Chris Hall, in red cap, onstage at a chef's battle
For our latest installment of our conversational interview series with notable Southern chefs, we spoke with Chris Hall, the highly respected Atlanta chef and Unsukay Concepts restaurant partner, about Atlanta’s obsession with brunch, his own obsession with Brussels sprouts, why he’s gotta have a spoon, and the importance of constructive culinary criticism.
Identified on Unsukay Concepts’ website as the restaurant group’s “Ops Dude” in charge of day-to-day operations at a portfolio of eateries that began at beloved deli and bistro Muss & Turner’s in Smyrna, Georgia, Chris Hall definitely doesn’t cut the stereotypical image of a high-falutin’ restaurant group manager.
He’s highly respected, yet his online bio is balanced with accomplishments and self-deprecating humor; between sharing the story of his restaurant industry journey, which includes kitchen experience from Pizza Hut to legendary restaurants like Le Bec Fin of Philadelphia and Canoe in Atlanta, he takes various shot at himself that prove he’s not an egotistical guy. Of his time at Le Bec Fin, he says, the bio reads, “It was a kitchen ripe with talent (and he was too dumb to be scared),” and before ending with the appreciative note that Hall is “incredibly grateful for the staff, guests, and friends, old & new, who keep the company going,” it notes that he also enjoys, among other things, piña coladas, the professional wrestler Dusty Rhodes, and “generally acting the fool.”
Don't let Hall fool you; he's a brilliant restaurateur, a talented chef, a philanthropist who serves as vice president of Atlanta-based nonprofit organization The Giving Kitchen, and an opinionated good guy who believes in his people and has helped build a family of acclaimed, successful restaurants with his partners Ryan Turner and Chef Todd Mussman. Associate Editor Mike Jordan recently talked to Hall over lunch at Unsukay’s Local Three restaurant, located on the western side of Atlanta’s Buckhead community. Here are his thoughts.
When you are at home and you’re cooking, what easy meal, home-cooked meal do you prepare?
If we’re eating at home, nine times out of 10, it’s breakfast. It could be at 10 o’clock at night because that’s when I get home a lot of the time. But nine times out of 10, it’s eggs, bacon, grits, toast. It’s breakfast food – it’s comfort food. I mean we always knew payday was close as kids in the family. Like seriously, we weren’t a disadvantaged family by any means but we also weren’t rolling in cash. We knew payday was close because of breakfast for dinner. You know we’d have waffles and we loved it. And so there’s something to me that is very true and nostalgic about that, and it’s just easy, right? I do think egg cookery is one of those things that people haven’t mastered. It doesn’t seem like it, but to cook eggs properly is a real skill.
My wife is a really good cook and she works full-time, so it would be maybe a pasta dish or a roast chicken. I feel like people think we’re eating caviar every night. And what do chefs have in their fridge? Mayonnaise, sriracha, some sort of leftovers. Beer or champagne, or if you have Miller High Life you can have “The Champagne of Beers,” which is two-in-one. Our fridges aren’t always bountiful. I mean, some guys’ are. And it’s great to go to the farmers market and stuff like that, but most of the time we’ve got eggs; we’ve got bacon.
Are you sourcing all that stuff from the same places you are for a restaurant or do you hit Kroger?
I mean yeah, there’s a fine line between convenience and not. I wish I planned more meals out but I don’t. The best thing about having a restaurant is you can bring food home, right? So that’s more often than not what gets eaten at our house: something from here.
Have you become the responsible family member for weddings and birthdays and all those kinds of things, and do you find yourself getting a lot of cooking requests from family? And if so, do people get upset if you’re like, “I can’t really do this right now?”
I’ve probably been luckier than most. My mom’s a great cook, my grandmother was a great cook. And it’s not fancy food — it’s mostly really great food. My favorite meal I’ll eat all year is after Thanksgiving, like the Saturday after Thanksgiving. We take all the leftover turkey and my mom makes this casserole called turkey tetrazzini that was in the New York Times cookbook. It’s not fancy but it’s just really great food.
