From the age of two, Jonathan Kallini has been into food. The South Florida native grew up watching his grandmother make his breakfast and lunch everyday more about that in our Q&A below) and would turn what he saw her do – as well as what he learned from cookbooks –into creating meals for his family.
That drive to learn continued at Purdue University where he majored in hospitality and tourism management and was mentored by Carl Behnke, the university’s president’s chef, who introduced him to the inner workings of a production kitchen.
But the college lessons weren’t enough. So, after graduation, he went to the Culinary Institute of America which included an externship with Anne Quatrano’s Bacchanalia in Atlanta. In 2010, after graduating CIA he returned to Atlanta where, just four days into his move, Quatrano named him pastry chef of Floataway Café. This, despite having relatively little pastry experience.
Always a hard worker, Kallini worked within the group to establish a pastry program at Abattoir, and eventually took on a joint savory-sweet sous chef role at Floataway.
To expand his horizons, he moved to Copenhagen in 2013 to work at Noma, where he relished in the spirit of experimentation and excellence. After a few months there, he moved back to the U.S. where he staged at The French Laundry for a brief period before returning to Atlanta in 2014 where he took on the chef de cuisine position at Bacchanalia.
Three years later, Kallini was executive chef at Bacchanalia, where, in addition to his rooted tasting menus, he’s worked to build a mentor-based environment to develop his team and support the Atlanta food community.
Symrise caught up with him between his many responsibilities to talk inspiration, Instagram and why he loves the simplicity of three ingredients.
Symrise: What inspired your love for cooking?
Jonathan Kallini: My grandmother. Both my parents worked very long hours, so she spent a huge amount of time raising me. She would cook my breakfast and lunch every day, and I would watch her do it. So, when I was around 2-years-old, my grandmother came into the kitchen one morning and found me standing on top of a stool in front of the stove trying to cook my own eggs. I guess it all kind of went from there.
Symrise: What about a favorite cookbook? Did any books inspire you?
Jonathan: I have a gloriously dog-eared copy of The French Laundry cookbook that I have read and re-read countless times. I taught myself how to cook out of that book and it influences everything I do to this date. I have so many cookbooks, easily in the hundreds, and yet if I’m ever in a drought of inspiration, I fall back to The French Laundry.
Symrise: Where do you get your inspiration?
Jonathan: Aside from reading, nothing quite inspires as well as throwing yourself into an unfamiliar environment and experiencing new things. Travel to a new city, see how other people are doing things – even if you don’t desire to emulate what you find, you’re surrounding yourself with different approaches and philosophies.
Symrise: Did your upbringing influence your cooking style or philosophy?
Jonathan: My father always told me that if you love your job, you never work a day in your life. Life has taught me that, even if you love your job or your career, a 12 to 16-hour day is still work, no matter how much love is involved. I will say, though, that my father had it mostly correct; It might be work, but the love makes it possible.
Both of my parents instilled in me that education is paramount, and that there can never be a finite amount to learn. So, I wanted to plunge myself into a field that is constantly evolving, and make sure I focus on constantly educating myself and improving.
Symrise: Do you feel you have an advantage having had experience on both the sweet and savory side?
Jonathan: I absolutely consider it a massive advantage in the kitchen. Originally in culinary school, I had wanted to complete a baking and pastry degree after my culinary arts degree. However, financially, it just wasn’t going to happen. So, falling into a pastry position right out of culinary school gave me the opportunity to educate myself on the same topics.
It is a completely different skill set on that side of the kitchen, and honestly, it was a few years before it stopped being frustrating. You spend years practicing a particular set of skills and techniques, and every day you don’t use them, you begin worrying that they’ll atrophy. So, once I finally overcame that mental obstacle and embraced what I was doing, it was a much smoother path.
Baking and pastry require, in many but not all cases, a more accurate touch. There’s more science involved, obviously – everything is weighed and measured. It doesn’t lack any degree of artistry or finesse, but I feel like there are certainly more rules.
