Rising Star Chefs of Athens: Whitney Otawka and Peter Dale
CULINARY: Rising Star Chefs of Athens: Whitney Otawka and Peter Dale
By Cheri Leavy
Known as a music mecca since the 1980s, it is exciting to see Athens’ burgeoning food culture. Call me a foodie nerd but there is something fascinating in listening to your well-versed server talk about not only the ingredients in the dish but where they came from too. That is what you can expect at both local favorites, Farm 255 and The National.
While the students were away this summer, I had the privilege of spending some quality time with Chef Whitney Otawka from Farm 255 and Chef Peter Dale of The National. They were both named Atlanta Rising Star Chefs for Athens this summer. Dale was also recognized in the UGA Alumni Association’s 40 Under 40 program for 2012.
Be sure to check out the Georgia Club video we were all involved in where the two chefs talk about the farm to table movement in Athens. I enjoyed dinner with Chef Whitney at Farm 255 the evening that we produced the video. I got to try the chanterelle mushrooms she mentions on film as she describes her restaurant’s mission to reconnect food to its roots and people to their food. After dinner when I stopped by The Manhattan for a nightcap, I discovered that the bartender was the one who foraged the mushrooms for Chef Whitney. Mission accomplished for Farm 255.
Chef Whitney Otawka’s Chilled Tomato Soup
-2 tablespoons olive oil
-1 teaspoon whole cumin
-1 onion, diced
-¼ cup fennel, diced
-1 small jalapeno
-5 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
-3 ribs of celery, roughly chopped
-3 pounds roma tomatoes, roughly chopped
-3 cups vegetable stock
-salt to taste
-bouquet garni of thyme, bay leaf, leek
(two sprigs thyme and 1 bay leaf wrapped
in one small leek and tied with butchers twine)
-buttermilk and toasted cumin to garnish
In a large pot heat olive oil over medium heat, add in cumin and sauté for 1 minute. Then add in onion, celery, jalapeno, and fennel and sweat down for 3 minutes until translucent, you do not want them to get any color. Add in garlic and tomatoes and sauté for 2 minutes. Add in bouquet garni and cover with vegetable stock. You want to add enough stock to just cover the vegetables. Cook on a low simmer for 25-30 minutes. Remove bouquet and blend well. Strain. Season while hot. Cool in you refrigerator uncovered until chilled. Add in the juice of 3 limes. To serve, garnish with buttermilk and toasted cumin.
Get to know Chef Peter Dale
PD: I initially got to DC after graduation for a PR internship at The National 4-H Council. It was a great way to ease myself in the city. Ultimately, I was really interested in politics and public affairs. I had a great internship in government relations at Coca-Cola Enterprises while in college. My goal was to work on The Hill for awhile, get my feet wet in government, and then see where things would go.
Q: What made you decide to come back to Athens to pursue a career in culinary arts?
PD: My college career was shaped by some wonderful mentors; including Fran Lane and Christy Purks at the UGA Visitors Center. I wanted to be just like them. So my return to Athens was to pursue a degree in higher education administration. As it turns out, I get to work with UGA students everyday at the restaurant. Hopefully, I am a good mentor for them and I love working with this age group. They make me feel younger than I really am!
Q: Had you always wanted to be a chef, or did it just sort of hit you one day?
PD: I have always loved food, and I was very fortunate to have parents that value travel and trying new things. It definitely didn’t hit me immediately. Wanting to be a chef was a gradual realization. After a couple years working at a desk, I realized that I had a creative energy that did not have an outlet.
Q: How did you get the opportunity to begin working with Hugh Acheson?
PD: I told some friends that I was thinking about cooking and they told me about a new restaurant that had opened in Five Points, Five & Ten. A friend took me to have dinner one night and I was hooked. I still remember what I ate, duck confit and monkfish cheeks. The next day I gathered the courage to go back and speak to Hugh (Acheson). I told him I had never cooked professionally but that I was willing to work for free if I could shadow and observe. Fortunately for me he agreed!
Q: What is your inspiration behind the food at The National?
PD: There is a restaurant in London called Moro. It is the work of an English couple that has traveled extensively in Spain and North Africa. I was familiar with Spanish food, but eating at Moro showed me how beautifully you can combine both cuisines. They are very much linked because of the Moorish occupation of Spain for 800 years. Moro was very much the inspiration for The National when we first opened. Now my inspiration comes from a lot of places, but principally the beautiful produce that is widely grown all around Athens.
Q: What was it that made you decide to use local produce at your restaurant?
PD: The bottom line is that it tastes great. We can talk about all the benefits of local produce, it’s more sustainable, it supports our local economy, we know exactly who is growing our food, etc. These are all wonderful things, but it wouldn’t mean much if the food didn’t taste great. Fortunately, all of this true and more.
Q: What is your favorite thing about Athens?
PD: The people. There are so many people doing amazing things in so many different disciplines. I get inspired by everyone around me.