Chef Art's phone book may include names like Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama and Tyler Perry, but this Northern Floridian never forgets his down-home roots. Oprah's former personal chef brings his signature style (and family recipes) to his Atlanta restaurants, Southern Art and Bourbon Bar, where he sat down with us to talk about Atlanta's culinary past, present and future.
Why open a restaurant in Atlanta?
Atlanta has always been, to me and to many people, the New York City of the South. It’s where everything is happening. It’s one of the biggest cities in the South. Culturally there’s a lot going on. Atlanta has one of the largest LGBT communities in the country, and as a gay man, I saw Atlanta as the promise land. I always liked the city a lot. I believe that Atlanta represents the New South. I love Charleston. I love Savannah. I love Nashville. But I love Atlanta the most, because I believe Atlanta retains its Southern past and culture but it hasn’t lived in the past—it lives for the future.
I wanted to take a restaurant and connect it locally to the community. There has always been a prejudice about hotel restaurants in Atlanta. Most people don’t want to take you seriously once you’re in a hotel. I am happy to say that all these people have come to town—from Emeril to Tom Colicchio to Jean-Georges—and we’ve outlasted them all. We’re the only celebrity chef hotel restaurant in the city, and we’ve lasted. There’s something to be said about that. This is the reason why I think our success is: one, the food is Southern so there’s a connection. People thought it was too specialized and that it would not appeal to a large group of people. Well, it does appeal. Everyone wants to feel comfort. And when you travel, that’s when you’re really needing comfort. I’ve never been ashamed of being known for fried chicken and biscuits.
What’s one dish everyone should try at Southern Art?
I love my mother’s, Addie’s, chicken and dumpling soup. One single—and free—thing that we have that’s better than anybody are our biscuits. I think they’re great and they’re a freebie. Most places charge for bread now. And our red velvet cake and our fried chicken.
How do you describe Atlanta’s food scene?
I think Atlanta’s dining scene is really exciting. When you’ve got people like Kevin Gillespie, who I battled with in the Duels, my favorite thing about Gunshow is that who doesn’t love the person who cooks for them? It was very clever of him to connect the chef and the diner. Anything that’s up close and person, people are going to support because they love that interaction and connection. Hugh Acheson’s Empire State South is a delicious restaurant. Hugh is becoming the James Beard of the South. He’s probably one of the most learned chefs, and being a Canadian on top of it, but he’s probably becoming one of the most learned people on Southern food. What Hugh has done very successfully is he’s added a bit of humor and snark to it.
It’s a very sophisticated dining scene. Buckhead has had a huge change of heart. Historically, it was called “Steakhouse Canyon” and what you see now are restaurants like St. Cecilia and King + Duke. I think it’s equally as dynamic a restaurant scene as Chicago. The only difference is Atlanta has more hipster and cooler places than Chicago. I like a restaurant scene where it’s more approachable and affordable.
Which dish could you eat every day?
I love greens.
Is there a restaurant that prepares greens exactly to your liking?
Who are your favorite Atlanta chefs?
Kevin Gillespie is the most authentic, approachable, young, lots of energy, charismatic and able to attract other young, talented chefs to help him. I think what he’s doing now is a little small for him. I think he has the capacity to do more, but it’s a matter of whether he chooses to do that. He’s a bit of a perfectionist and he may not want to do more. He’s from North Georgia, he’s got history here.
Where do you spend time when you’re in town?
I love Blake’s on the Park and they love me to. I also like my friend who manages the Buckhead Club, so when I’m feeling kind of businesslike, I go hang out there. When I just want to grab something to eat, I run over to Farm Burger—I love it, I think it’s excellent. I love walking. I love to walk around Peachtree Street. I love parks, and I go take walks. I usually have a day of social. Tomorrow, I’m going to Atlanta Botanical Garden. Last time I was here, I went to Atlanta Food & Wine Festival. I’m always doing something like that. Then, I have a day where I go out into the community and say hello to people.
You recently adopted four kids. Where do you want to take them during their first visit to Atlanta?
I think they would really love the Georgia Aquarium. I think it’s one of the best aquariums in America and the world. That would be a tremendous experience. I think they would also really enjoy an Atlanta Falcons game. They love sports. If there’s film production going on, I can kind of wiggle my nose and take them to a set.
Where is an unexpected place you can be found in Atlanta?
Buckhead Church. Because I’m kind of crazy and fun people may not expect it of me, but there is also this spiritual side of me.
What do you never leave home without when traveling?
I never have time at home to read magazines, so I’ll have a magazine or book to read. That’s the only time I can read.