Empire State South is Hugh Acheson’s modern southern restaurant at the corner of Peachtree and 10th. Ryan Smith, Empire State South’s executive chef, is the untamed Mr. Hyde to Hugh Acheson’s measured Dr. Jekyll. I visited him at ESS to talk about his friend and mentor, offal, charcuterie, and what drives him to constantly evolve the menu and personality of his restaurant.
Speaking of Acheson, Ryan says, “Sometimes he has to reel me in a little bit because I get a little out there.” He grins and scratches his scruffy beard. “I’ll make some dish that’s just a little too crazy and busy for him. He’s a purist he’s all about very good technique and simplicity and appreciating ingredients, and loving the food and where it comes from — and I agree with all of those philosophies but sometimes I like to do a lot of crazy s***.”
The pair have worked together for more than two years, and when Smith talks of Acheson you get the impression that their relationship is more like two friends raising each other’s game than an employer/employee deal. Before he landed the Empire State South gig, Ryan had been experimenting with charcuterie at Restaurant Eugene and Holeman & Finch Public House, and had applied, unsuccessfully, to be a Top Chef contestant. He’s actually relieved he wasn’t selected.
“I don’t like to cook like that. I like to think about my food and spend time – a lot of my food isn’t stuff you can make in 30 minutes. On Top Chef you’re thrown into these scenarios like ‘cook out of this convenience store and make me a really elegant dish, and oh you’ve got a microwave and no knife and you have to have one hand behind your back while doing jumping jacks.'”
But back to Acheson.
“He’s been great,” Ryan says. “I cant say enough amazing things about him. He’s not only given me the freedom to help create and figure out what the identity is, he’s put me in charge of the whole restaurant. People come to him and talk to him about the food, and he automatically says ‘It’s not me.’ And that’s a rare thing to find.”
But Ryan wasn’t the chef Acheson picked to helm ESS when it opened in 2010, that fell to Nick Melvin, a great snout to tail chef in his own right. In 2011, Acheson told Eater.com, “Nick is great guy. He was just the wrong chef for the style of service and dining that I am used to.” Less than two months after opening, Acheson replaced Melvin with Smith. And the rest is ESS history.
Ryan quickly began to steer ESS in a different direction. “Hugh was very gracious to let me be myself, and together we created the vision of what this place is. We redirected it from its original concept. It’s evolved and we’re still trying to find out true identity.”
That identity includes two of Ryan’s favorite things: offal and charcuterie.
There’s a tweet out there about a wood-roasted lamb heart that Ryan and Hugh had made at Harry’s Pizzeria a week or two before I met him. For a guy who’s so laid back, when you get Ryan talking about offal he becomes surprisingly animated.
“I love cooking offal, and I think that more people should be open to eating it. But it’s a hard sell, so I like to bring it out when it’s a dinner where you don’t make decisions, you just get what the chefs have prepared.”
I’m not a squeamish diner, but I’ve never knowingly eaten heart (except maybe in haggis or hidden in a terrine), and I ask Ryan what it’s like.
“Heart, if you prepare it right and cut it right, is extremely tender. It’s full of flavor and very heavy, obviously, in iron. It can be a very assertive flavor, but if you treat it right, like aggressively charring or grilling or roasting it, that will help balance out that very iron-y flavor.”
Southern cuisine has a long history of cooking with offal – chicken livers and hearts, hog maw, and chitlins (or chitterlings if you’re being formal) – but for some they’re a remnant of the Great Depression; dark days of the hardship and poverty, when getting the most meat out of the animal meant eating as much of the animal as we could stomach. Sometimes actually eating the stomach. After World War II, when the nation entered the longest period of prosperity it has ever known, we became accustomed to eating only the primo cuts of meat and discarding the rest. For a few decades, offal was thrown on the scrap heap.
Ryan explains why, for many restaurants, offal has been seeing a resurgence on menus. “I think it started off as a trend where it was cool to serve different animal parts that were a little off the beaten path, and it kind of evolved into chefs thinking ‘Well why aren’t we serving this?’ and relaying that message of the importance of [eating the whole animal]. It’s some of the more exotic things that really have aggressive flavors and textures [that are finding their way onto menus].”
But offal isn’t simply appearing menus in the form of beef cheeks and lamb testicles (hint: prairie oysters aren’t seafood), you’ll find it in some amazing charcuterie preparations at an increasing number of restaurants, driven by chefs like Smith, Tyler Williams, Josh Hopkins, Zeb Stevenson, and Kevin Ouzts.