Sometimes I’ll cook. I’ll always contribute, but I’m generally not the main one. Like, when we do Thanksgiving at my in-laws, they do the turkey. There are a couple of sides that I will usually bring. Somehow I’m the Brussels sprout guy. And you don’t really expect to be the Brussels sprout guy in your life, but I’m the Brussels sprout guy for some reason and I’m okay with that. I kind of embrace that.
I think the most interesting facet of this conversation is that people are so nervous about cooking for chefs. We are just normal people – we eat normal food. Where it usually goes wrong is when you try to do some crazy thing that I wouldn’t even try at home. NO... put some stuff on your Big Green Egg or barbecue grill, and get some heirloom tomatoes from the local farmers market. Do a roasted chicken or a steak with some heirloom tomatoes and a baked potato. Hell yeah, let’s get some wine and some beer! Let’s get after it.
Go with simple, fresh, great food. I love meatloaf – I’m okay with that. Make me your grandmother’s meatloaf or your meatloaf. It’s funny, because you kind of have two groups of friends: the friends who are like, “Man, there’s no way I’m ever going to cook for Chef,” but then you have the other group of friends that are really into food and they cook, and it’s great. I love when somebody cooks for me because it’s a rarity. It’s a special treat when someone says, “Hey man, come over,” and you don’t have to do anything. Like cut some potatoes or make a salad. I think more people should cook for chefs. Do what you know, keep it simple and just buy really great fresh ingredients, and we’ll be totally happy.
So, if you’re going to somebody’s house and they know you’re coming, what would you request?
The food that has always captured me is food that’s made with heart, love and soul. I think the idea of that is there are a lot of people I’ve been fortunate enough to cook with over the years — tremendously technical chefs who can do so many incredible and complex things. But the food that attracts me is heartfelt. It could be a family recipe, something that’s evocative and takes me someplace. I think that’s the beauty of food. The pasta that I cook for you today could be exactly the same as the pasta you had last time when you were in Rome, taking you back to that time and giving you that feeling you had when you were there. And that’s a really cool sensation. The best thing you can cook is what you want to cook, so cook it with love and don’t try to do something crazy.
You mentioned Brussels sprouts. For me, growing up in Alabama, Brussels sprouts weren’t something I ate a lot. But I love them now, and they seem like one of those food items that true chefs have mastered. That was one of the first things that I noticed chefs make a little differently.
Two things: Brussels sprouts and beets. People have canned beets and they’re terrible right? It’s like flavorless, and the texture is mushy, just like Brussels sprouts. But I think when you know how to cook them, you can bring out great flavor in them. It’s not really a secret; it’s more understanding what’s going on and what you’re trying to achieve. With Brussel sprouts the best way to do them is cook them under high heat to get them really crispy and bring out the natural sugar in them. Then toss them in a little bit of vinegar or brown butter and vinegar… whatever you want to toss them in, toss them in that. And you get crunchy, beautiful sprouts, as opposed to the canned sprouts we had on the school lunch cafeteria tray that were pale green, mushy and terrible. That’ll scar you; that’ll leave a mark.
Another thing you brought up was breakfast and eating breakfast at home. Breakfast and brunch are two things everyone loves, and if I were going to open a restaurant, I think I would do a breakfast spot. Your thoughts?
This is brunch central. I challenge anyone to find a town that likes brunch more than Atlanta. We’ve got great breakfast spots, from Buttermilk Kitchen to Thumbs Up, Home Grown, and all the way to Waffle House, there are a lot of cool places where you can get really, really great breakfast and brunch.
And it’s such an oxymoronic meal for chefs because you hate cooking it, in the sense that you may have had a late service on Saturday and probably had a couple beers after work. You’re bleary eyed, you’re dragging, you’re coming in Sunday. There’s a whole new prep that you might not have done all week, because you’ve been cooking dinner and lunch the whole week, and now all of sudden you’re cooking breakfast. But man, we love to eat it. I love the idea that I can have breakfast and lunch, and it’s savory and sweet — all those things rolled into one. So it’s kind of a… I have an interesting relationship with brunch.
