Chef: Peter Dale
Restaurant: The National (Athens, GA)
Background: Five & Ten (Athens, GA); La Broche (Madrid); La Lobera de Martin (Zaragoza, Spain)
Education: University of Georgia
Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from them?
My mom is Ecuadorian and my father’s Greek, so it’s always been normal to eat foods that are different from everyone else’s. Growing up in Athens, Georgia, we ate a lot of Aouthern food at friends’ houses. But what we ate at home was very different. My dad also traveled for work; we’d sometimes get to go with him. We’d always seek out unusual food. Even though our hometown is called Athens, it doesn’t have a Greek restaurant. So we’d always seek out a Greek restaurant when we traveled.
It was also a huge gift to get to go to Ecuador to visit my mom’s family in the summers. My mom’s sister is an amazing cook. She’s had a catering business at various points, and she makes beautiful cakes. In Ecuador, I would sit and watch her cook. I’m not sure if there’s a specific skill I learned from her, but she gave me an appreciation of being in the kitchen.
How did you go from PR to cooking at Five & Ten?
After I graduated, I worked in PR in D.C. Then I came back to Athens and worked at the University of Georgia. None of that was clicking. I decided to give food a try and volunteered as an apprentice at Five & Ten. I started out three days a week, doing basic prep and butchery in the afternoons, then shadowing the garde manger cook at night. They paid me with dinner; at 9 p.m. they’d cut me and I’d go to the bar and order my food. I’d get the coolest thing they were making that night. After about three months, the garde manger job opened, and I started working my way up from there.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
I started cooking for myself at college in the mid-1990s. This is embarrassing, but it was a bruschetta, which was really exotic at the time. This was before Athens had farmers’ markets, so I bought everything at a grocery store—French bread that I brushed with olive oil, toasted, and topped with sliced tomatoes, fresh basil, crumbled feta and more olive oil. I totally impressed my friends. I got it out of a magazine. This was before the Food Network had gotten to our little town’s basic cable package, so no one had any expectations of that sort of thing, especially not from a college student. My friends were all eating ramen noodles, and not the good kind of ramen.
And what is the best dish for a neophyte home cook to try?
I think people underuse their crockpots. I don’t know about other parts of the country, but here everyone gets a crockpot when they get married—the same one with that ugly country pattern. They’re so underutilized! Dust it off and set it on the counter. Throw in a pot roast or pork shoulder before you go to work, with some aromatics, some chicken stock, maybe even a jalapeño pepper for spiciness, and it will be ready to go when you get home. Make a salad, a starch, and you have a delicious dinner!
Favorite cookbook of all time?
Moro: The Cookbook by Sam & Sam Clark. I had just started cooking at Five & Ten when my parents and I went to Scotland. One of the Two Fat Ladies owned this cookbook shop in Edinburgh and I dragged my parents there. She wasn’t there, but I got to talking to another woman working that day. I told her I was starting to cook and was continuing on to London the same trip. She told me to eat at Moro and buy the book. I did both. They helped me put a lot of pieces together. I’d been to Spain, and had Greek heritage, and loved the Middle East and North Africa, but I’d never thought about putting it all together. I came home from that trip and realized the foods in their book, like okra, peppers, tomatoes and eggplants, all grow well in north Georgia. I could do something seasonal and regional with a Middle Eastern accent. Which is what I do at The National.
What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
I like that combination of Middle Eastern flavors with Southern ingredients. We’re doing a warm salad right now of seared okra tossed with chickpeas, topped with ground lamb from a farm down the road that we heavily spice with Middle Eastern spices. We garnish it with yogurt, harissa hot sauce, torn cilantro leaves, scallions and almonds.
Do you have time to pursue any hobbies outside of cooking?
There’s a trapeze studio here in town called Canopy Studio, where they teach you aerial dance on hanging silk fabrics like in Cirque de Soleil. It’s totally out of my comfort zone, when I’m up there I’m not graceful at all. But it’s a great workout. And a safe place! At the restaurant, all day long people are asking me questions. At the studio, I don’t have to have any answers. I get to ask all the questions.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
I want to make these croquetas that you find at tapas bars in Spain. They’re supercrusty on the outside, molten with béchamel on the inside, with Serrano ham. I’d never been able to get them right. I’d love to have them on the menu.
What is your current food obsession?
I’m trying to be healthy. There’s a new juice bar near my house, and I’m on the verge of getting a juicer and juicing at home.
What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how would you use it?
Don’t be afraid of canned beans. They’re supercheap, a great source of protein, and they’re ready when you are. Sometimes at home I’ll cook canned pinto beans with butternut squash, poblano peppers and cumin for a spicy chile, which makes a great side dish on a cold day, especially with that pork shoulder that you’ve made in the crock pot. I love chickpeas on a salad, or a black bean relish with corn and tomatoes makes a great summertime room temperature side dish for a cookout.
Best new store-bought ingredient/product, and why?
I’ve been in love with cane syrup recently. There’s Steen’s cane syrup from Louisiana, which has great dark caramelly notes. Locally, Yellow Gale cane syrup is made by two friends of mine. Their families live in south Georgia and grow cane. Around Thanksgiving, they juice it and boil it to make the syrup. You can use it in sweets, of course—at The National we do a baklava with Georgia ingredients, so instead of honey we use cane syrup, walnuts and pecans instead of pistachios. You can make a great glaze for carrots, or for chicken thighs or pork. You can almost take it in an Asian direction.
If you were facing an emergency and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, what would you make and why?
A good knife, some waterproof matches, olive oil, Maldon sea salt and some lemons. Then I’d find a river and fish.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
I have this obsession with pomegranate-flavored dairy kefir. I’ll buy that in a quart container and drink it out of the fridge.
Your favorite snack?
My guilty pleasure is peanut M&Ms. Our building holds two businesses: Our restaurant and an art house movie theater. During down times, the servers will get a snack from the concession stand, like popcorn or Junior Mints. I can resist all of those except the peanut M&Ms.
Who's your chef idol and where would you take him or her to dinner?
Yotam Ottolenghi. I’d love to hang out and pick his brain. Maybe we could go to Jerusalem and I’d let him choose. The places I get superexcited about are usually those hole-in-the-wall places, the mom-and-pop rustic spots that no one knows about.
Best bang-for-the-buck food trip—where would you go and why?
Austin comes to mind. I went about a year ago and had an awesome time. We went out to Lockhart, for brisket and all kinds of barbecue at Smitty’s. Then Austin has the food trucks, this really great French bistro that feels very Texas called Justine’s. I remember having this huge, delicious rib eye for $25. I don’t know if it’s because it’s Texas and the cows are all there, but $25 for a rib eye that good is hard to beat.
What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
Some terra cotta cazuelas that I picked up in Spain. You can get them anywhere, but I loved that I managed to pack them into my suitcase and they didn’t break. They remind me of my time there. I still bake and cook with them. You can put them on a burner on low heat.
If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
When I’m in a hurry and need to pick something up to eat it in the car, it’s so hard to find something tasty or wholesome. I’d love to do some sort of dine and dash place with really tasty, wholesome, fresh food. Because we’re all on the go and sometimes you don’t have an hour and a half to eat lunch.