Soul Food

A small group of friends gather one sunny Saturday morning at a table outside a market coffee shop. The conversation eventually turns to first jobs. “I spent summers on the farm with my grandparents and learned to dig and plant and string beans on the porch,” says John Cahill, a fresh-faced young man from the north.

“One year my family called the population of our small town together for a feast and I made bread in an old, wood-burning oven,” says Cyrille Holota.

The third man chimes in. “I remember when Nike first came out with its famous running shoes. I wanted them so badly, but my parents said I had to work for them,” he recounts. “My grandparents had a farm, and they said that I could pick berries to sell at the local market for the money to buy the shoes. There were raspberries and blueberries ready for picking, but I wanted those shoes immediately, so I chose to pick blackberries because they were bigger and I got paid for the berries by weight. I was covered in scratches and my fingers were stained purple, but I got those shoes.” More importantly, the blackberries helped train the palate of one of America’s great chefs: Atlanta’s own Joël Antunes.

These three gentlemen are chefs, co-workers and friends, and they are planning a day of work. Antunes and Holota come from the same village near Volvic, France. The last couple of months have emphasized discussions and tastings in preparation for the opening, actually re-opening, of Restaurant JOËL. Chef Antunes first impressed Atlanta diners when he took over the head chef position at the Ritz Carlton Dining Room. A few years later, he opened his own restaurant, “Joël.” The big-shot restaurant architects were brought in, and Antunes created a larger-than-life dining experience.

The restaurant was gorgeous and the plates were big and white. They were the perfect canvas for the chef’s high-style food. Writers praised his taste and technique, which is decidedly French combined with an Asian aesthetic. Stints working under Paul Bocuse and later as head chef at The Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Bangkok, Thailand, helped form the obvious style, but Antunes’ food has depth and importance—something some folks might call “soul.”

Soul comes from knowing, and more importantly, from caring. Most likely, the caring came from his grandmother. “I knew I wanted to cook for a living since I was 8 or 9 years old. I learned from my grandparents about good produce, seasonality and how to cook with respect for the food and for the people who will eat that food.”

The new incarnation of Restaurant JOËL will be located in the same building on Northside Drive but redesigned to accommodate just half the dining space. Warm tones will welcome diners in for the same brilliant food in a more casual atmosphere. “While I am very proud of what was accomplished with our large space, I really want Atlantans to feel like they can come here often,” Antunes says. “We have always offered very affordable menus [like the amazing three courses for $30] as well as special-occasion meals, but I think that to be a restaurant that truly services the neighborhood, we need to offer something more like a bistro that one would find on a small street in France. Our location may be in a large building, but this new space will feel very ‘neighborhood.’

“I love that I can find beautiful, fresh food from local farms in Atlanta. It reminds me that this place is close to the country, and close to how I grew up,” Antunes adds.

With that, the three head into “The Local Farmstand,” located outside Star Provisions and run by Joe Reynolds for Crystal Organic Farms. After chatting with Joe for a few minutes, sous chef Holota selects okra, figs, tomatoes, eggplant and arugula while Cahill goes inside to peruse the charcuterie room for the day’s selection. Antunes makes his way into the cheese shop to pick up Camembert and Sweet Grass Dairy pecan chevre.

“While the restaurant is under renovation, we spend the days cooking and testing the menu,” Antunes says. “It is nice to get away and come here to pick up a couple of things so that we can see what Annie [Quatrano, owner of Star Provisions and Bacchanalia] is doing and get some good bread for lunch.”

Restaurant JOËL’s chefs John Cahill, Joël Antunes and Cyrille Holota share a great respect for food, technique and each other.

Okra is sautéed and drizzled with peanut oil from France, creating an unexpected way to serve our classic Southern vegetable.

Simple tools and great products, in the hands of a highly skilled chef, turn late-harvest figs and duck breast into an exquisite dish.

Antunes creates an homage to local produce by topping a Parmesean crisp spread with eggplant tapenade with Crystal Organic Farm’s heirloom tomatoes and arugula.

Back at JOËL’s kitchen (the kitchen will not change, so the team meets there daily), the three chefs immediately get to work. Silently, they dance around each other. Cahill begins cutting the stems off some late-summer okra. Holota pulls a pristine, whole duck from the cooler. A few quick flourishes of his knife and the bird is sectioned and ready for the skillet. Antunes cuts through what may be one of the season’s last Cherokee purple tomatoes. Reverently, he places the slices into a bowl and tosses them with artisan cider vinegar and basil-infused oil from France. The tomatoes are arranged on top of a square Parmesan crisp spread with eggplant tapenade. A crown of arugula sprinkled with fleur de sel finishes the dish.

Duck breast is being attended to on the glistening stove, and spoonfuls of amber sauce are constantly ladled over late-harvest figs that will be placed alongside the duck. Okra is cut in half and sautéed briefly. Antunes then places it on a plate and drizzles it with amazing peanut oil from France.

While Antunes speaks and the aroma builds, the chefs finish cooking. Tender beef ribs are enrobed in the glaze of butter and herbs that has gathered at the bottom of the pan. Pencil-like green beans are tossed in “just long enough” and then take their place on the plate. The cheese is unwrapped and a baguette placed respectfully on the table. Lunch is ready.

Diners in Atlanta have so much to look forward to.