Michael Lennox's first restaurant, Ladybird Grove & Mess Hall, is scheduled to open this summer, offering Atlantans a casual spot for eats and drinks right on the BeltLine's East Side Trail. Manning the kitchen will be Robert Lupo, creator of vegetarian dining circuit West Sherrywood Supper Club and executive sous chef at Leon's Full Service in Decatur. Here, Lupo discusses what to expect at Ladybird and his personal thoughts and ideas on cooking and eating.
How did you and Michael come together for Ladybird?
Well, it seemed to me like he kind of had his concept and he had his — he had a lot of the pieces of the puzzle already set. What he didn't have was a lot of connections in the restaurant network, so I think he pretty early on tried to stay educated on what's going on in the restaurant world in Atlanta through Eater, blogs, all the avenues that people use, and I think just eating out a lot, too. So I think he just started contacting people. He contacted me, just cold-called me off the street, and we hit it off. I liked where he was coming from, and I guess he thought it was time for me to make that move and that it was a good fit for what he was trying to do.
It's your first full-time gig as an executive chef. How do you feel about leading a kitchen?
I've been a sous chef, I got my first sous chef job when I was 25, and I've been a sous chef at a couple of different places. I've watched people, how they work, and I've worked with some great chefs. And I think that I have a good foundation to run a successful kitchen and give people a positive place to work and make sure that all the cogs are working in and out, and making sure that the owner's happy with the product. I think it's time.
How will your previous kitchen experience influence the food at Ladybird?
It'll reflect some of the stuff that I like to eat. It'll also reflect what I think people will expect when they come in the door. I think a combination of the best thing we can bring to the table there for the right price point. The food's not going to be super composed and 14 elements on each plate. It's going to be more along the lines of simple, but high-quality ingredients. I guess chef-driven techniques and chef-driven creativity will go into the food, but just not a lot of superfluous movements and platings. Based on the amount of space we have and the size of the kitchen and the size of the amount of people that are going to be in Ladybird, we can't really afford to do that. It doesn't really fit the concept. The concept's very casual. We want people coming in off the BeltLine however they arrive: in sandals, flip-flops, with their dog, off a bike, off a skateboard. So you're not dropping into a place like Ladybird to get a six-course tasting menu. While I love stuff like that and I've cooked stuff like that — that was what West Sherrywood was all about — that's not what Ladybird is all about. So we'll be cooking a more rustic kind of "campfire-edged" cuisine.
How do you feel about "modern Campfire cuisine"?
I don't want to get super tied into that; I don't want to be held down by that, but you can see, we'll be flirting with that idea some.
Do you have any dishes in mind yet?
Not super specifically. We're going to have a wood-fire grill, so you'll see some stuff off that. Just trying to keep the food fresh, creative, interesting. For the casualness of the restaurant, I think that people will be excited to get really high-quality, chef-driven food.
Ladybird sounds like the kind of place that could do very well in summer. How will the restaurant and menu adjust in winter?
In the winter, we do have a screened-in porch, and we'll have that temperature accommodated so people will be able to enjoy that throughout all seasons. I imagine that we'll have some heaters outside, too, on the un-screened-in patio area. And I imagine some of the food will become a little bit more comfort food driven, more stews and braises, things like that, things that kind of excite you when you're camping in chilly weather or doing outdoor activities in colder weather. The menu will not be hyper-seasonal, but somewhat seasonal. [The restaurant] will reflect that throughout the year as the seasons change, and so will the cooking. It'll kind of evolve with that.
What should diners expect from the bar program?
I think we'll have the talent and the knowledge to do a lot of fun cocktails, classics. But the focus won't be on necessarily pushing that a whole lot into a dozen super-creative signature cocktails. It'll be more of a focus on, I would say, American beer with specifically a focus on Southeastern, Georgia beers. Probably very little imports, very little stuff from outside of North America. So it'll be focusing on the United States. I think it'll be a place to get a great cocktail, but I don't think that will be — who knows? I just don't say that I think we're putting a lot of our focus on that right now in the planning stages.
Do y'all have anyone in mind to run the bar?
We'll have a bar manager. There's still some things to figure out.
When do you expect Ladybird to open?
Right now, I would say we're probably four to six weeks out — moving target.
What kind of food do you like to cook at home?
