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