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The Golden Onion

US (GA): 12 chefs reveal Vidalia onion versatility

Twelve Georgia chefs will soon reveal new layers of their own talent as well as the versatility of the famous Vidalia onion.

The inaugural Golden Onion professional cooking competition will be held on Sunday, April 22, 2012, in Vidalia, Ga., as the official kick-off to the 35th Annual Vidalia Onion Festival. This new professional cooking competition showcases the Vidalia onion, Georgia’s official state vegetable, and also offers a new platform for chefs across Georgia to display their skills and creativity.

From the mountains to the coast, fine dining to casual eateries, new business ventures to long-standing community mainstays, the 2012 roster of chef competitors represents a cross-section of Georgia restaurants and cuisine:

Chef Jamie Allred, executive chef at Lake Rabun Hotel & Restaurant in Lakemont, Ga., launched his culinary career at age 20 by working as a dishwasher at Chetola Resort in Blowing Rock, N.C. He quickly worked his way up to line cook. Having discovered his life’s passion, he later enrolled in culinary school at Asheville-Buncombe Community College (AB-Tech) in Asheville, N.C. His resume includes stints at The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, Fla.; Eseeola Lodge in Linville, N.C.; Ophelia’s World Café in Asheville, N.C.; and Zebra Restaurant in Charlotte, N.C. Originally from Winston-Salem, N.C., Allred has been in his current position since 2010 and, as a fan of garden-to-table Southern fare, instituted Featured Farmer Thursday nights. "When Vidalia onions are in season I substitute them in everything I make with onions," he says. "They give my steaks sweetness, my sauces depth, and my fresh salsas and relishes a mild sweet crunch without overpowering them."

Chef Costanzo Astarita, executive chef at the new Fig Jam Kitchen & Bar in Atlanta, Ga., is originally from Italy’s Island of Capri. When his food-centric family immigrated to Bermuda, he honed his skills at The Bermuda Culinary School and later in the United Kingdom. In 1989 he settled in Georgia and became the food and beverage director at Château Élan in Braselton, Ga. After revamping the resort’s culinary program, Astarita decided to realize his dream of becoming a business owner. Along with business partner and fellow countryman Mario Maccarone, Astarita launched C+M Gastronomy Group, which includes the restaurants Ciao Bella, Baraonda, Publik Draft House and his newest concept, Fig Jam Kitchen & Bar. Astarita follows his father’s mantra: "Serve the best and freshest, in-season ingredients available. Keep the recipe simple, and let the ingredients stand out in each dish." He adores "the flavor and versatility" of Vidalia onions.

Chef Brian Jones, chef de cuisine for Atlanta Grill at The Ritz-Carlton, Atlanta is a native of Chamblee, Ga. He began his culinary career at Carbo’s Café in Buckhead, and then moved on to The Ritz-Carlton Buckhead. Other notable restaurants on his resume include Watershed, Canoe and the 1848 House in Marietta. Jones grew up cooking alongside his grandmother and aunts, appreciating authentic Southern dishes made from daily harvests of the family gardens. He brings that heritage to his menus that brim with varieties of local and regional produce. He is particularly fond of "the first of the year spring Vidalia onions," he says. "They are extremely versatile and lend themselves to any application. Another element that I like is the uniqueness of the product itself and the story behind the onions and what they mean for our region."

Chef Justin Keith, executive chef at Food 101 in Sandy Springs, Ga., is a Georgia native. Raised by a single mother who encouraged his help in the kitchen, at age four Keith shocked his babysitter when he had Pillsbury cinnamon rolls cooked, iced, and ready on the table when she arrived. After high school, he cooked in several restaurants on St. Simons Island before attending Valdosta State College, earning a degree in Management while cooking and managing a local restaurant part time. He later graduated from the Scottsdale Culinary Institute, an affiliate of Le Cordon Bleu, in Scottsdale, Ariz. His resume includes stints at Tarbell’s and Eddie Matney’s in the Southwest as well as The Horseradish Grill and Meehan’s Ale House in Georgia. "The flavor of Vidalia onions is fantastic and a wonderful accompaniment with so many other ingredients," he says. "I grew up eating Vidalia onions and have always enjoyed cooking with them."

