Savor the flavor
Athens business owner Peter Dale went from a planned career of Public Relations to working as a chef. Now, more than 10 years later, Dale was named the best new chef of the Southeast by Food and Wine magazine on March 12.
An epiphany, an “A-HA” moment. After two hijacked planes flew into the Twin Towers in New York City in 2001, Athenian Peter Dale gained a new perspective on his life.
“Everything seemed to be changing. I realized I wanted to change what I was doing career-wise and I needed to just do it. It seemed like the world was changing and it was time to do things that were important to you,” Peter said. “I’d always thought I was going to have a white-collar job — I thought that’s what it meant to be successful — (but) I found it unfulfilling.”
Dale studied Public Relations at the University of Georgia. After realizing that was not the direction he wanted to take, Peter transitioned into cooking.
“I definitely had a creative energy that didn’t have an outlet. I wanted to somehow combine what my interests were with something I felt passionate about. (The choice) was just kind of natural, because when I realized I didn’t want to work in an office anymore, I didn’t really think about a whole lot of other careers,” Peter said. “It sort of seemed like food was the natural next step.”
Food has been important to Peter since his childhood, largely due to his family’s emphasis on it as he was growing up in Athens.
“My parents traveled a lot when we were kids and so we got to go on a lot of trips. I was interested in geography and different cultures and so food is a natural component of that,” Peter said. “Athens, in the early ‘80s, was a different place than it is now, so there (were not) a whole lot of other cuisines or cultures represented here, so that was cool to get that exposure at that time.”
Peter also bonded over food and culture with his family each evening during dinner. Peter believes one of the most important things about food is its power to bring people together.
“I was lucky that my family sat down at the dinner table every night growing up,” Peter said. “It forces everyone to come together, which I think is important — food’s what does it. A family may not come and sit together for any other purpose other than eating.”
After this realization at the age of 25, Peter went to Athens business owner Hugh Acheson, who later went on to be a contestant on Top Chef Masters, at high-end restaurant 5 & 10, located at 1653 S. Lumpkin St., and worked as an apprentice under Acheson for several months before taking on a full-time job.
Peter is now the co-owner of both The National, located at 232 West Hancock Ave., and Empire State South, located at 999 Peachtree St. in Atlanta. However, he spends the majority of his time in Athens. Both of these restaurants, along with 5 & 10, serve Southern food with a twist. Peter has a lot of Mediterranean influences in his cooking, thanks to the multiple trips he took to Spain while working at 5 & 10.
“What I liked about Spanish food was its simplicity, you don’t have to do a whole lot to it, you just need really good ingredients and I think that’s an idea throughout the Mediterranean,” Peter said.
For almost five years, The National has grown and become better known in the Athens community. One of the goals of The National is to embody a feeling of community. R.E.M. manager and investor Bertis Downs feels they’re able to do this.
“The National is a small, casual restaurant with great food and a family-friendly atmosphere,” Downs said. “Peter Dale has a deft touch with all types of ingredients — from vegetables to fish to spices and grains — I know of no other place like it and it is definitely my favorite place for a nice dinner in Athens.”
In addition to working at The National, Peter is involved in a project with the University of Georgia concerning their work with the Wormsloe plantation in Savannah, whose goal is to preserve the property both historically and environmentally. By looking at Wormsloe Foundation records, which consist of hundreds of boxed papers at the UGA library, Peter is able to learn about the history of the food and crops at the plantation.
“(Wormsloe is) an old plantation and they have really amazing records, they know everything that was grown. We go look at what was grown on the plantation and even some recipes,” Peter said. “The idea is we may update some of those recipes. Some of those are from the 1700s — it would be nice to update those for a modern kitchen.”
Making connections between the past and the future is important to Dale, as he feels food is always progressing.
“(Food is) not something static. In 20 years, the food that we’ll be cooking will be pretty different from what we’re doing now,” Peter said. “I think it’s exciting because it’s limitless what you can do and it’s sort of an infinite subject.”
Peter is able to transfer his passion for food into The National and try and create a positive atmosphere.
“There’s so much food that comes out of such a small kitchen, that you have
to be friendly with everyone,” Sous Chef at The National, Patrick Stubbers said. “I think that’s one of the best ways that he’s taught me to lead, not only through example, but through just being pleasant and not being grumpy.”
Stubbers has worked with Peter since The National over four and a half years. As Sous Chef, Stubbers acts as second in command to Peter. He feels that Peter contributes greatly to the friendships amongst the staff.
“(Peter) and I have known each other for so long, it’s just fun. We’re just friends in the kitchen, it just doesn’t seem like work half the time,” Stubbers said. “So, working with him. If it seemed like work, I think I’d have a lot harder time with it.”
On March 12 Peter was named as Food and Wine magazine’s best new chef of the Southeast. Stubbers feels Peter’s dedication and positive attitude is apparent both in and out of the kitchen.
“(Peter) sent out an e-mail thanking everyone for their hard work, (saying) it’s not just me, you guys know it’s a reflection of all our work together. I think that’s a solid leader,” Stubbers said.