Chef Tyler Williams in the North Georgia Mountains

Chef Tyler Williams in the North Georgia Mountains: I first met Chef Tyler Williams when he appeared at “Tourism Day at the Capital” in Atlanta in January 2015.On that day Rabun County was designated “Farm to Capital of Georgia” by the state legislature. Chef Williams joined in our celebration of this achievement. We had no idea this “designation” would be the draw for him to relocate to our corner of North Georgia.

 

Chef Tyler Williams in the North Georgia Mountains

Tyler Williams – Chef Spotlight:

I first met Chef Tyler Williams when he appeared at “Tourism Day at the Capital” in Atlanta in January 2015.On that day Rabun County was designated “Farm to Capital of Georgia” by the state legislature. Chef Williams joined in our celebration of this achievement. We had no idea this “designation” would be the draw for him to relocate to our corner of North Georgia.

It was months later that I heard rumors of a “famous” Chef purchasing property in our area to develop a farm and build a new farm to table restaurant. We learned that that this mystery chef was making Pizza at “By Hand Pizza” at Lake Burton, so Gayle and I drove out to see for ourselves. Yep, it was Chef Tyler Williams who we had met at the capital. I asked if he would tell me his story and he agreed.

We talked that evening and agreed to an interview. It was clear from the get-go that Chef Williams is vectoring sharply off his then career path to come to Rabun County. Here’s his recent history:

Worked under famed Chef Thomas Keller at Bouchon; Graduated Grand Toque from Western Culinary Institute, Portland Oregon; Worked with Graham Elliot in Chicago; Recruited as Sous Chef by Annie Quatrano at Atlanta’s 5 Star Bacchanalia; Executive Chef at Abattoir where he was named Atlanta’s 2012 “Rising Star Chef” and Eater’s 2012 “Chef of the Year”; Executive Chef, Woodfire Grill and Awarded Eater’s “Chef of the Year” again in 2013.

So these are some serious credentials for a chef who has moved to a region where most folks are looking for a good chicken fried steak. At Abattoir (literally defined as a slaughterhouse), Chef Williams created whimsical fun dishes like root beer barbecue sauce-laced wagyu beef belly and seafood sausage on monkey bread. My question to him was “so what exactly is going on for a chef with your back-ground relocating to this remote but beautiful corner of North Georgia?” Chef Williams said it’s kind of a long story.

I started loving food from my mom who was a mid-west cook in Okemos, Michigan.  But I did not grow up with a small-town palate. As a child, I became friends with the son of a Lebanese family and quickly became enamored with the culture and cuisine. And as I grew up, I was enthusiastic about all things new and different in food and culture, eventually majoring in cultural geography at Arizona State University, maybe to satiate my inner wanderlust. I quickly learned that food is at the heart of all cultures. After college I decided to go to culinary school and had a real awakening at Portland’s “Western Culinary Institute.” I got rid of my Television and immersed myself in the study of food.

I ended-up graduating number one in my class (Grand Toque) and was awarded an internship to Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Restaurant in Las Vegas. Once there I was the lowest person on the totem pole; lived in a budget suite and worked a one-apron life. In Chef Keller’s program you have to learn to clean, organize and pay excruciating attention to every detail. There is authentic care for every single thing that happens in the kitchen, including the way you skim your stock. I did that for one-year then returned to Oregon.

For awhile I worked at Salty’s on the Columbia River, a large resort/restaurant that typically served brunch to 1,000 people. I helped with pastries each morning. There I learned to multi-task and work fast. We had to be done with desserts and turn the entire kitchen over to the savory staff. I was done by noon and took and evening job so I could cook savory. The Sous Chef for the evening job offered valuable advice. He said “in order to someday be great you need to learn and perfect three new things every day. And you need to sacrifice.” I heeded his advice and taught myself new things each day and practiced. That advice has stood the test of time and has set me apart.

My culinary experience really took off when I headed to Chicago. After working for several months in the front of the house at Homaro Cantu’s Moto, I took a position at Graham Elliot, where I was inspired by his whimsical and nostalgic style. Chef Elliott became my first true culinary mentor. He taught me menu construction, free thinking, that there are no constraints, and how to banter off other talented people you work with to improve the whole experience. I later worked as chef de cuisine at Gemini Bistro, where I started to refine my own playful, global approach.

