Executive Chef Marc Taft’s new farm-to-table concept is giving Marietta diners something to squawk about.
You may remember Marc Taft from another, decidedly different Atlanta-area restaurant – Pacci – the comfortably ritzy Italian restaurant that was located on the bottom floor of the former Hotel Palomar in midtown. Taft served as Pacci’s General Manager until the restaurant and the hotel shuttered their doors earlier this year due to foreclosure.
At Chicken and the Egg, Taft has traded his GM suit for a chef’s jacket, but his unassuming, businesslike demeanor hints at the fact that he’s still just as comfortable in the back office as he is in the kitchen. With a resume that includes several high-level management positions for some heavy hitters in hospitality, and a restaurant career that spans over 15 years, it’s no wonder.
Chicken and the Egg
Type of Cuisine: Southern, farm-to-table
Serves: Brunch, Lunch, Dinner
Menu Highlights: Fried Chicken, Butterbean Hummus, Grilled Peach Manhattan
I recently visited Chicken and the Egg just before Friday dinner rush, and had a chance to sit and chat with Chef Taft about his latest venture and his thoughts on restaurants in Atlanta.
Before we get started with the Q&A, Chef Taft suggests we try a couple of cocktails from the restaurant’s Southern-inspired menu.
I opt for the Grilled Peach Manhattan – a sultry concoction of peach and bacon infused whiskeys, bourbon and vermouth
My dining partner has the Dirty South – an interpretation of a dirty (gin) martini, subbing pickled okra instead of olive
On a scale of 1 to 10, how scary is it opening your own restaurant?
Well, I’ve opened over 30 restaurants. So it wasn’t really that scary for me. I made all my mistakes on someone else’s dime. Still, there’s a little anxiety. Before we opened, I had dreams like, “will people come?”
I eye the steadily filling tables in the restaurant.
Doesn’t look like you have a problem there, though.
People in Marietta have been very welcoming. There aren’t as many fine dining options as there are in Atlanta, so people in this area are appreciative. We served over 3,000 tables in August alone.
If you haven’t been running restaurants for a while you have no business opening one. It’s not glamorous.
What’s the best thing about being a chef / restaurateur in the Atlanta area?
Atlanta is still an up and coming food city. People are still learning. They’re willing to try food without being overly critical. The chef community here is a brotherhood and a sisterhood instead of a competition, no one undermines each other.
(Chef Taft briefly makes mention of two high-profile chefs – Tom Colicchio and Emeril Lagasse whose equally high profile restaurants had relatively short lifespans in Atlanta.)
It’s because they’re not here. Atlanta holds you accountable as a chef.
How would you describe your culinary style?
Well, I’m a trained Italian chef. You can’t compare Italian to anything. But the passion translates to modern farmstead fare. Anyone can take flour and spices and fry up some chicken… why is it different here? It’s because we’re very passionate about what we do and we want to do it the right way. This restaurant represents that as a whole. This is the kind of food I grew up with. I’m always fired up in a positive way. I like being the best, really.
Soon, a sampling of appetizers begins to arrive at the table:
Butterbean “Hummus” and House Made Pimento Cheese – The hummus is a delightful way to enjoy a traditional Southern veggie. The delicate flavor of butterbean is complemented by a subtle punch of garlic. Unfortunately, pimento cheese has never been a favorite of mine, and Chef Taft’s version doesn’t change my mind any.
Buttermilk Fried Oysters – crispy fried, and perfectly seasoned
Fried Green Tomatoes – expertly accented by a small sliver of country ham, and a tiny dollop of tomato jam. However, for previously mentioned reasons, I’m no fan of the puddle of pimento cheese fondue the tomato is floating on.
What is the one thing you think can ruin an otherwise great restaurant?
Inconsistent food. Consistency is probably the most important thing in a restaurant. Even if you have average food, be consistently average.
Also the reception and post-meal thank you is important. People forget about the middle of the meal. They remember the beginning and the end. In Atlanta, that post-meal experience actually extends out to the valet. When I worked at Pacci, we could sometimes have an otherwise stellar dining experience ruined by valet.
What words of wisdom would you give to other Atlanta chefs or culinary workers?
Focus on having integrity and doing the right thing. All the other stuff will come. Be a student of the trade every day. If you’re willing to expose your weakness and surround yourself with people who are stronger than you in that area, you’ll keep progressing. Once you think you’re too good, people will start to pass you by.
For our entrees, I order the evening’s special: sous vide duck breast served with a crab cake, fennel slaw and a brown mustard jus; and my mate orders a Southern classic: fried chicken with mac and cheese and braised greens. Both entrees are good, but the fried chicken and accompaniments are the clear winners. The chicken is delicious from crust to bone – the restaurant takes the time to brine the chicken before cooking. The mac and cheese includes 6 cheeses: 2 different cheddars, Parmigiano-Reggiano, cream cheese, smoked gouda, and Monterey jack. It’s so sumptuous, I briefly consider bathing in the stuff. The braised greens are a savory, slow-cooked mixture of kale and collards. While the duck breast has good flavor, I find the texture of the flesh a bit chewy and the skin a bit under- seared. As a result, the fennel slaw and crab cake receive most of my attention.
A trio of desserts rounds out the meal. First, fried peach handpie served with boiled peanut and sorghum ice cream. For me, the dessert conjures memories of childhood trips to the country which often included a stop to procure fried pies and boiled peanuts from some roadside shack. Definitely a creative interpretation of 2 off-road Southern favorites. A second dessert of banana pudding was solid version of the sweet treat, attractively served in a jelly jar with a thick slice of caramelized ‘nanner. My favorite dessert, however was the rhubarb streusel tart – chunks of brown-sugar-sweetened rhubarb peeking out of a flaky, buttery, pastry crust. Mmmm.
Before the meal ends, I ask Chef Taft one final question.
What do you want to be remembered for, what epitaph would you like to see on your headstone?
My philosophy in life is that it’s not about work, money or the things we have, it’s how you live your life and what impact you have on people while you’re here.
Chicken and the Egg
800 Whitlock Ave.; Suite 124
Marietta, GA 30064
Disclosure: My meal was comped by the restaurant.