Empire State South

Two Inch Cuffs, December 2013. Photos by Ben Lebovitz.

Interview with Ryan Smith, Executive Chef

Just what is southern hospitality? If you watch a certain Food Network personality, it would appear to be loud, annoying and heart-stoppingly greasy. It's a synthetic warmth that lasts as long as the TV glows and dissipates as soon as it's shut off. Real southern hospitality doesn't consist of a series of contrived "hey y'alls" and it certainly doesn't taste like a barrel of pork fat. Thank goodness for Empire State South. Here, you'll find southern cooking to be effortless, elegant, and with a taste that's so fresh and clean, you'll be surprised it came out of a jar (most likely pickled by the chef himself). We spoke with Executive Chef Ryan Smith about what he thinks makes the south special and how it's made Atlanta a food city to be reckoned with.

What does southern hospitality mean to you?
I think it's the culture that's been a big draw for me. When I moved down here [from Pennsylvania], I didn't really know what I was getting myself into. It was just more that I was moving to a bigger city and really the past 6 years is when I really got interested in the history of southern food and the culture, retelling the story of what happened a hundred years ago, and trying to find what that food was and what it meant to people back then. There's a lot of people who are actively trying to restore that, so it's kind of exciting to part of that or trying to be part of it, I guess. To me, that's what I think about when I think about southern hospitality: how food ties into family and tradition and experience.

Was there anything that cooking and eating in the south has taught or changed you?
All of it, really. I think that's best reflected by how this specific restaurant has gone through so many changes in the past two years. We're constantly trying to figure out who we are and what we are and a lot of that is a reflection of who I am as a cook. Just being influenced by tradition and history, we're also opening our eyes to other cultures that have moved to the South in the past 30, 40, 50 years. That's opened and changed my mind about the South in general, so it's kind of the new South with the direction we're going. As much as people label Southern cuisine, I don't think it's right for anybody because it's constantly evolving like anything else.

Do you have any opinions about people who judge Southern cooking based on Paula Deen's?
Oh, that's a touchy subject. Do you read Hugh's [Acheson, ESS chef/partner] blog? [Laughs] Me and Hugh share the same views on how that works. There's obviously a stereotype that some people have towards Southern food if they're not well-educated on what it's really like—being heavy and greasy and fatty and pork and fried chicken—and all that stuff's great and deserves a spot on the Southern table, but I think what's more plentiful, when you go to eat at someone's home or a gathering, is that there's more vegetables than anything! There's pickles, preserves, bread, rice and it's not all about the meat and the fat. Of course that's involved, but it's involved in every cuisine and it's all over the world. I always kinda hate to hear that because I don't think it's fair. But I guess it's true of anyone passing judgement on anything.

What do you look for in gatherings that every host or home cook should keep in mind?
For me personally, what I like is over the past decade that I've been here, I've been very fortunate to cook with a lot of great people around the city and I've made a lot of friends. I like to feel that that's building a sense of community. For example, this year, my girlfriend and I are hosting Thanksgiving for people who can't be with their families. We sent that invitation to people that are in the industry that are friends so we're going to have a big feast and everybody brings something. It's amazing, the energy you get from it because you never get to see these people, everyone works so much in this industry. Events are so important because we can just hang out. Holidays when restaurants are closed are good because everyone can spend time together. I think that's a huge part of building a sense of community and supporting that because otherwise we're never gonna grow as a community or a city. 

What are your favorite off-duty places in Atlanta?
Ooh! I spend a lot of time on Buford Highway. There's guy that I used to buy seafood from, who knows a hell of a lot about little tiny holes-in-the-wall way up and down Buford Highway, so he's taken me to a couple places. I live very close to The Octopus Bar so I go there every once in a while. I'm a huge fan of Decatur. I love Brickstore and Leon's and 246 and Twain's. Everyone there's super cool and they're a super tight family in a small restaurant community inside a big restaurant community. They're all just really good people so I love spending time over there.

What do you think has led to the growing interest in the Atlanta dining scene?
I love it. I think what's happened is that smaller, independent restaurants are starting to take risks and open things and be more chef-driven. It's a lot more personal that way. There's nothing wrong with big corporate restaurants, but it strips away that personal feeling you have when you walk into a place that you can tell is very genuine and focused on what they're doing. I think that's been happening a lot and it's being supported, which is great. It wasn't at first, but I think it's blown up in a really positive way, so it's exciting to see. 

Do you think that the food is more important than the story behind it, or do they all go hand-in-hand?
Oh, they play hand-in-hand. I'm a firm believer that if people hear a story about something, it makes their experience that much more better. It makes things taste more delicious before they try it. Not that that's easily done if you're serving 240 guests every night. But that's an important part of it. I think the whole package is important and you have to have everything for it to go to the next level.

Hugh and I went to Las Vegas last year for a little boys' trip and we ate at a Thai restaurant called Lotus of Siam. So we just asked them to cook for us and asked them to point us in the right direction. We ate some amazing food. One of the dishes was crispy rice and sour sausage. Each grain of rice was perfectly crisp in this insanely attractive way that just blew my mind. I wanted to come back and have that influence a dish. So we spent a week tinkering with Carolina Gold rice and how do we handle it and cook it, do we want starch on it or do we want to wash the starch on it? We figured out how to cook it so we could achieve that same texture. Then integrating sausage—sometimes we put in hot dog or bologna in it to have fun with it—and just use a coddled egg. That's kinda where it came from. It's like savory cereal. 

Do you have any favorite flavors?
We're heavily influenced by preservation, so natural sourness through fermentation is really attractive to me because it's not a very recognizable flavor to the natural palate. I really like that and I think it's fun to play around with. So we ferment a lot of vegetables and meats and integrate them in different ways. That's kind of the direction we've gone with recently. Acid in general, like pickles, are always good.

Cokes in glass bottles always taste better, and your starter, Things in Jars, is delicious. What is it about things in glass containers that make them so delicious?
I think it's a mental thing with presentation and the idea of preserving. I think it's exciting that you can preserve something while it's in the peak of the season and you can enjoy it later in the off-season. It's difficult for a restaurant to do it, too. We obviously do a lot of it [points to wall of preserve jars] and that's about a tenth of what we have here. We have a bunch downstairs. I don't know very many people who serve pickled okra in December or stewed tomatoes that we bought in June. It's kinda fun. I do think it's a mental thing, though, kinda like the story thing. It makes things better. It's mind trickery! [Laughs]

Empire State South
999 Peachtree Street NE, #140
Atlanta, GA 30309
Tel: 404-541-1105