So, now that we’ve got Senate Bill 85 passed, what are your realistic expectations for the “Better Brunch Bill” in Georgia?
My business partners and I certainly hope and think that the brunch bill will pass. I am cautiously optimistic but I think it just makes sense. I think there’s a natural sort of inequality between the fact that a state run organization like the Georgia Dome can serve beer and yet we can’t. If you have a restaurant near a stadium and it’s a 1 p.m. game, and you can’t serve booze until 12:30, how much does that limit your revenue? If it’s a 4PM game, it’s got to be a tremendous difference. I’ve heard some crazy numbers – I’m talking a huge number of thousands and thousands of dollars. And that money goes back into the economy, in the form of alcohol tax, to the servers and the cooks who need it.
Let’s just make the playing field level. It helps everyone; you’re paying tax on alcohol, tourism is important to us all. I hope we’re close to the finish line. It’s what we want. It’s just the right thing to do. Hopefully we can get that done.
As not only a chef but also a partner in multiple restaurants, what other current issues or pet peeves are concerning to you as far as the restaurant industry?
I think the most pressing issue for us right now is probably immigration, and how that is going to affect the workforce that we have. I’ve been very vocal about that, and I’d prefer not to go back down that road, but we’ve got to figure out as a country how we’re going to do this. People need to understand — and I think they’re smart enough but I don’t want to be pedantic and lecture — that a lot of these laws are directly going to affect you. Because you’re going to come in and want a hamburger at $6 and it’s not going to be a $6 hamburger anymore; it’s going to be a $15 hamburger. And it’s not because of a minimum wage law, it’s because of a very real thing.
I’d say that’s the biggest issue that we, as a business, are facing. As things have grown, we just simply don’t have enough qualified people right now to staff all of our restaurants, and we need that. We need more vocational training. We need those people in our economy. That’s very important right now.
There’s this thought some friends of mine have, that no one wants to be a sous chef. Would you agree with that? It seems like there’s an idea maybe chefs are feeding into celebrity chef culture, like “Why am I doing this for you when an investor might put the money in my hands to open my own spot, and get on TV and become a star?” The theory is that it’s harder these days to retain talent that could be apprenticed and mentored into having successful, long-term careers.
I think there’s a ton of factors for that. There’s so many varied opportunities for people now, from long-term care facilities to new stadiums. I mean, stadiums have chefs now. 20 years ago, stadiums did not have chefs, let alone 5 chefs and 6 individual restaurants. Part of it is there’s just more opportunity for people in our field. You can be a dietitian, you can go be a nutritionist, you can go work at a hospital. There’s just so much more.
Look at the quality of food that was in school when we went there, versus now. It’s just a different level. Not everything is coming from a can; people are making things from scratch. And some of these dining services are pretty incredible with what they’re offering.
The absolute best thing that’s happened to our profession is the television and the attention we’ve gotten. Do you really want to be a chef? Do you want to be a TV personality? Do you want it to be a combination of the two? What’s that mean? They’re different options. I do think that when I was coming up, let’s call it a longer gestation period. If you’re giving birth to a chef, I think it’s a shorter gestation period now. People want to go quicker and I think that can be good. You get new talent, new visions and new ideas, and they’re pushing boundaries. I think as you get older you naturally push less boundaries. You get comfortable and priorities change. When you’re younger, you want to knock into everything and move the wall, and that’s great. But the flip side to that is I’m not sure you got all the tools in the toolbox to carry that out and do all the things you’re trying to do.
So I think it’s an important thing to have the requisite skills. So much of what we do, there’s such a vast chasm — it’s a learning curve. I know a ton of people who are great cooks, but if you went out on your own, you’ve got to also be a great business person. Those two can come together and they can also be mutually exclusive. So finding the right spot for a chef or cook to land, and how that looks, is really, really important.