There’s a huge amount of skill involved in charcuterie. It’s part science — pH levels, nitrates, iron, mold (yes, mold), moisture loss; and part knowing the meat — whether one cut is going to be better if you cook it first, how the fat and meat are going to work together, whether it’s going to be chewy or dry or whether to cure or dry age. You get the idea. Proficiency is a lifelong undertaking, and it takes dedication to a craft that has been shunned in the US until fairly recently.
So how did Ryan get so darned good at it?
“I personally have always been into charcuterie, and I was very fortunate to have a position at Holeman & Finch where I was strictly in charge of that. I gained a lot of experience through trial and error, and reading a lot, and teaching myself how to butcher and create new ideas of charcuterie and old ideas.”
The re-birth of charcuterie in restaurants has a couple of simple explanations. First, it’s cheaper for restaurants: “There’a great value as a restaurant to provide charcuterie because you’re taking chicken livers that are 50c/lb and making a terrine with it — you’re charging for the labor because there’s so much time and effort that goes into it. You could buy pork leg and make sausage at home but it takes a long time, so you’re paying us to do that.”
Second, chefs are getting a little crazy. Or, as Ryan puts it, “I think that it’s become popular because it’s a lot of fun. I love it, it’s thrilling. There’s so many broad techniques in charcuterie. There’s some that involve a hell of a lot of skill and technique, and some that require a lot of patience.”
With the highs that come with making a perfect confit, there is the potential for devastating lows, especially considering how much time and energy is put into making great charcuterie. “I can’t tell you how horrible it feels to wait 18 months to cut into a ham and it turns out to be rotten. That sucks, and it also takes up prime real estate for a ham that could be good,” says Smith.
But ultimately it’s a labor of love that’s worth the effort, the patience, and the endless learning by trial and error. And that’s why Ryan will keep doing it. “There’s so many different facets of it that’s intriguing to me and I love it, but I think that people just get excited about it becuse it’s somethign different. There are so many different things you can do with charcuterie, it’s crazy, but that’s why it’s so fun and exciting.”
The Future of Empire State South
Occasionally, when Ryan talks about ESS, you might be forgiven for thinking that he cooks out of a half-finished restaurant space that’s still under construction. Despite the elegant decor, the beautiful bar, the coffee bar, the masterful blend of modern and rustic that ESS comprises, Smith isn’t satisfied. But, of course, it’s not the building and furnishings that he’s talking about; it’s an attitude of excellence, it’s having an identity that’s not just like any other Atlanta restaurant.
“I think that we haven’t really figured out who we want to be at ESS, so we’re gonna continue to focus on that [in 2013] and push ourselves to get better. Everyone here does a great job, but this is something that I try and instil in everyone here, and it’s that if think you’re doing the best job you can, you can never get better. That’s the mentality we have here, we’re never satisfied.”
I ask Ryan if there are things he’s thinking of adding to the menu in 2013, and he frames his response by talking about establishing the identity of the restaurant and working in whatever that is going to be, regardless of the “crazy s***” he might want to add.
Then he adds, “This is a southern restaurant. We define ourselves by the ingredients we cook. We cook with ingredients heavily influenced by cultures that moved to the south, we’re heavily influenced by our history of preservation…I love it, and that’s the direction we have to go.”
But Smith’s plans for ESS go beyond his own menu. He recognizes that variety is the spice of restaurant life, and has plans to “host more guest chef dinners, most of [the chefs] will be out of town chefs. I know a lot of Nashville chefs so I’d like to bring five guys down and have a big dinner.”
The Future of Ryan Smith
You have probably noticed the number of times Ryan has used the word “fun.” It’s a lot, and that’s because he enjoys his work. Maybe more than is healthy.
“I love food that’s really playful and I think that it should be fun. Food should not be serious, especially when you’re going to spend money. You’re going out to experience something so I have this vision of having somewhere where the food is really fun and playful and whimsical but still focused on being really good.”
If you want an example of one of the fun things that Smith enjoys, look no further than “egg-drop soup that’s a hot gel. So it’s a cube that has all these crazy eggs in it but it’s a gel and it’s hot. So that’s one thing we do that’s fun and kind of an ode to Buford Highway. That to me is fun.”
And in the end, that’s how it should be. A great guy, doing what he loves, having fun and serving great dishes. Why would anyone ask for more?