Food - Chefs to watch in 2016

Why we're keeping an eye on Adam Evans, Sarah Dodge, Andy Tran, Adrian Villarreal, and Matt Weinstein

Being a chef can mean many things, and our short list of chefs to watch in the coming year pretty much runs the gamut, from curating cooking classes to side-jobbing pop-ups to opening a simple taco shop to running ambitious kitchens in a more traditional sense. They each bring unique talents to their tasks, and Atlantans will get to enjoy the fruits of their labors in 2016.

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Adam Evans, Brezza Cucina

Adam Evans earned a reputation for being a master of seafood cookery during his time as the Optimist's executive chef, so it was surprising to some when it was announced that he would be chef/partner at the new Italian restaurant anchoring Ponce City Market, Brezza Cucina. Brezza is a visible stage for Evans. Between celebrity chef Jonathan Waxman's (president/founder of Brezza) involvement, the Italian setting, and Evans' own Southern/seafood perspective, there's a lot to juggle.

You can search through Evans' history and find at least a little bit of Italy from an early stint at an Italian restaurant in New Orleans called Bacco, and Mediterranean influences certainly popped their heads up through the Southern seas during his Optimist tenure. At Brezza, Evans has the opportunity to build on his strengths and learn new tricks along the way. Since the Ponce City Market restaurant opened in October, Evans has been "diving in to pizzas and pastas, and having a lot of fun with it." The restaurant's bread program is another exciting aspect. Brezza makes its own focaccia using a yeast starter Evans plucked from another facet of Waxman's growing restaurant empire, Barbuto in New York.

Evans' love for the seas is also evident at Brezza. Cooking great seafood, he says, primarily depends on sourcing great product. He's got a guy — Johnny Caradine, from Steel City Seafood in Alabama — who delivers the inspiration. "He brings me amazing stuff. You start looking at what comes in, and you look at the beautiful produce that our local farmers are bringing in, and putting the flavors together is the fun part ... and it's always changing."

Evans' formative years in New Orleans also mix with Brezza's Italian style in dishes like the baked oysters, which are inspired by the famed Drago's in Metairie, La. Evans appreciatively notes that Drago's plies its oysters with industrial-strength restaurant supplies: "a butter shortening that they probably pour out of a five-gallon bucket, and bagged Parmesan cheese, and dried oregano and the kind of black pepper you find in a shaker." Evans gives that flavor combination a pinch of Italian flair by using Parmesan rinds steeped in butter, preserved lemon, fresh oregano and toasted black pepper. It's the kind of dish that exemplifies Evans' approach at Brezza — working at the intersection of Southern seafood and Italian inspiration.

Sarah Dodge, Preserving Place

The label chef doesn't totally describe Sarah Dodge. At just 30 years old, she's managed to be a baker, photographer, caterer, pastry chef, and educator. At Preserving Place, a Southern shop and event space in the Westside Provisions District, her title is Cooking School and Private Events Manager, which means she gets to curate, and sometimes teach, a docket of classes ranging from Southern breakfasts to serious cocktails.

Having worked on the pastry side of Octopus Bar, the Little Tart Bakeshop, Spice to Table, and Ladybird Grove and Mess Hall, Dodge realized her goals didn't quite fit in the neat box that is restaurant work. "Restaurants are awesome," Dodge says, "but you create these things and send them out, and rarely do you have personal contact with the people you prepare the food for." About a year ago, Dodge was asked to teach a class on making biscuits at Preserving Place, and the experience opened her eyes. "I loved it — 14 people making biscuits, sitting around the table and cooking together and eating together." She asked Preserving Place's owner, Martha McMillin, for a job, and she's been there ever since.

Recent courses at Preserving Place have included the likes of cast iron cooking (with Philip Meeker, formerly of Kimball House) or wintertime cocktails (with Gunshow's Mercedes O'Brien) or the upcoming course on how to make perfect meringues (Dodge does this one). And Dodge is constantly thinking about striking the right balance of education, entertainment, and even the daunting task of building community. "This awesome community that Atlanta has," Dodge says. "People that are passionate about food in so many ways, whether it's mushrooms or pie making or charcuterie. It's nice to be able to bring in experts who get to spend two hours chatting about what they love with people who are interested in learning."

In 2016, Dodge hopes to broaden the accessibility of the classes at Preserving Place, coming up with events that address the basics for people who see a hurdle in something so simple as chopping an onion. "These are the people we want to reach," Dodge says. "They may shop at farmers markets, but they'll see a demo with spaghetti squash and think, 'How did you do that?' It's humbling to me and a good reminder that too many of us have fallen away from how to cook basic things."

Andy Tran, Ramen Crush/Lusca

Andy Tran speaks quietly, slowly, in a way that lets his words soak in. He's never sought out the spotlight. "I've always been a humble person as far as cooking goes," Tran says, "so it's not really me to have my name out there." But Tran's name has been getting out there. In addition to his executive sous chef responsibilities at Lusca, Tran's Ramen Crush pop-ups have been, well, crushing it.

Ramen Crush has been popping up at places like Ration and Dram and Miller Union, serving hot bowls of ramen to appreciative crowds. Tran has been honing his ramen skills for years now, going back to 2007 with his time cooking at Repast under Mihoko Obunai and Joe Truex. Obunai, maybe this city's most respected ramen maker, has been a mentor and a friend, helping Tran learn the ropes and find his own voice. More recently, Tran has worked with Angus Brown and Nhan Le at Octopus Bar and Lusca, a team that has been so supportive that they've even allowed Tran to use Lusca's kitchen for Ramen Crush prep.