Kind of like B.B. King, I guess… he could sing and he could play guitar, but he couldn’t do both at the same time. And you’re not going to say B.B. King wasn’t very talented.
Right. So I think our industry is changing. And like many things, you have choices to make about what you’re going to do and who you want to be. Some people hold onto the old stuff just to be old-school, and that’s great! There’s a place for that. And some people want to just completely embrace the new and go on the front wave, and do the cutting-edge stuff. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but some of us want to try and sit somewhere in the middle, and have the best of both worlds. That’s there too, so it’s how you do it that is really important.
The young cook now doesn’t do what I did. And the generation before us had the same thing about it. We all romanticize that past, so when people are like, “I can’t find good staff,” or whatever, or “I don’t like working with millennials,” well, then you better get out of the business. Because that’s the generation that’s here.
Here’s the real truth: We’re not going to change an entire generation of people. So, figure out how to interface. Make sure that they get what they want and we get what we need, and everybody figures it out. Because it’s not like, “Hey I don’t like these young cooks; I’m going to change them all.” Maybe you could do that, and if you could, more power to you, but I haven’t figured out how. It’s more of what we’re doing to make sure that our needs are met and their needs are met, and everybody is happy and we can move forward.
What is something that you tried to cook that failed or you just know that it would not work out if you put your hand in the skillet or in that pan?
I am terrible pastry cook – I have no patience. I don’t like to measure anything. I am awful. Thank God for Gary and those around me. Most of the really, really great cooks I know started in pastry and they’re very meticulous, so I have a ton of respect for pastry chefs. You don’t want me baking your birthday cake.
Aside from the ceremonial chef’s knife, what is your must-have kitchen tool?
Physically, there are two tools that come to mind. One is a spoon, just to be tasting all the time. The second thing I think has changed our industry is the computer. My ability to see what other people are doing. You were sort of flying at 100 feet and now you’re flying at 100,000 feet. I didn’t grow up with a lot of Thai food in my life but if I want to learn about Thai food, my access of books and knowledge, and where to go eat Thai food, and who to talk to is so great now that it’s really inspiring.
The greatest tool you can have is within yourself, just a curiosity and desire to learn. I want to learn about food, I want to learn about drinks. Todd [Mussman] has that like no one I’ve ever met. His passion and willingness to dive down the deepest of rabbit holes to find out the most miniscule thing. Curiosity will take you a very long way.
When was the last time you sent something back to the kitchen as a restaurant customer, and can you remember why?
I actually sent something back a couple of weeks ago – it was just the wrong dish. It wasn’t what I ordered.
I know for me personally, part of growth is feedback and it’s not always good feedback. And it hurts. There’s nothing like the gut punch of hearing, “Hey man, you dropped the ball on this; some friends of mine had a terrible experience.” And we get reviews, we have a service that aggregates all of our reviews. You open that 2-star review up and it is literally, physically painful; I mean, there’s a hole in my stomach. And you have to take it and learn from it. I try and treat others as I would like to be treated, which is give real feedback, give constructive feedback.
I also have a deep issue with online review platforms. All I ask is give us a chance to make it right before you go blast everyone with your shotgun, because thousands of people see that, and I want to make you happy. I’ll do almost anything to make you happy. And I’ll be the first to tell you we screw up far more then we should.
Productive feedback is the way people grow and that’s what we ask for. I’d prefer if it was in a productive and constructive manner, and I understand I am an ass, but you don’t need to tell the world. Let’s just keep that between the two of us, but let’s talk about the fact that your steak was cold or it wasn’t cooked properly – that’s okay. But please just give us a chance to make it right. If we don’t, by all means fire both barrels. We want you to leave happy. Whatever brings a smile to your face, that’s what I’m looking for. That’s my mission and I will do almost anything within reason to make that happen.