Well, I like to cook all kinds of stuff. I don't necessarily have a certain cuisine that I would call my favorite. I would say, at home my daughter and my wife eat a largely plant-based diet. West Sherrywood came out of that cooking that I was doing a lot of at home. We eat eggs at home so much, so coming up with some many different egg preparations, there's so many out there. We cook a lot of eggs at home. As far as cooking for friends, I don't do a whole lot of cooking. I do more cooking either at the restaurant or for my family. Just keeping it creative at home is fun. I guess I like cooking in the moment, I think of it like cooking in a corner, where you have people put things in front of you and you have to figure your way out. I've always enjoyed that. That's more of a touchstone for me than, I would say, any kind of specific national cuisine or cultural cuisine. It's just trying to make the best of what you're given in a certain area, which I find very challenging, but rewarding, when you can manipulate the ingredients to achieve some bigger great end goal, or what comes out of that is better than you thought it would be when you started.
So, you really like figuring it out on the fly?
My first serious cooking job, we kind of did a good bit of that because we changed the menu every day, and you kind of came in and you wrote a hand-written menu that day and collaborated with the different folks and chefs in the kitchen. You guys put the best thing on paper what you could do right then and there. And in the spirit of that, I think I got trained to think that way, I got good at working that way with the food. So I think that's followed me through my career, because I like cooking on the fly. I would say something like "Chopped" is an extreme version of that, where you have Gummy Bears and lamb steak, and that's not necessarily what I want to be cooking, but I would say that's the very extreme version of that. In that mindset, just given that mystery basket and trying to come out with the best final product you possibly can, I think that's fun for me.
Do you prefer working in a fine-dining kitchen or a more casual environment?
I've had some exposure to fine dining, and I think it taught me a lot. I think the stakes are a lot higher in fine dining because people have emotion or the build-up in their mind is a little bit different: there can't be mistakes and 'if I'm paying this much money, it's got to be a revelation in cuisine,' if you will. And I can appreciate that. There's a lot of planning and a lot of really important stuff that goes into fine dining, and I love that, but I think it's also fun to impress people with a really memorable meal that can really stick out in a causal atmosphere with people who don't have that kind of pretense or that idea that it has to be super good because you're in a fine-dining atmosphere and the check averages are that high. I would say, based on what I'm doing now, I would say I'm definitely more intrigued with that casual nature. And I think Atlanta's been moving in that direction since I've been here, the past nine years, specifically the past five years. People are looking to get really high-quality food service, drinks, and atmosphere that doesn't have to feel like a museum.
Where in Atlanta do you like to eat?
For one thing, I don't go out to eat as much as I used to. I have a young daughter, and my wife and I have been working throughout her coming up — she's a little over 3 — so we don't go out and try as many restaurants as we used to. I think there are lots of places I'd love to try; it just hasn't played out. I still like to go to Buford Highway, because a lot of that stuff, I don't keep a lot of the ingredients around my house just to make a one-off thing, and a lot of that stuff I don't know all the details and the ins and outs of producing it in a restaurant environment. So for me to go out there and eat relatively affordably — the affordability factor, it's a lot of value in that you go out there and spend 20 or 30 bucks and get a great meal. I guess Gu's Bistro comes to mind. That place is great; I always get a great meal there, and it's something that I wouldn't really know how to approach. Pho, banh mi, Korean barbecue, tacos, all that stuff; that's kind of right up my alley.
What would your death-row meal be?
I can tell you some of the things I'd want on there. I'd definitely want some type of, lots and lots of mushrooms, which anybody who's been around me and my food and my cooking environment knows that I'm kind of crazy about mushrooms. So those, definitely some kind of duck. Pulled duck, duck leg, breast, liver; I'll take it all. Asparagus, when they're top of the season and beautiful, makes me really happy. Doughnuts. Ice cream. Say, fennel ice cream. I don't know why, but every time I've had fennel ice cream — I've had a couple of different around Atlanta — they're always really great, and I guess they're just a little bit left of center, but always really tasty. So yeah: duck, asparagus when they're in season, tons of mushrooms. And I love doughnuts.
Until you got to doughnuts, those all sound like things that could be on a plate at Ladybird. Are those the kinds of ingredients you want to work with there?
Yeah, I think you'll definitely see some duck on there. I don't know how much asparagus we'll do. Maybe next spring we'll do some of those. You're definitely going to see tons of mushrooms, without a doubt, I'd say throughout the year.
How do you feel about being connected to the BeltLine?
We're getting a lot of these condos are going up, people are moving back into the city, I think the BeltLine's really rejuvenated a lot of that spirit. So we're really excited to be kind of the frontrunners of actually building a concept around the BeltLine, as opposed to just happening to be there. We're excited to be a part of that.