I think one of the most valuable aspects of my experience in pastry is that I don’t have to worry about being intimidated by any preparation in our restaurant. I’ve made everything here, from when I re-established our entire bread program two years ago, to the ice cream bases in our retail store. I’ve made single origin chocolate bars starting from the raw beans.
I think a huge part of being a leader in any situation, not exclusive to kitchens, is that you need to be able to do everything that any of your crew can do, and ideally, do it better and faster. In kitchens specifically, if you can’t do everything you expect your cooks to do, then you’re not in a position to teach, and a chef who cannot teach has no right to the title.
Symrise: What are some of your favorite ingredients to work with and why?
Jonathan: I’m incredibly spoiled by our company’s farm, Summerland. I get photos constantly of everything growing, letting me know what’s about to be harvested and what’s going to be coming in the next day. Being able to cook produce that’s just come out of the ground and has never had its flavor muted by a refrigerator is a luxury few get to enjoy. So, right now as I answer this question this, it’s July and tomorrow morning Summerland is going to be sending in six different types of heirloom tomatoes, fresh horseradish root, shishito peppers, baby zephyr squash with their blossoms intact, and herbs and flowers from the tea garden as garnishes. So, those are my favorite ingredients right now.
Later this week, my forager is bringing me fresh wild sumac, and as soon as that walks in the door, that’s going to be my favorite ingredient. Really, it’s not about the ingredients specifically, but in how special every ingredient is when it’s pristine and in its perfect season. You can get a strawberry year-round nowadays, but nothing is as special as a perfect berry that hasn’t been overwatered and is still warm from the sun when you get to eat it.
Symrise: Do you see any trends towards any specific ingredients or cooking methods at the moment?
Jonathan: Grains and seeds are going through a resurgence right now. Porridges, puddings, and grain salads are certainly getting more popular as quick lunch options. I think a lot of what has sparked that is effective marketing regarding health benefits. At the end of the day, grains are healthy, satisfying, and more important than almost anything, especially in lunch operations, quick and easy to grab and go.
Symrise: What's the coolest technique you've learned from another chef?
Jonathan: I have no idea what’s cool – let me start with that. My cooks are still asking me how to ferment things, and I learned that in my time at Noma. I figure if they’re younger than I am, and they’re asking, maybe that’s still cool?
In my opinion, I had a lot of cool things taught to me. How to temp meat properly, how to cook fish, how to clarify a consommé so many different ways -- I still get a kick out of every time I force hydrate cut micro herbs in an open ice bath in a chamber vacuum. They just get so crispy and take on an amazing translucent appearance… it’s, I guess, pretty cool, to me at least.
Symrise: What about any words of wisdom from a fellow chef that stuck with you?
Jonathan: “It’s just food. You’re not saving lives.” I imagine most people would answer that question with a quote that was uplifting or inspiring, something that’s gotten them through rough times. I was told that by a chef years ago when I was having a bad night, when a service went poorly and, because I care about my craft, I was upset. Turns out, that put me in a worse mood. To me, that’s the equivalent of saying, “Who cares? What you do with your life doesn’t matter.” So, that’s a quote from a chef that was spoken with good intentions that has pretty much inspired me since then to prove it wrong. I’m not planning on saving lives with food, but I’m trying to improve them with it.
Symrise: What chef would you like to collaborate with and why?
Jonathan: I think I would really enjoy the opportunity to work with John Shields (www.johnshields.com) [co-owner and proprietor of Gertrude’s Restaurant at the Baltimore Museum of Art who is often called "The Culinary Ambassador of the Chesapeake Bay.”] I’ve followed his career for years, since Town House in Virginia, and I’ve always admired his style and cuisine.
Symrise: How would you describe your style of cooking and how would you say you've evolved with it over time?
Jonathan: That’s probably the hardest question for me to answer. I don’t know what kind of food I cook, and I have the hardest time trying to even figure out how to classify it. My safe answer is “Contemporary Southern,” and I have no idea what that means – it just seems to satisfy most people asking. My cooking is esoteric – I have a good memory, and I have a lot of cookbooks to say the least. So, if I’m looking at an ingredient, I’m constantly thinking of ways I’ve seen it utilized in any number of books in any number of different cuisines.
