These 5 are the ones to watch in Georgia’s restaurant scene
By Candice Dyer, Lia Picard and Nancy Wood
A bartender turned general manager. A busboy turned executive sous chef who launched a supper club along the way. An executive sous chef whose journey
has taken her from El Salvador to Spain to Atlanta.
These are just a few of this year’s 2nd annual Rising Stars, which recognizes those in Georgia’s hospitality industry who are leading the way forward.
This group of five people are not just good at what they do; they go beyond their job description to make their restaurants successful, whether that’s coming up with new and innovative ways of doing things, helping foster a broader sense of community outside the restaurant’s four walls, or mentoring and lifting up others around them. In
essence, each person is someone who has the potential to be a leader of change in the culinary world.
These are people who are making Georgia’s restaurant industry a better place, whether they’re working the line, running the front of house or quietly toiling away behind the scenes. And all are pursuing their own dreams and looking toward the future.
We received many nominations this year from people across the state’s industry, and it was hard to choose just five. The final selections were determined by Restaurant Informer editorial staff in partnership with the Georgia Restaurant Association. Restaurants and organizations must be a member of the Georgia Restaurant Association
for employees to be recognized.
After 20 years in the business – first as a server, then a bartender – Savannah Kirkwood feels comfortable in her role as general manager of Radial Café in Candler Park. “I was always a bossy kid,” she laughs, “so I think I was born to be a boss.”
“Savannah embodies the qualities we hold most dear in this industry – professionalism, integrity, humility, focus, work ethic and grace,” Radial Café owner Frank Bragg says. He adds a few other important traits that make Kirkwood a Rising Star: “She’s also dependable, clever and works well with everyone.”
Working well with others comes naturally to Kirkwood, whose passion for bartending is the foundation of her career. “Being a bartender for so many years helped,” she says. “It’s like being a counselor.”
With her philosophy of “treating people like people,” Kirkwood has made it a priority to understand that everyone on staff learns differently. “Some people are visual learners, some are not. Once you figure that out, it’s easier.”
“What we do can be tremendously stressful,” says Bragg, “and Savannah sets herself apart in the way she navigates her days and accomplishes her goals.”
“I’m not only the GM here,” says Kirkwood, “I’m the baker, I’m a line cook if someone doesn’t show up, and I’m a dishwasher, too. Every day is different, and there’s never a dull moment.”
Recognized for her dedication to taking care of her guests and her team, Kirkwood’s love of people shines through in everything she does. “I try to stay positive,” she says. “I’m going to come in here with a good attitude, and hopefully that rubs off on everybody. Life is too short to let biscuits and eggs get me down!” – NW
Q. Matissé Myers
The Southern Gentleman
For a man with seven given names, it’s no wonder this Rising Star goes by Chef Q. Matissé Myers. “You should see my diplomas,” he laughs. As Executive Chef at The Southern Gentleman in Buckhead, Chef Q has been on a culinary journey since his childhood in Brooklyn.
“My aunt – who was the Martha Stewart of her day – and my Greek uncle were in the food business,” he says, “and my grandmother served us different genres of food, so there was a diverse culture when it came to cooking.”
After landing a scholarship to Johnson and Wales University from his success in a vocational school culinary arts class, Chef Q turned his calling into a passion. “I was eager to learn new things,” he says, “but it was really all about the jacket. You work so hard to be called ‘chef.’ It identifies you as good at a craft and accepted for that craft.”
His lifelong love of learning – and teaching – has taken him from high-end hotels and restaurants in New York to getting a taste of southern cooking in Charleston, S.C. After moving to Atlanta in 2009, Chef Q joined Southern Proper Hospitality, the parent company of eight restaurant concepts including The Southern Gentleman, in 2014. It didn’t take long for others to discover his creative take on tradition. In 2015, Zagat Atlanta selected him as one of eight secret weapons behind Atlanta’s top restaurants.
Never far from his roots, Chef Q has earned a reputation for reinventing and elevating comfort foods. “Food reminds me of what my grandmother or aunt would cook – it was from the heart. I learned a lot of skills in the North, but in the South, I’ve learned why you cook – what is going to make you smile and make you happy.” – NW
Executive Sous Chef
Laura Orellana, executive sous chef at Osteria Mattone, still remembers the first dish she cooked as a child in El Salvador. “When I was seven, our housekeeper was off so I woke up at 6:00 a.m. and made an avocado sandwich,” she recalls. “My dad came into the dining room at 9:00 a.m., and I had spent three hours making the sandwich.”
It’s a memory she and her dad still laugh about, but it was no surprise when she moved to Seville, Spain, to attend culinary school.
