Chef’s Dish: Suzanne Vizethann on Chopped, Buttermilk Kitchen, & Southern specialities

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Suzanne Vizethann

Suzanne Vizethann

Depending on how long you’ve been following the Atlanta food scene, you might know chef Suzanne Vizethann for a number of things. Most likely, you’ll know her as the owner and executive chef of Buttermilk Kitchen, the deservedly popular brunch spot in Buckhead. If you’ve had your ear to the ground (or eye to the television) for a bit longer, you know that she won an episode of The Food Network’s Chopped! in 2011. And if you’re a long-standing Atlanta foodie, maybe you’ve visited her first venture into the restaurant business: lunch cafe and catering company The Hungry Peach in the Atlanta Decorative Arts Center (ADAC), which she opened in 2008 with partner and friend Conor Hubbard.

An Atlanta native, Vizethann built her career in the city where she was born and raised. After attending the University of South Carolina, she realized her passion for cooking and returned to school in the culinary arts program at The Art Institute of Atlanta. From there, she worked at a slew of local catering companies and well-known restaurants, most notably (and perhaps most influentially) One Midtown Kitchen while the restaurant was being run by Richard Blaise. She did briefly consider leaving the 404, but ultimately decided to stay and open Buttermilk Kitchen. The restaurant has now been open a year and a half, and as she told us, is expecting some big changes in the next year. We’re certainly sticking around to see them.

Woblet: When did you decide that you wanted to open Buttermilk Kitchen?
Suzanne Vizethann: I was on Chopped, the TV show, and I won, and it was an amazing experience. It gave me some confidence and made me realize that I was ready to go to the next level a little bit. And ADAC’s been great, but catering is not really what I want to do. I really wanted more a full service restaurant and a public arena—I realized more and more that I was ready to do my own thing.

W: What made you decide to open a specifically breakfast/lunch/brunch restaurant?
SV: Again, I think just the hours. There’s not many chefs doing breakfast and lunch—hardly any. So I knew there was a need for that, and I knew that would make us different. Dinner’s really competitive, there [are] so many restaurants, so I really think that keeps us busy consistently.

W: Do you feel that between the Hungry Peach and Buttermilk Kitchen you’re able to work creatively enough, since they’re both lunch places?
SV: Yes and no. Where I have a lot more creative control is on the weekends for brunch. On Saturday and Sunday, we only do brunch. And we have our main menu, but then we also have a special brunch menu that has 5 or 6 items and they rotate [weekly]. So we change them really frequently, and those are more creative, chef-driven dishes that I can have fun with. And then we do that once a month fried chicken dinner, and it’s four-course—it’s a fancy fried chicken dinner, we call it. Obviously it’s always fried chicken, but the sides always change, the courses always change, so we do a lot of creative stuff with that. That gets me my fill [of creativity].

Buttermilk Kitchen

Soup of the day at Buttermilk Kitchen

W: Not to mention side projects like [your pop-up dinners with Ben from PorKmans Table] Table on a Whim. Are there any other side projects you’ve got going on that the world should know about?
SV: Not right now, but I think Buttermilk Kitchen will open for dinner in about a year. We’re about to open our patio and probably in the next six months we’ll have a full bar. So I’ve got a lot going on.

The bar at Buttermilk Kitchen

The bar at Buttermilk Kitchen

W: You’re really into the local, sustainable thing here at Buttermilk Kitchen.  What made you want to do that:
SV: I just think as a chef, as a food professional, you should. A lot of people hear the term ‘farm to table’, and it’s become almost this trendy term to say. It’s really not a term, it’s really just a movement we support as chefs. Knowing where your food comes from is really important, and I think that we as chefs and restaurateurs should be able to educate the public on what you should be eating. It’s not a strawberry that comes form Chile or California that’s been sprayed with a bunch of pesticides that’s been on a truck for 5 days. I do think that’s really important.

W: And is that what sustainability means for this restaurant—sourcing from sustainable farms, or is there more to it?
SV: It can mean anything. To us sustainable means moral, that animals have been treated in a humane way. If we’re going to use beef, we’re going to use grass-fed beef. We want to make sure that no antibiotics are used or anything like that. We do that across the board with all of our ingredients.

W: I read that your restaurant has an over-century old starter for sourdough—where did you get that?
SV: My best friend and business partner at the Hungry Peach’s fiancée’s friend— [laughing] it’s kind of a long stretch, so you could say a friend of mine—went on this long trip across the country. They did farm stays everywhere and they were [with] this New Mexico tribe, and this old woman they met working there gave them a 104-year-old whole-wheat starter. And they brought it all the back here, and kept it on ice. When we opened it, they shared it with us. We still have it, and we’ll make all different things with it—sometimes we’ll make a waffle, bread, things like that. It’s pretty cool to have that.

W: As a Southern chef, do you have any tips for how to cook those famously Southern staples like sweet tea and biscuits?
SV: [For our sweet tea] we use organic black leaf tea—you need to start with a really good tea—and then we use raw turbinado sugar, which just tastes better.

W: And biscuits? Any secrets?
SV: We’re very well known for our biscuits. We make more of a drop biscuit, that’s like a batter. Most people lay it out and cut it—we don’t do that, we actually scoop out our biscuits. And then we brush melted butter on them right when they come out of the oven, so they kind of have this crunchy crust to them, to the outside. So it’s different than your normal biscuit.

Buttermilk Kitchen biscuits

Biscuits and jam at Buttermilk Kitchen

W: Do you have a favorite restaurant in Atlanta?
SV: I always get asked this question, but there’s just so many restaurants that I love. The Spence is probably my favorite restaurant right now. Hands down. I think it’s incredible, way underrated. I’m probably partial because I used to work for Richard Blais, but I just really love that style of cooking. I also think the service is excellent, and they have an amazing wine program. That’s definitely my favorite.

W: What’s your favorite meal to cook at home?
SV: I never cook at home, but probably whole roasted chicken with some sort of green, either grilled asparagus or I love sautéed kale and whipped mashed potatoes. I’m half Italian, so I grew up with great spaghetti, so I love making an amazing spaghetti sauce with a tomato-basil platter.

W: What’s your favorite Southern dish?
SV: I love shrimp and grits. And I love corn fritters.

W: What would you do if you weren’t a chef?
SV: I would love to be either a food stylist or an interior designer.

W: Fill in this blank: you are most excited about blank to happen in Atlanta.
SV:  [Silence.]

W: I know, there’s so much going on.
SV: I think, at the moment, I’m the most excited for Ponce City Market. Just to see what happens.  I think it could be really positive for Atlanta.

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Images via (top to bottom) Twitter, Sara Faber, Buttermilk Kitchen. Featured image via Buttermilk Kitchen.

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