I would say that I’m less afraid of adapting the flavor profiles of my Egyptian father’s cooking than I used to be. I am trying to steer away from making everything quite so French, but there’s still an association with French technique and elegance in fine dining, so I try not to abandon it entirely.
Symrise: What would your advice be to your younger self? Or for up and coming chefs?
Jonathan: Go for it. Take chances, and don’t ever convince yourself you’re not up to a challenge. Failure isn’t an end to a story – it’s a starting place. Fear of failure should never justify not making an attempt.
Symrise: What are some foodie Instagram’s you follow?
Jonathan: The vast majority of my feed is filled out with Michelin-starred chefs, just as a way to see what those more accomplished than I am are doing. Aside from the chefs, however, I follow a few food bloggers who travel to restaurants that I am just unable to visit. ElizabethOnFood, who just recently retired from her blogging, was a constant source of new information for me. Her posts introduced me to restaurants and chefs I’d never before heard of. Similarly, I’ve recently started following TheGluttoner, who similarly posts photos from amazing meals, so I have been living vicariously through his posts.
Symrise: What's a favorite dish on your menu and why?
Jonathan: So, two years ago, I took some pears that my sommelier harvested off of his father-in-law’s trees and fermented them into a perry. I then took that perry and distilled it into an eau de vie. That eau de vie has been aging on a few intact pears and charred white oak, for a different eventual purpose. The cooler part is that I took the leftover mash, post-distillation, and reduced it down to a syrup. I have been aging it for two years, and just as of last week, I finally tasted it.
It has an amazing sweetness and depth, like the craziest, oldest balsamic mixed with sorghum. So, the simplest dish on the menu right now is showcasing that. It’s paired with Summerland Farm tomatoes and fresh burrata. I cannot emphasize enough how much I love its simplicity and perfection, but at the same time utterly hate that it’s just looked at as a caprese. Three ingredients, no garnish – it’s perfect. Just please don’t call it a caprese.
Symrise: A menu item you'll never remove and why?
Jonathan: Bacchanalia has been around for 25 years. It’s an evolution, as any restaurant needs to be. However, one dish has remained on the menu in various forms throughout the years. It’s the iconic crab fritter. Some of my predecessors have tried changing it, putting their own spin on it, making it their own, but it’s not theirs – it’s the restaurant’s.
So, one of my changes a few years ago was returning it back to its original, unchanged format. It doesn’t need to be changed – it represents the history of this restaurant and all it has accomplished in this city.
Symrise: What's the food scene like in Atlanta? And how do you think you're making an impact?
Jonathan: Atlanta is growing. There are a lot of hungry cooks and chefs here who want to make their presence known. There are a lot of chefs here who want Michelin stars as well, despite the fact that we’re not in the bigger cities. I’m trying to make an impact by educating those around me, starting with my cooks and my servers, and then by their experience at Bacchanalia, educating the guests as well.
I want people to take risks on the menu, venture outside their comfort zones, and experience combinations of flavors and quality of ingredients that were beyond what they have previously encountered. I want to foster an appreciation for quality food in the community that makes people realize that good food is actually worth paying for.
Symrise: Where do you like to eat when you're "off duty?"
Jonathan: When I’m not at work, I tend to spend a lot of time on Buford Highway, an area densely packed with various ethnic communities. I spend a lot of time in the Korean areas, as I have a huge appreciation for Korean cuisine. It’s not what I enjoy cooking professionally, but it’s just very satisfying to eat. Also, if I’m under the weather, nothing gets me feeling normal again like kimchi jjigae.
Symrise: Who are other chefs you admire and why?
Jonathan: I’m pretty sure that, based on my bio, my favorite book, and every other interview I’ve ever done, the obvious answer is Thomas Keller. He epitomizes everything I’ve wanted to become as a chef. When I graduated from the CIA, I was asked to speak for my class. I chose to quote two chefs in that speech. One chef inspired me to get into this industry and appealed to my 16-year-old self – Anthony Bourdain. The other chef was a paragon towards which to aspire, and that was Keller for me.
Header Image Credit: StarChefs