Chef John Mark Lane, executive chef of Elements Bistro & Grill in Lyons, Ga., was born in Charleston, W. Va. He launched his culinary career at age 15, working as a dishwasher at Café Society in Charlotte, N.C. Within a year he’d progressed to sous chef and was creating lunches. By age 16, Lane decided that he one day wanted to cook great food at his own restaurant. A graduate of the Culinary Arts program at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, N.C., he worked at several restaurants including Trio Restaurant, Charley’s and Sonoma Bistro in Charlotte, N.C., and then took some time off from cooking before opening Elements Bistro & Grill in October 2007. "I like cooking with the Vidalia onions because of the sweet flavor," he says. "The onions are very fresh and caramelize well. They are so versatile to use in dishes ranging from meats to cheesecakes."

Chef Jared Lee Pyles, executive chef at HD1 in Atlanta, Ga., earned his kitchen stripes while living in Auburn, Ala., by working at local restaurants in a variety of roles from running the front of a restaurant to making pizza. Having settled on pursuing a culinary career, the native of Oxford, Ala., enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Atlanta. While completing his studies he worked at Atlanta’s Kyma, moving his way up from commis to saucier. Later working at Woodfire Grill, he learned the art of whole animal butchery and charcuterie, which he ranks among his proudest achievements. Next he worked at Home and later FLIP burger boutique with Chef Richard Blais, both in Atlanta. Pyles was then tapped to help Blais conceptualize the menu for HD1, where he now helms the kitchen. "I love working with Vidalia onions,” says Pyles. “Growing up my father gardened and they remind me of the fresh, natural taste of his straight from the garden vegetables."
Chef Todd Richards, chef de cuisine for The Café at The Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead, Atlanta, Ga., has also worked at The Ritz-Carlton, Atlanta (Downtown) and The Ritz-Carlton, Palm Beach, Fla. His resume includes stints at The Oakroom in Louisville, Kentucky’s only AAA Five-Diamond restaurant; One Flew South, the first fine dining restaurant at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport; and Rolling Bones BBQ, where he was chef/owner and which was named one of the "Top 10 New Barbecue Restaurants in America" by Bon Appétit. Chef Richards has appeared on Iron Chef America and on NBC’s Today Show. He was named one of "Four New Chefs to Watch in 2012" by Esquire Magazine. "The best part about cooking with Vidalia onions is that you can taste how natural the product is," he says. "Vidalia onions have a great mineral-like quality that lets you know they were grown in the proper soil, with the proper amount of care. That genuine care for the onions makes it very simple to please any guest at any time. I'm very happy when I use Vidalia onions because they don't take onions for granted."

Chef Austin Rocconi, executive chef for Le Vigne Restaurant at Montaluce in Dahlonega, Ga., graduated from the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena, Calif. Prior to his current position, he worked in kitchens at Kyma, BLT Steak and Canoe restaurants in the Atlanta area. Rocconi favors locally-sourced cuisine and hyper-seasonal ingredients; at Le Vigne he incorporates ingredients from the restaurant's garden as well as from regional purveyors. "The most appealing aspect of the Vidalia onions is obviously the sweetness that offsets the expected harshness of other yellow sweet onions," he says. "The subtlety of the onion flavor really creates a more versatile product whether cooked or eaten raw. When caramelized, the Vidalia onion creates such a sweetness that sugar is not needed to balance some sauces such as tomato sauce. Vidalia onions, tomatoes and ramps are by far my favorite seasons of the year and something I always plan around."

Chef Dave Snyder, owner and executive chef of Halyards in St. Simons Island, Ga., first gained cooking experience during his high school years in Michigan. He continued cooking while attending college at the University of Georgia in Athens, Ga., and later graduated from the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont. He then gained experience working at several New York City restaurants, including Les Celebrites in the Essex House Hotel, Union Square Café, The Mark Hotel and Zoe. Returning to Georgia, he worked at Azalea in Atlanta for a brief time before joining J Mac’s Island Restaurant on St. Simons Island. Now as chef and owner of two restaurants, his goal is to develop a team that will enable Halyards and Tramici to expand into a family of restaurants. He enjoys cooking with Vidalia onions, he says, "because of the very individual flavor they have as well as being a Georgia product."

