$20 Dinner with Kevin Rathbun

Humble attitude and sophisticated style come together in Rathbun's kitchen

Just looking at the small but formidable empire of restaurants that chef Kevin Rathbun has built along Krog Street since 2004 — first Rathbun's, then Krog Bar and most recently Kevin Rathbun Steak — you'd be safe to assume a few things. One: Rathbun has done well for himself in the years since moving on from his role as corporate chef for Buckhead Life Restaurant Group. Two: He's got a hell of an eye for interior design. The striking darkness of Kevin Rathbun Steak, the intimate warmness of Krog Bar, and the open air of Rathbun's are all entirely distinct and integral to the experience of eating at those restaurants. Arriving at Rathbun's Morningside home, where he and his wife, Melissa, moved in less than a year ago, you realize that this is the place where those two things — the success and the eye for design — come together.

The guesthouse, on the back of the property, is separated from the main building by a thin, rectangular marble pool. In fact, rectangles seem to be a motif: a massive, black center counter runs the length of the kitchen, rectangular patterns of cabinets reach up into the high, high ceilings, and all of this is lit by a pair of thin, rectangular glass lighting fixtures that are so distinct and unusual-looking that they have the air of conceptual art. Think Mondrian with minimal colors or Bauhaus with more luxury. Before meeting him, you might be tempted to assume Rathbun affects a similar style, that his attitude might be a cool as that long marble pool. But spend just a few minutes with him and he'll say what is already clear: "I'm a T-shirt kind of guy."

Rathbun's humble attitude speaks more to his modest Midwestern beginnings in Kansas City, Mo., than his current status. He was 14 when his father had a stroke, which led him to pick up a job at Sambo's, that unfortunately named greasy spoon of years past, to help out with the family bills. "It was just about the money. You know — 'How much can you pay me?'" he says. By 17, Rathbun was already working in fine dining. He finished his last semester in high school through a program that allowed him to work full time instead of attend regular school hours.

Rathbun's professional history since then — working his way through the ranks in New Orleans, Dallas and Houston before arriving in Atlanta about 15 years ago — is full of storied names, business deals, hard bargains and the like, but the most telling detail is the way he handles a knife. Look away for a minute and you might miss him break down an entire chicken. He peels the skin off a tomato in a single, eloquent stroke of the blade and then turns that skin into a perfect brunoise cut — millimeter-sized perfect cubes of tomato. Is this one of the most difficult cuts for a chef to perfect? Yes. Could Rathbun probably do it with his eyes closed? Yes. Those are the skills of a man who has paid his dues.

Rathbun met Melissa while they were both working at Commander's Palace in New Orleans, and there is no doubt that she calls New Orleans home. When she ambles down to find him in the kitchen working away, she hollers in that unmistakable Yat tone, "What do you think you're doing to my kitchen?" They have a sweet rapport — he continues to cut and cook away as she follows him around with paper towels, playfully cursing and cleaning his every move. "Yeah, I tell you, you want chef Kevin to cook for you? You better hire a professional dishwasher." She pauses, looks around the kitchen and then adds, "Scratch that, make it two dishwashers."

Messy or not, Rathbun's cooking is the sort that demands attention. The tuna crudo — a dish he perfected for his namesake restaurant's first menu — finds perfect balance in its duel presentations: the powerfully spicy and citrusy sliced tuna and the refreshing cool of the finely diced tuna. That light starter is followed by a rich, hearty masa soup, a throwback to his Southwestern days in Texas, which combines a trio of fatty ingredients (chicken stock, fried tortillas, and crema) into smooth, simple decadence. His main course, a butterflied chicken breast stuffed with cilantro root and wrapped with the thinnest pieces of bacon imaginable, is smoky but refreshing, paired as it is with a simple side of grated, buttery corn and a refreshing topping of tomato and onion.

The fact that Rathbun's menu doesn't end there, that he pulls off a dessert as interesting as any of the dishes prior to that, on a budget of less than 20 bucks, goes a long way toward explaining his success in the industry. The peach and fig sabayon is sweet but bitter, light but rich, and visually simple while flavorfully complex. It's the sort of dessert that will leave you melting onto the floor. Will you need a little experience working a double boiler method before your sabayon is as perfectly smooth as Rathbun's? Sure, but he has an inspiring sort of confidence, the kind that makes you believe you can do anything, just like he has.

