Two months ago, Michael Semancik took over as executive chef at the historic Georgian Terrace Hotel. He's settling back into Atlanta after his tenure at the Mansion on Forsyth in Savannah and now helms the kitchens of Livingston Restaurant and Bar and Proof & Provision. Semancik, who's worked previously under Kevin Rathbun and Scott Serpas in a former stint with Buckhead Life Restaurant Group, is ready to put his mark on the century-old hotel's food and beverage program. Here, he talks about the problem with the term farm-to-table, the importance of the hotel's history, and how Atlanta has changed in the last 20 years.
Why was right now the right time to leave Savannah?
I think the average life expectancy for a chef at most hotel properties is around four to five years. You can do pretty much everything you want to do, reach the goals you've set, within that period of time. But it was also just good timing— the availability of a property like the Terrace was a big selling point. I always look at the venue I'm going to be working at; I try to pick places that I can derive something from [historically] in order to help stimulate the kitchen and my crew. This place has stood the test of time and evolved over decades; it's been this close to being sealed up and demolished and has sort of reinvented itself— all of that was interesting to me.
Recently, I've been reading a lot about the music prompter Alex Cooley, a local music legend in the Atlanta music scene. In the '70s he owned part of what's now our Grand Ballroom. It was called the Electric Ballroom and at the time, it was all up-and-coming acts that were coming through Atlanta.
That's right, if they couldn't sell out the Fox, they would play the Electric Ballroom.
Bruce Springsteen played here, KISS, The Ramones. When I found out about that I was like, 'Wow, I've gotta work here, there's gotta be some good juju in the building.'
Where were you working the last time you were in town?
I've kept a toe in and out of Atlanta probably going on well over 20 years. My first go-round after concluding culinary school in New Orleans— this is probably early '90s, mid-90's— was with Buckhead Life and Nava. I worked with Kevin Rathbun there and with Scott Serpas, who is also a local restaurateur now.
How do you feel like the food scene has changed since you were here full time?
Wow, it's definitely a lot broader. I mean, it's definitely a lot more competitive. Every time I come back here, I'm just shocked at the amount of growth and building and new neighborhoods. When I first came here everyone tended to go to those Buckhead locations, and then the suburbs, those were always popular destinations.
The neighborhoods where people have established restaurants now were neighborhoods that people didn't go to then. Like Rathbun's, his locations over off Krog Street were areas that people didn't frequent at all—they were kind of the scarier parts of town.
It's definitely changed quite a bit. What differences do you notice working here versus working in a market like Savannah?
Savannah is obviously close to the ocean, so there are those subtle differences, but the availability of things here, the network of farmers, has become popular. The farm-to-table thing is very popular.
Although, I don't have anything against farm-to-table, but I think if you've been in the profession long enough you see these things that are cyclical and once they've sort of evolved from what they initially began as they sort of take on a life of their own. So, ten years ago everybody was about being green and sustainable. Usually when things like that happen, it's very positive, but after a while it becomes more of a marketing tool. It loses its focus and it's hard to zero in on farm-to-table. Although, I like the aspects of dealing with local farmers. It's just one of those things that hopefully wouldn't define who I am as a chef.
What do you want to define who you are as a chef?
If everything was wrapped up into one tight package, that's what it would be about: reinvention. For me, if I'm talking about my career as a chef and what I'm trying to do, it's constantly trying to reinvent myself. But you have a solid foundation, much like this hotel has a solid foundation. I hopefully have a solid foundation based on the chefs that I've worked for or with in the past that have helped me get to where I'm at—the Rathbuns or the Jay Swifts or whoever. All guys that have stood the test of time and reinvented themselves as well.
You've been here for a couple months now. What kinds of changes are coming to the food and beverage program?
We'll be changing the menu around the first of October, keeping an eye on seasonality of it and how it's changing as we move into fall-slash-winter— if we have a winter. For us, the main focus is on the dinner right away, just because that generally has the most impact here. It's the meal period I want to reinvent and really try to make an experience that people who haven't come here for a while will want to come in and see.
What'll happen at Proof & Provision?
I want to keep that evolving as well, watching way that the cocktails work with the food. It's very important to us from a mixology standpoint, with the guys that run the bar down there, that it all fits together cohesively with the kitchen. So they're spending a lot of time developing craft cocktails and doing things like making their own syrups or bitters and the same thing could be said of the food. A lot of it is really simple things, but it's done with a lot of technique and craft attached to it. It's given us a different vibe: While the dining room is a little bit more posh and has sort of a Hollywood Regency feel, downstairs is more jeans and cocktails and just real laid back. So it gives us another outlet to explore things. With the food aspect, it's great for me because I get to explore two different feels. It's like playing on two different stages.
Do you have a hand in catering and room service?
All the outlets I have a hand in. I have really good chefs. We do a ton of banquet work here— we're obviously a pretty big wedding destination. As a food and beverage team, we're looking to utilize some of the outlets that maybe through the course of time haven't been as utilized.
So what's your timeline of taking over the reins of the kitchen?
That's already happened from day one. That's the easy part. The timeline for evolving completely here, it generally takes between six months to a year to really get a good foothold in a place. I think the menu that will come out in mid-October will be a good, well thought-out snapshot of what I feel this place is about, and what I feel the kitchen is about. How it all fits together, and how it all fits in with this building. You can't overlook things like that. You can't overlook that we're in the South. From an ingredient standpoint, you can't overlook certain styles. It wouldn't make sense for me to come in here and try to do, like, Asian-fusion. It doesn't marry well with this property and it doesn't fit well.
My task is to find things that not only fit well, but also make sense. At the end of the day, [the menu] also tells a story about what this place is. There are not too many places that have a hundred years of history. There's a lot of newness in Atlanta. That can be a good thing, but history can't be avoided.
It's good to have some legacy.
And reinvented legacy. Some polish, some shine. I mean, look around this dining room. It's a grand venue. A little bit imposing. It's the one thing that— to the hotel guest, walking in here in jean shorts and a t-shirt could be a little bit daunting.
Do you feel like there are different challenges in the hotel industry than if you were at a stand-alone restaurant?
It's different in the fact that you're dealing with a sort of transitory audience. You have people in and out all the time; you have groups of people from all over the world here. We just had a conference in the hotel, and I think more than half of the people were based out of parts of Europe. You're dealing with a broader range of a captive audience. Like any location or property, it's got its pluses and minuses.
But it's not too, too different [from a stand-alone restaurant], not at this property. This property tends to be more independent than, say, a larger corporate conglomerate. The owners and the management of this property have really given me a broader scope to work with.
Do you go eat at other people's restaurants?
I tend not to do that right now. I'll do that once I get settled in and get my mind wrapped around what I do here. It's almost like painting, if you're painting, you don't necessarily want to go to a museum and stare at other people's artwork— just because it sometimes can dilute what your intentions are. That's an important part of evolving as a chef: learning to be comfortable with yourself and your style and what you're doing and not trying to jump onto trends or things that are not long-term oriented.
For me, I think I've been in and out of Atlanta for over 20 years now. I spent a lot of my formative years as a youth running around the city, so I got to see it evolve. Like I said, a lot of those neighborhoods I used to kick around have grown and there are some really cool restaurants there now. So it's just fun for me to see those things and to see the people I admire and the chefs I've admired and respected be successful in their undertakings. Hopefully I can claim a little of that for myself here at this property. I feel like I've got a pretty good start.
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Michael Semancik. [Photo: Jena Anton]