Tran's ramen voice favors classic approaches, though you'll find hints of his Vietnamese heritage in his use of fish sauce and fresh herbs that aren't traditional ramen accents. While his dedication to the craft is palpable, and quite evident in the two days of stewing his broth goes through before it can be served, he tries not to take it too seriously. "It's just a bowl of noodles," Tran says. That said, he knows that Ramen Crush is a big deal — both for the unexpectedly enthusiastic ramen fiends of Atlanta and for Tran himself. "I've never been a big risk taker," he says, "but I've got a 9-month-old daughter now, and I look in her eyes, and I feel like I've gotta do this, gotta put it on the line."

Tran looks around Atlanta, beyond his pop-ups, and sees that ramen continues to gain a stronger presence. He views his fellow ramen pop-ups and shops, like the upcoming Ton Ton by Guy Wong, as positive indications of the city's thirst for great soup.

"I'm doing this for a reason, there's a purpose. After every service, it's cool, we've fed a lot of happy people and now we're just looking for the right opportunity for our own little shop, just something we can call our own and do what we do."

Adrian Villarreal, Rreal Tacos

Adrian Villarreal has worked in Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris, and alongside megachefs like Joel Antunes and Richard Blais in Atlanta, but his new restaurant isn't likely to employ any liquid nitrogen or caviar — it's a taco shop. Villarreal grew up in the mountain-ringed city of Monterrey, Mexico. The taquerias of his youth are the inspiration for his newly opened Rreal Tacos in Midtown. "I want it to feel like my home ... the handmade tortillas taste like the ones that my aunt used to make, and the trompo (Monterey's version of al pastor) like I ate growing up."

Villarreal freely admits that authentic taquerias can already be found in Atlanta.

"There are spots on Buford Highway that make me feel like I'm back home," he says. What those taquerias don't have though is Villarreal's passion for local organic produce (Serenbe Farms is a favorite) and sustainable meats, a result of his many years working among Atlanta's top chefs. "What I'm trying to do," he says, "is something authentic, bring it inside the city, but also make it a little more socially responsible — use local farmers, better quality meats — and make it feel like I'm back home eating tacos. I think people are ready for authentic-tasting tacos with good technique."

Villarreal's approach is evident in his take on fish tacos, where he sources fish from South Carolina seas and grills them whole like they typically do in Monterrey. And regardless of the type of taco, Villarreal keeps the flavors pure and simple — lime, cilantro, and onion to complement the meats, and choices of a house red salsa or jalapeño cilantro salsa to top it off.

The pork trompo clearly tugs at Villarreal's heart most strongly. "I was recently back home investigating taquerias," he says, "especially the ones that do the trompo. My friends took me around and we hit like six different places trying to get into that flavor. I'm very proud of bringing that to Atlanta." But Villarreal knows that a taqueria needs to have some staples that might not be central to Monterrey cuisine, noting that carnitas — native to Michoacán — is a must.

Most of all, Villarreal just wants to bring some taco joy to Midtown. "I've worked in restaurants where the attitude is more that the way we present the food is how you should eat. But, after 17 years in upscale dining, I don't want to do that. You want a taco? You can garnish it however you want. I just want people to be happy and for it to taste authentic. My love of food is there — it doesn't stop because it's a taco."

Matt Weinstein, One Midtown Kitchen

In July 2015, the Concentrics Restaurants group made an unprecedented change to its long-standing Dutch Valley Road restaurant One Midtown Kitchen. More specifically, after 14 years of operation, it handed over control of the kitchen to not one, but two talented cooks: One's former sous chef Christopher Maher, a solid technician with a proclivity for tradition, and Matt Weinstein, the creative force that previously helmed Woodfire Grill.

"The two of us work really well together," Weinstein says. "I think a bit more outside the box, and he can rein me in. He's more classical, but we balance each other out."

Last summer, Maher and Weinstein were tasked with overhauling One's menu entirely. The new offerings reflect both chefs' personalities, but how Weinstein's edgy, modernist sensibilities in particular will manifest and influence the restaurant's identity remains to be seen.

Weinstein first started cooking at a family-owned restaurant in Virginia when he was 16. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 2009, moved to Maryland, and then began working his way up the ranks of "Top Chef" alum Bryan Voltaggio's budding restaurant group. When it was time for a change he picked Atlanta because his girlfriend at the time had family here.

"I fell in love with the city, staged with Tyler Williams at Woodfire Grill, and he offered me a job that first night," he says.

Weinstein took over the kitchen after Williams left in May 2014 and served as Woodfire's executive chef until the restaurant shuttered last spring. Two months later, Weinstein landed the co-chef position at One.

"I try not to bring dishes back from the past. I like to continue creating, not breaking out the same bag of tricks," Weinstein says. "We want the diner to experience multiple types of flavor profiles, which takes us out our comfort zone sometimes but also gives the guests an interesting experience."

Weinstein's preference for the new and novel shows up in many ways. He's big on incorporating Indian, French, and Middle Eastern influences. He's a fan of texture and acid and isn't afraid to employ many components in a single dish as long as they work together on the plate. Recent menus have seen dishes such as mushroom risotto with chicken schnitzel; pork belly with peanut butter, grape jam, brown butter powder, and chanterelle mushrooms; and steak tartare with Parmesan fluff.

"I don't want to say Atlanta is oversaturated, but there are a lot of new restaurants opening. There are so many options for diners to choose from. It definitely challenges the chefs and staff to stay fresh. At One we want to push it, and make it what it was 14 years ago, reinvented. I want people to know that we're still around, but changing for the better."

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