Welcome to Industry Talks, where Eater shines the spotlight on Atlanta chefs, bartenders, sommeliers, and restaurant owners to provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their world.
Food has always been important to Spring chef and co-owner Brian So and his family. “My grandmother lived with us her whole life and she would always cook every meal, every day,” he says. His family often spent time around the table planning the next day’s meal.
So started cooking at home when he was in elementary school. It started off as a hobby. “We ate Korean food at home,” he says. “I would cook pancakes, anything that I saw on TV. If there was ever something I wanted to eat, something that was American, interesting to me, I told my mom to get the ingredients.”
In high school, So got a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant and eventually ascended the chain of command. So says his is a classic storyline for many chefs, who begin working at restaurants, grow to like it, and ultimately work their way up in the kitchen.
Following high school, So enrolled in Kennesaw State University with no real goals set or thoughts on a major to pursue. He says he stuck it out for two semesters, but So’s love of cooking prompted him to leave college after his freshman year to work full time in restaurants.
At his first real restaurant job, So learned everything from knife skills to how restaurants operate, the culture, and how much work the industry involves. He then enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in upstate New York, and spent his weekends in New York City trying to get into as many restaurants as possible.
“Around that time, Eleven Madison Park was the biggest restaurant,” he says. “Everyone wanted to work there. As much as I could, I’d work there on the weekends.”
After graduation from culinary school, So moved to West Palm Beach to work at the Breakers resort. He soon realized that despite the high quality and standards at the restaurant, this type of cooking lacked the creativity he craved. He found that creativity in San Francisco, working in Michelin star establishments like Coi and Benu.
When his father passed away, So says he returned to Atlanta to be closer to his family. He worked for a time under Robert Phalen at One Eared Stag in Inman Park and as part of the opening team at Sobban in Decatur. But he couldn’t get the thought of opening his own restaurant out of his mind.
“Pretty much as soon as I got back to Atlanta I had that thought in my head of wanting to do something on my own,” he says. “I just ended up finding the right place in Marietta, very close to where I grew up.”
Spring opened in 2016 just off of Marietta Square, ticking all the boxes, So says. It’s a small, manageable space and didn’t require a complete buildout in order to open. His family still lives nearby.
At Spring, So prioritizes simplicity, not just on the plate, but throughout the entire restaurant and on the wine list, which is overseen by his business partner and sommelier Daniel Crawford. “We just let the ingredients we get be themselves and shine on the plate,” So says. It’s a formula that works. Spring and So have both received numerous accolades over the last six years, including James Beard award nominations and landing perennial spots on many lists touting Atlanta’s best restaurants, including Eater Atlanta’s 38 Essential Restaurants.
After six years of running Spring, So says he continues to focus on maintaining the high standards for which the restaurant is now known and cheering on a new generation of Atlanta chefs and independent restaurant owners. He reminds diners at Spring that restaurants still need their support, even after reopening following weeks of dining room closures and months of creating takeout menus during the height of the pandemic.
“We’re not getting rich here, we’re just trying to survive. People want to forget about Covid and move on,” So says. “But the cost of doing business has skyrocketed since Covid. Even though it looks like everywhere is busy, people are still struggling, and it’s still a hard time for restaurants and the whole restaurant industry right now.”
The responses below were lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Who inspires you as a chef?
I find a lot of inspiration in older chefs, the chefs in the generation before me who’ve proven they can make it work for a really long time. It’s no small feat. If I had to name anyone in Atlanta, it’s Gerry Klaskala at Aria. He’s become someone I look up to as far as how long he’s been cooking at such a high level and been able to make his business work for so long.
Favorite off-the-clock meal
In the winter, I really like making Korean jook. It’s a Korean porridge with chicken — it’s got rice, chicken, and a lot of garlic. The dish is super simple and comforting and filling and affordable. When I cook at home, it’s about minimizing dishes and mess. I eat a lot of fruits and salads and vegetables. I make butter pasta with nice parmesan a lot. It sounds boring, but to me it’s really comforting.
Favorite restaurants in atlanta
For a nice sit-down dinner with full service and great wine, I really like The Chastain. Like Spring, they keep it simple and everything they make is very satisfying [and] executed at a high level. I recently had a really good meal at Talat Market. It’s nice to see the next step in the evolution of ethnic food and how it’s perceived and the level of service they give and the quality of the ingredients they use. Aria for special occasions. On Buford Highway, it’s Pho Bac [and] Yet Tuh.
Favorite restaurants while traveling
If I were to travel anywhere, I would go to LA right now. In the past three years, it’s become a food destination, as far as the United States goes. I’d really like to check out all the major players over there, Republique and Manzke, even just Koreatown and all of the Asian food in LA.
What are your future plans in restaurants?
We do have a few ideas of maybe venturing out for one more restaurant, but it really depends on whatever space becomes available. Our philosophy has been not rushing into anything. If something comes up organically and naturally and it fits, then we’ll take that opportunity. Our main focus is on the longevity of Spring. We’re in no hurry and no pressure to branch out and do anything else.
What do you want to see more of on the Atlanta dining scene?
The last few years we’ve seen a big boom in young, creative chefs opening their own places with fairly small budgets and hustling to make it work. It’s good to see that there are a lot of young chefs in Atlanta willing to take that jump and add to the culinary scene here. I just want to see it continue because it makes things more interesting.
Most underrated chef or chef to watch in Atlanta
Jarrett [Stieber] at Little Bear. Not that he’s underrated, but I think he has the right mindset toward approaching his business and his restaurant. I’ve had several really good meals there, and if that’s the type of food he’s pulling off in just a couple years into his restaurant opening, I’m really excited to see how the restaurant evolves. Same with Parnass [Savang] at Talat Market. I’ve already seen a lot of progression as far as service and execution of everything from my first to my second to my third visit. If he continues to progress like that, the sky’s the limit.