Then, by happen-stance, my brother moved to Atlanta after college with my two beautiful nieces. Next my Mother moved to Atlanta. Things were crazy in my life. Annie Quatrano hired me as a Sous Chef at Bacchanalia. She’s a genius and seeks only to produce the best product. When Chef Joshua Hopkins left Abattoir she encouraged me take the job as Executive Chef. Once there I started getting personal credit for food and I started establishing personal and rewarding relationships with farmers. I also started getting many personal accolades “2012 Rising Chef of the Year” Eater’s 2012 “Chef of the Year.” My head was spinning.

When Chef Kevin Gillespie left Woodfire Grill he left some big shoes to fill. The owners’ recruited me. Woodfire Grill offered some changes from the “meat centric” Abattoir, with tasting menus and greater creativity. I enjoyed making new partnerships with even more farmers. More personal accolades came including Eater’s 2013 “Chef of the Year.” I left Woodfire Grill to pursue even more creative avenues such as pop-up dinners and art dinners. I got lots of offers but I wanted to explore further what I could do. A year later Woodfire Grill Closed.

I was invited to go to Los Angeles to compete on “Top Chef.” I accepted and flew to California. I asked myself “is this insanity” Did I do all this work just to become a celebrity? My life seemed out of control. Then after many hours of contemplation while sitting in my hotel room I had a “Robert Frost Moment.” I walked out of the hotel and flew back to Atlanta.

Three days later while serving as a guest chef for a special dinner at the Club Magnolia in Augusta, Georgia, during the Masters Golf Tournament, I met someone at the dinner. We hit it off from the start. We talked a long time and found we had much in common. Before I left for the evening he said with a smile “I’m going to buy you a restaurant someday.”

Still reeling from my experience in California I actually hid in Mexico for two months.  Three days after I returned from Mexico he called me out of the blue. He offered to help find and establish a new restaurant venue. We are now business partners. First we looked in Atlanta. But Atlanta is unreal. The city is being over-populated by “semi corporate farm to fable restaurants” and the truly unique boutique restaurants are being slowly squeezed. And the city is absurdly expensive. I love and respect Atlanta diners, but why try to compete in that environment?

Friends from Rabun County encouraged us to get out of the city and look up here. Together we started driving around. We knew the area’s reputation for farms, wineries, orchards, mills, art and creativity. We felt bolstered by the county’s designation as “Farm to Table Capital of Georgia.” This region has it together. We took some time and walked through the hills and valleys. After just one visit to Rabun County we stopped looking in Atlanta.

Once we were shown the old farm on Highway 76 West of Clayton both of us fell in love with its diversity. Part old pasture, part steep hillside and divided down the middle by Timpson Creek. The property offers very unique bio-nooks. The land and stream fit perfectly into our intentions. We also know it will be a large investment to build a biodynamic organic farm. We are also committed to using local talent as much as possible.

I took over the Pizza Place at LaPrades just keep my hand in cooking. At Woodfire Grill I would often make hand-made pizzas for the crew. It is something I really enjoy doing – especially using local farm ingredients – something you don’t find at most pizza parlors. And by using local ingredients I am quickly building connections to this area’s local farms and gardens

Our plan is to develop the 26 acres into an organic farm and make it not only productive but also a showplace and teaching experience. It will start out small but in time will grow, and then grow again. Not too long from now, passers-by will see hoop houses sprouting-up. We have already planted some cover-crops. We will have a professional farm manager.

The restaurant will also start small – and casual. We plan to open this coming spring in the old house we are restoring on Highway 76. Gradually we will add more dining venues on the property with pavilions and gazebos for events amongst the gardens and along Timpson Creek. Diners may even have the opportunity to harvest their own dinner.

Our farm to table dinners will be enhanced with local foraged ingredients from North Georgia’s coves and mountains. I chose the name for the Pizza restaurant “By Hand” because we pick the foods by hand. I am proud to now be living in the oldest mountain range offering some of the greatest bio-diversity in the world. I also feel this is my life’s plan, to be connected with the land, the farmers and the weather. Most of all I really feel welcomed by the North Georgia community.

Chef Tyler Williams in the North Georgia Mountains

http://www.cheftylerwilliams.com/home/

As Retold by Chef David Darugh, Beechwood Inn