Supper club Maria embraces a relaxed charm within a home on a cul-de-sac in Kennesaw, 25 miles northwest of Atlanta. While a soundtrack of classic rock plays in the background, two communal tables set the scene, helping foster connections over food, with conversations between a small gathering of strangers leading to shared memories and laughter. The most striking aspect of this pop-up restaurant, however, might be its chef. At 20 years old, Trevor Shankman moves with a rhythmic elegance in the kitchen far beyond his years. He may be running one of metro Atlanta’s most exclusive supper clubs, too, where those in attendance are not only dining on thought-provoking food, but witnessing the beginning of a chef’s career.
Shankman’s passion for cooking began at a young age, rooted in a natural artistic inclination spotted in preschool by his teachers. But it wasn’t until Shankman was 13 that he fully embraced his culinary curiosity. With his father Kyle’s professional cooking background, Shankman’s interest in food found fertile ground. The convergence of conventional art and cooking prompted him to experiment in the kitchen.
Shankman says school was difficult for him, made worse because of a learning disability. Cooking became an escape, as it was what he knew growing up with a chef for a father and what brought him joy in eating his grandmother’s food. Shankman named the pop-up for his grandmother, Aya. She came to the United States in the 1960s after fleeing Cuba with her family when she was just four years old. Her emigration story, Cuban heritage, and Shankman’s childhood memories of his abuela and her cooking serve as the foundation for Maria. His father’s influence as a chef informed his style. Maria is a tribute to familial bonds.
Shankman found beauty in the intersection of cooking and art and says he became obsessed with creating meals through the lens of molecular gastronomy as a fledgling chef in his teens. “I would find myself face down, passed out on my bedroom floor, surrounded by stacks of cookbooks and idea notes for dishes and concepts that I wanted to try.” Shankman is entirely self-taught, honing his cooking skills on his own time and testing recipes on friends and family.
Through this experimentation Shankman began helping out in the kitchen at his father’s pop-up restaurant Speak Easy Supper Club. It was the first professional gig Shankman had cooking for people outside of family. But Maria is Shankman’s own concept — a personal tribute to his grandmother, who died last year after a long battle with colon cancer. Each dish served during dinner at Maria represents a memory of his grandmother, translating his love for her and her cooking into coursed dinners at the supper club.
Only a small cohort of guests take part in the tasting menu experience at Maria, with dinners primarily held at a residence in Kennesaw owned by his family, save for Shankman’s in-home private chef services. The exact location is revealed upon reservation. Shankman describes the menu as “highly conceptual and hyper-seasonal”, comprising anywhere from eight to nine courses. For Shankman, emphasis on precision, artistry, and execution of dishes are key.
A meal at Maria begins with crusty bread and creamy butter. The next course brings in seasonality, where dishes like skinned cherry tomatoes and confit cherry tomatoes mingle with brioche. The tomatoes sit atop a Vidalia onion puree, raspberry vinegar fluid gel, and heirloom tomato jelly garnished with dehydrated, marinated raspberries and dried tomato skins with fresh basil.
Carrots are cooked tender and lightly caramelized with a puree of golden raisins and red curry. Shankman manages to coax out the sweetness of the carrots, adding complexity to the root vegetable through the curry and spices. Squares of coconut gel and freshly shaved carrots bring in more texture.
Another seasonally driven course sees a slightly unconventional gathering of ingredients, flavors, and textures: farro, buckwheat, and corn pair with cherry fluid gel, brown butter-roasted maitake mushrooms, and mushroom puree with savory pound cake.
Two other savory courses follow, like Shankman’s poularde, an incredibly moist piece of sous-vide chicken with cauliflower, grapes, and Madagascar vanilla. It’s a celebration of poultry prepared to its maximum potential, with the cauliflower providing a crunchy contrast to the tender chicken. Grapes and vanilla offer a little zing that complements the savory components of the chicken. A mousseline of fennel, shallots, and garlic amps up the decadence, along with a chicken fat reduction.
Next, Shankman presents rectangles of juicy coffee-rubbed steak with confit potatoes and crispy plantains. In some ways, this is one of the most definitive courses of the meal. The steak highlights pieces of both sides of his family through a steak and potatoes dish that has long defined the American culinary canon. The coffee rub nods to Cuba, providing an earthy flavor and crisp crust. While the potatoes soak up the beefiness of the steak, fried plantains lend sweetness and crunch that draw parallels to dishes such as bistec with tostones.
Dessert is no less meticulous in presentation or flavors. The first of two desserts arrive, with Shankman detailing his approach to composing it. A symphony of chocolate preparations hits the table comprising Picholine olives and buttermilk and olive oil sorbet accompanied by a Meyer lemon- and olive-infused pound cake. The dessert displays Shankman’s artistry.
Another dessert offers a fitting tribute to Shankman’s grandmother and her favorite dessert: flan de coco. It comes with a story. “[It] serves as a looping function,” Shankman says, “tying the entire meal back to hyper-specific memories of my grandmother from my childhood.”
Shankman didn’t eat coconut flan growing up, he says, but it was one of his grandmother’s favorite childhood desserts. The custard base is soft and spongy and topped with caramel.
To close out dinner at Maria, Shankman channels his own childhood nostalgia in an extra dessert he calls “Saturday Morning Cartoons”. It changes with each menu, but is always a form of his grandmother Aya’s cinnamon-butter toast she made for the family. She would take a two-foot long loaf of Cuban bread and cut it lengthwise. Then she would spread Country Crock butter on top, toast the split loaf in the broiler, and sprinkle it with cinnamon sugar. It was simple, but comforting. For one take on the cinnamon-butter toast, Shankman served it with a side of cinnamon toast cereal ice cream.
Course after course at Maria, dishes are presented by Shankman with a story relating to his grandmother, her food, and his childhood — a childhood he’s not far removed from yet at 20 years old. But seated at a table full of strangers, eating this food, it becomes clear you’re witnessing a young chef blossoming at the start of his culinary career in Atlanta.