texture of it, it can be very sensual.
Also, someone like Linton Hopkins who's a combination of a Southern farmer and a sophisticated French chef— he's measuring the diameter of his julienne to make sure it's exactly the right length but he's also using local crops and picking Vidalia onions and biting into them like their apples. I think people find that mashup kind of surprising.