Chef Marc Taft, owner and executive chef of Chicken & The Egg in Marietta, Ga., earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Alabama and then began his career working for the restaurant companies Carlson Hospitality and Brinker International. He has since served as general manager for The Inn at Evins Mill in middle Tennessee, B.A.N.K Restaurant in Minneapolis, Minn., Domaso Trattoria Moderna in Washington, D.C. and Pacci Ristorante in Atlanta, Ga. Taft has also worked as the concept development director for Al Copeland Investments, where he helped develop the Copeland’s Cheesecake Bistro concept, and has held executive chef and corporate chef positions. His experience also includes a stint as the director of food and beverage for the Sheraton Music City Hotel in Nashville, Tenn. Most recently, Taftserved as Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants’ director of restaurant operations for the Southeast region where he was responsible for overseeing several restaurants including renowned Area 31 in Miami, Fla., and Central 214 in Dallas, Texas. About Vidalia onions, Taft says, "the flavor profile makes them easy to blend into dishes because they compliment other ingredients so well; they’re also fantastic alone."

Chef Hilary White, owner and executive chef of The Hil On the Hill: A Restaurant at Serenbe in Chattahoochee Hills, Ga., grew up in rural Shelby, Ohio, and is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. She spent much of her early career working with Atlanta’s Buckhead Life Restaurant Group and earned particular recognition when, in 2000, she was named the company’s first female executive chef at the award-winning 103 West in Buckhead. When later selecting a location for her own restaurant, she was drawn to the Serenbe community’s collective commitment to sustainability. She opened The Hil in 2007, with her husband, Jim, and her mother, Sandy Pitsch. White has garnered attention in Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Garden & Gun, The New York Times, Atlanta Magazine, Creative Loafing and many others. She is an active member of Les Dames d’Escoffier, Southern Foodways Alliance and Georgia Grown. Whenever possible, she likes to work on her farmer’s tan and get her hands dirty working at Serenbe Organic Farms. White adores Vidalia onions’ "sweet flavor, crispy texture and the fact that they come from Georgia."

Chef Richard Wiggins, executive chef of Spice Market at W Hotel Atlanta-Midtown in Atlanta, Ga., spent his adolescence working in his father’s family-run restaurant. Opting to pursue a culinary career himself, he started as a cook at the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress in Orlando, Fla. He was quickly promoted within the Hyatt Hotels Corporation to banquet chef at the Grand Hyatt Atlanta. His growth continued and he was promoted to chef tournant at the Hyatt Regency New Orleans, La., and later transferred to the Grand Hyatt Atlanta. In 2006, he joined Starwood Hotels and Resorts as garde manger chef at the Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa in Hollywood, Fla. He was promoted to executive sous chef and spent nearly four years at the resort before returning to Atlanta to lead the Spice Market kitchen at the W Atlanta-Midtown. He says that he enjoys "the sweetness and ability to manipulate the flavor" of Vidalia onions.

About the Golden Onion
The Golden Onion professional cooking competition challenges 12 Georgia chefs to create and prepare recipes featuring Vidalia onions. Competing chefs will have one hour to prepare and present their recipes. Lead chefs are eligible to compete, and have the option to work with one assistant. Dishes will be judged on the basis of taste, presentation and creativity. Failure to feature the flavor of Vidalia onions or making last-minute changes to the recipe that was submitted during the application process may reduce a chef’s final score. Judging will be blind. The First Place champion will be presented the Golden Onion trophy to hold for one year along with a cash prize of $500. The trophy must be surrendered the following year to the next winner. The second place winner will receive $250 and the third place winner $100. All winners will also receive commemorative plaques. The Golden Onion competition will be held at the Vidalia Community Center, 107 Old Airport Road in Vidalia, Ga. The event is open to the public starting at 12:30 p.m. Advance tickets cost $5 per person or $10 at the door. For details visit www.vidaliaonionfestival.com.

For more information:
Ingrid M. Varn
Vidalia Area Convention & Visitors Bureau
Tel: +1 912 538 8687

Kelly Hornbuckle
Georgia Restaurant Association
Tel: +1 404 467 9000

Stefanie Paupeck
Georgia Department of Economic Development
Tel: +1 404 962 4075

Hope S. Philbrick
Freelance Writer & Editor / Golden Onion Judge (1 of 5)
Tel: +1 404 323 4699

Publication date: 4/5/2012


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