Alma Cocina's Chad Clevenger has been with the restaurant since before it opened in December 2011. He came to Atlanta from Denver, where he owned his own restaurant and then a food truck, to help Fifth Group get a Mexican concept off the ground. Before that he lived and cooked in Santa Fe, Austin, and even France, where he was the personal chef for Leslie Bricusse, the lyricist who wrote songs like The Candy Man and Goldfinger. Here, he talks about his first year with the restaurant and how he's trying to revitalize Atlanta's downtown neighborhood.
How was the first year?
It's been pretty fun. It's been an experience— opening a restaurant's never easy, there are lots of ups and downs and challenges, but for the most part it's been a really good year for us. We've made a lot of good friends in the area, we're trying to revitalize Downtown Atlanta, and overall I'd say it's been a really good first year.
How was the first day?
I'm trying to remember— it was probably a pretty nerve-racking day. We had a huge staff, I think when we first opened, we had 35 in the kitchen and 40 or 50 front-of-the-house guys. Between all the employees and all the craziness of the first day, it was just busy.
What was the weirdest thing that happened?
When we started to do our interview process, we just put up a banner outside and 100 people would show up every day. It was a lot. One kind of crazy thing that happened is a person we hired and then let go— he didn't make the first pass— actually ended up breaking into the restaurant a couple times and stealing our high-end liquor. He would come in early in the mornings when just the saucier was here and he would sneak in through the doors. He knew that someone would only be in the back, so he'd come in and take whatever he wanted. Finally we figured it out, we ended up catching him. That's probably the strangest thing that happened all year.
What's your favorite table in the restaurant?
Table 44. It's a booth in the corner, underneath the big cacao pots, and our booths are very warming and comfortable, so I'd probably say 44 is my favorite.
Has it been different working for a restaurant group? Was that a big adjustment?
It was, but it's something that I wanted to do. I wanted to take a job that would basically fulfill my need to become a better manager. I feel that I'm a pretty good chef, but working for a group allows me to become a better manager. Seeing the way that a larger group would run a business has really helped me, from interaction with the guests to the numbers side.
What are your plans for the future?
We're going to start doing a lot more special dinners. We've started a series, Secrets of a Mexican Pantry. The first dinner was the huitlacoche one last month, and next is going to be Mezcal and Moles. We're also going to be bringing in guest chefs from Atlanta and all over the country, we probably going to have Rene Ortiz come in to do a dinner in the next few months. He runs a restaurant in Austin, La Condesa. We're also going to do a margarita mix-off, where we invite four or five of the best bartenders in town and have them battle. We're trying to bring people in; people are kind of hesitant to come downtown, so we're trying to revitalize it and let Atlantans know that they can get good local food here. No one else in Atlanta is doing this cuisine. With Mexican cooking, people think it's just beans and rice and tacos, but I dabble in molecular gastronomy on the plates and the sauce work is very complex.
What's the hardest thing you've encountered?
I'd have to say the fluctuation with business. We can go from doing 150 a night to doing over 300 a night instantly. To balance that is probably the toughest thing for me as a chef.
How have things changed?
We're capturing more of the local crowd, which is good, and we've started to partner with some of the local restaurants and started to do more events. We're on our fifth barrel of tequila— we go down to Jalisco and hand-select the barrel and age it longer. Just all around, we're functioning like a real restaurant now. We're up and running, have a great staff and management team here, everything is going smoothly.
Is there anything you would have done differently?
Sometimes I think the menu gets a little large, but other than that I feel like everything is pretty good. We've got a great space, great location. We have free parking; we validate seven days a week for lunch and dinner. I wish more Atlantans would come downtown and give it a try.
Do you have end goals of opening your own place?
Eventually, I wouldn't mind taking a stab at it again. I think I've learned a lot, but I've been happy here so far. It's a great blend for me of my cuisine and things that are true to my heart with the Mexican culture.
What's your favorite dish on the menu?
My favorite dish on the menu is the chicken mole. Next would probably be a tie between the tinga tostadas and the huitlacoche empanadas, and then any of the ceviches. My favorite drink is the Dios Mio, for sure.
Does it feel like it's been a year?
No. Not at all— It's gone by so fast. I feel like just a week ago I was coming cross-country with my brother, and it's been eighteen months. It's been fast, but I've kept busy and enjoyed my time here. I've had some great meals here; I've probably eaten at about 75% of my list. Abattoir and the meal I had at the Spence were probably two of my favorites so far. I still need to do Restaurant Eugene and the Optimist. And Southern, I usually go to South City Kitchen because I love their fried chicken, but everybody tells me I have to try Miller Union and Empire State South.