"I hire young people," he says, referencing his own teenage years working at the greasy spoon. "I like crunchy hippies, they got passion. I think there are a lot of people out there that don't go to school and don't get what they deserve, you know? They have passion, they have focus, they just don't know it. So, you give 'em a little creative freedom, teach 'em how to be and treat 'em with respect. Like I got."

Next: Eight delicious recipes from Kevin Rathbun

Tuna crudo

?• 3 ounces tuna steak, uniform thin slices with scraps finely chopped
?• 1 orange, cut into small cubes
?• 1 serrano pepper, thin slices
?• A few cilantro leaves, trimmed
?• 1 tablespoon cilantro root, finely chopped
?• 1 tablespoon orange zest
?For vinaigrette:
?• Juice of half a orange
?• 2 tablespoons olive oil
?• 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
?• Salt and pepper to taste

?Combine orange juice, oil, vinegar, salt and pepper in a bowl, stirring until emulsified. Arrange tuna slices on plate, garnish with serrano, orange cubes and cilantro leaves, dress with a couple tablespoons of vinaigrette. Combine finely chopped tuna, orange zest, cilantro root and salt, gently shaping with a spoon for the side of the plate.

Masa soup

?• 2 tomato centers
?• Chicken broth from a whole chicken
?• 1 package corn tortillas, sliced and deep fried (corn chips will substitute fine)
?• 1 serrano pepper, chopped
?• 1 onion, chopped
?• 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
?• Juice of half a lime
?• Handful of cilantro leaves

?Combine all ingredients in a large pot, reserving two small handfuls of fried tortilla, and cook at a simmer for at least a half hour, longer is better. Take off the heat, let cool until it is safe to move to the blender and purée until smooth. Garnish with cilantro leaves, fried tortillas and a generous heaping of crema.


?• 1/2 cup sour cream
?• Juice of half a lime
?• Pinch salt
?• Pepper to taste

?Combine Mexican sour cream, lime juice, pinch of salt, cracked pepper and a splash of tequila, if you have it on hand, in bowl.


Chicken broth

?• 1 whole chicken, broken down with the breasts removed and set aside
?• 1/2 onion, chopped
?• 3 corn cobs

?Combine all in wide pot, cover with water (about a quart or so), and bring to boil, slow to simmer. Cook while preparing the other dishes, at least an hour.

Bacon-wrapped chicken

Ingredients?• 2 chicken breasts, butterflied
?• 10 slices bacon, very, very thinly sliced
?• 1/2 cup cilantro root, finely chopped
?• Salt and pepper to taste

?Spread the cilantro root, salt and pepper across the inside of the butterflied chicken breasts, then roll together. Create a mat of bacon slices by slightly overlapping the edges, five per breast, and roll around the breast. Place the rolls on a rack above a dripping pan in an oven preheated to 350 degrees. Cook for about 30 minutes, until the breast is done and firm. Serve with a heaping of tomato onion crudo and a side of corn.

Tomato-onion crudo

?• 2 tomato outer sections, finely chopped
?• 1/2 onion, finely chopped
?• 1 cup cilantro, finely chopped
?• 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
?• 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
?• Juice of half a lime
?• Big pinch of salt
?• Cracked pepper to taste

?Toss all ingredients in a bowl until thoroughly mixed.

Grated corn

?• 4 ears of corn, grated with the large section of a cheese grater
?• 2 tablespoons butter
?• Big pinch of salt

?Put just the corn in small sauce pot, cover and put in an oven preheated to 350 degrees. Let it cook while everything else does, about an hour or so. Combine with butter and salt. Garnish with crema.

Peach and fig sabayon

?• 2 peaches, thinly sliced
?• 6 or so figs, thinly sliced
?• 2 egg yolks
?• 2 tablespoons sugar
?• 3 tablespoons orange juice
?• Zest of a whole orange

?Whisk egg yolks, sugar and orange juice together in a bowl, holding over a small pot of simmering water. Keep moving with the whisk, careful to occasionally remove the bowl from the heat so that mixture thickens but does not seize or scramble. Once the sauce is fully formed, fold most of the orange zest into the sauce. Serve the peach and fig slices with a generous pouring of sabayon sauce and a few pinches of the remaining orange zest.

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