January 27, 2003

Cooking up a new taste

By Michael Terrazas mterraz@emory.edu

Longtime patrons of Houston Mill House can rest assured: Peter Downs makes a mean crab cake. But he’s hoping they’ll also try his roast quail.

Since its transformation into a restaurant in 1980, Houston Mill House (HMH) had only employed a catering service to prepare the food that has become not only a lunchtime staple for Emory and the surrounding community, but also welcome fare for innumerable weddings and special events. Last fall the venerable house broke with its own tradition and for the first time hired an executive chef—and it didn’t have to look far to find him.

Downs had spent the previous year working as executive sous chef—the kitchen’s second in command—at Druid Hills Country Club. HMH Manager Ginny Trump has a friend who works at Druid Hills, and this led her to invite Downs to apply for the job at HMH.

“Peter is pretty daring,” said Trump, adding that Downs and another finalist were asked to prepare tastings as part of the interview process. Downs served a roast quail salad with bleu cheese, Granny Smith apples and spiced walnuts over greens topped with roasted quail. “Not everyone would serve roast quail at a tasting; I just liked Peter’s initiative and his willingness to take a chance.”

Downs said he is free to take chances with perhaps 70 percent of the HMH menu; the other 30 percent is reserved for the signature dishes patrons have come to expect, such as crab cakes and sesame chicken.

“I sort of put my own play on the dishes that had to stay,” Downs said.

A 1990 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Downs’ “own play” has been honed through years of working in four-star hotels and Mobil-rated restaurants, alongside such renowned chefs as David Burke, Michael Kornick and Michael Foley.

But being an executive chef is about more than just cooking. At HMH, Downs is ultimately responsible for both the quality of the food and the cost-effectiveness with which it is prepared.

“You need to be able to step back and have a big-picture view,” Downs said of his new job. “As a sous chef, you’re a little more in tune with directing the staff, but as executive chef you have to be able to troubleshoot things before they happen. The executive chef has to see everything all the time.”

Still, every day, including weekend special events, Downs is in the HMH’s tiny kitchen alongside his crew of a half-dozen. “This is it—there are no more cooks,” Downs said. “If we don’t do it, it doesn’t get done.”

But Downs said he prefers it that way; small kitchens require protean cooks who can (and are willing to) move from the prep table to the grill to the finishing line, all without missing a beat. “There’s no room around here for the prima donna who ‘only sautees,’” Downs said.

As someone who’s risen to the level of executive chef, Downs can afford to be magnanimous; he has survived and even triumphed over the long and often grueling process to which aspiring culinary professionals are subjected: the odd and unfailingly long hours, the meager compensation, apprenticing (sometimes for free) with established chefs to glean invaluable wisdom about food, flavors and pairings. Not all of his contemporaries are so fortunate—or, perhaps, so resolute.

“A lot of people drop out,” he said. “Of all the people I graduated culinary school with, each year there are fewer who stay in the field at all, much less stay cooking.

“Is it a vocation? Yes,” he continued. “A trade? Yes. But, like a young electrician, it takes years to master your craft.”

Indeed, Downs came south from Chicago in 1999 expressly because he was ready to take the next step. In one way, Atlanta is a better market for trained chefs than bigger cities like Chicago and New York because there is less competition; it can also be more challenging since there are fewer truly world-class restaurants. Still, while here visiting family some years ago, Downs ate at one of Atlanta’s finer offerings—Canoe, located on Paces Ferry on the Chattahoochee River—and, after proposing to his now-wife, Käthe, made the decision to relocate.

He took a job as executive sous chef with Bold American Food Company (the upscale catering division of the Fifth Group Management Company, which boasts such restaurants as South City Kitchen) and worked events like Super Bowl XXXIV in 2000, the High Museum’s Wine Auction and Ford Motor Co.’s Beastly Feast fund-raiser for the Atlanta Zoo. In 2002, he moved to Druid Hills Country Club and a year later found himself preparing roast quail salad for Trump and host of Houston Mill officials.

“This was a big undertaking for us; we could not afford to fail,” Trump said. “We think it’s worked out just great. We’re starting to get returns, people coming again and again, so we’re thrilled to have Peter.”

“Even though it is so closely linked with Emory, I think of Houston Mill House as an independent operation,” Downs said. “I think like a restauranteur, and we try to run this like any other independent business and make a profit.

“We’re just trying to reidentify what it means to come to Houston Mill House and what you can expect when you come.”






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