After five years in Spain, she moved to Atlanta to be closer to her sister, and in 2012 began working at Table & Main as a line cook. Six years later, the 32 year old has climbed up the ladder and is proud of what she has accomplished. Her favorite accolade as of yet was the opportunity to plan a menu at the James Beard House and then have a recipe featured by them on their blog.
“Laura has been a stalwart leader in our kitchens for over six years,” says Ryan Pernice, owner of Table & Main and Osteria Mattone. “Her passion for cooking is undeniable, and she invests herself fully in everything she does in the kitchen … whether that’s inventory or plating a special or deep cleaning the kitchen. I’m so proud of her development and grateful that she continues to share her skills with our guests.”
Now an American citizen, Laura is excited about the future of Atlanta’s restaurant industry. “I moved here in 2009, and I’ve seen huge growth. There are a lot of restaurants opening, especially a lot of family-owned restaurants.” As someone who has always worked in family-owned restaurants, it’s important to her that they continue to thrive in Atlanta’s flourishing restaurant landscape.
And perhaps one day, Orellana’s restaurant will be one of those on the scene. Her goal is to eventually open her own place featuring Spanish cuisine. – LP
Executive Sous Chef
The Wrecking Bar Brewpub
The distance between Southern cuisine and East Asian fare is only as long as your skillet, says Joel Penn, executive sous chef at The Wrecking Bar Brewpub in Atlanta, where he tinkers with his own style of locavore fusion.
“I gravitate to big, bold flavors and funky, spicy, fermented foods,” he says. “Asian and Southern cuisines both have a tradition of great comfort foods, especially the peasant food – oxtails, offal, cornbread.”
Penn, 32, grew up in Stone Mountain before enrolling at the University of Georgia, where he studied journalism. His stint as a busboy hooked him on the hospitality industry. “I began watching Julia Child and reading every cookbook I could get my hands on.”
Eventually, Penn worked his way up to sous chef at East West Bistro in Athens before moving on to the National and then Heirloom Café, where he was executive chef.
“My signature dish is a Korean dish called tteok- bokki,” he says. “It consists of rice cakes stir-fried with spicy southern-style stewed collard greens. It’s at once reminiscent of the traditional dish, yet distinctly Southern.”
During his nights off, he was the beloved impresario of The Tasty Beast Supper Club in Athens, where he tested his more freewheeling experiments on friends. Last winter, Penn took his current position at The Wrecking Bar, which cultivates its own organic produce at a 63-acre farm in Loganville, home to 375 chickens.
“Sourcing our food is the most important part of our mission,” he says. “Our food comes off pickup trucks, not semi-trucks.” In addition to a willingness to try everything in the spice rack, Penn brings another unusual quality to his work: He remains calm, even during the most hectic dinner rush.
“He cares so much about patiently teaching the cooks underneath him,” says Amanda Newsom, his partner and marketing and communications manager at The Giving Kitchen. “He wants to be a positive role model.” – CD
Schlotzsky’s Austin Eatery
Tyler Sherrer was destined to work in the restaurant industry. At age 15, he joined his brother at Redneck Gourmet in Newnan. “I went, and I never left,” he says.
Since then he’s worked at several other restaurants including Sage, Southern Group and Taco Mac. Now the 27 year old is the general manager at Schlotzsky’s Austin Eatery, a new concept that opened in Duluth at the end of 2016. The restaurant repositions the Schlotzsky’s sandwich chain brand – which opened its original location in Austin – with an updated interior and a menu featuring beer and wine along with food truck inspired items like sliders, tacos and flatbreads.
For Brian Farris, VP of Operations for FOCUS Brands, which owns the Schlotzsky’s concept, naming Tyler a Rising Star was a no-brainer. “With so much competition in the restaurant industry, Tyler is always taking ownership to lead Austin Eatery to No. 1,” he says. “Whatever it takes, he does it without hesitation.” This includes a two-hour commute to work.
Already a 10-year veteran of the restaurant industry, Tyler wouldn’t have it any other way. He loves the challenges that come with working in a job that changes daily. “It’s an unknown and different every day,” he says of his favorite aspect of the job.
He also has a strong sense of community and brings that to the restaurant, welcoming fundraisers monthly like the Spectrum Austin Group.
“He embraces going above and beyond his call of duty,” Farris says.
Sherrer thinks that if the popularity of Schlotzsky’s Austin Eatery is any indication, then Atlanta’s restaurant industry is moving in the right direction.
“New styles of restaurants and revamped atmospheres move the industry in a good direction and will make them last a lot longer,” he says. Which is good news for him, as he hopes to one day open his own restaurant. “I already have the name and the plans drawn up for it.” Now it’s just a matter of time. – LP