ATLANTA HAS PLENTY OF AMBITIOUS CHEFS,
BUT ANNE QUATRANO IS THE CITY’S UNDISPUTED GRANDE DAME
Twenty-three Southern chefs wearing hard hats huddle around a table. Some chop. Others stir. Still others rush to and fro between them, grabbing a plate or returning a seasoning. They are wearing hard hats because they’re in a construction site. Come spring of 2014, the site will be Atlanta’s Ponce City Market, a Sears building turned city hall turned massive mixed-use development. But at the moment, the structure is far from finished, and the chefs are trying to cook using a generator-powered oven.
Anne Quatrano walks among the chefs, her hair in a ponytail, glasses on her face, an apron covering all but her brown leather shoes. She helps The Glass Onion’s Sarah O’Kelley place pickled South Carolina shrimp on Anson Mills farro. She watches carefully as acclaimed cookbook author Virginia Willis drops hard sticks of bread into mason jars. She smiles as Cardamom Hill’s Asha Gomez requests a photo with her. Every chef here has come at Quatrano’s request, to be a part of her event called New South Family Supper. In a room full of culinary leaders, she’s the undisputed queen.
A large partition separates the chefs from the diners, each of whom paid $350 to experience a meal that incorporates one dish from each cook in attendance. The proceeds go to the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA), an organization of which Quatrano is an active member.
The meal is about to begin, but not before twelve female farmers wearing floral headdresses and carrying scepter-like branches parade in front of the room to thunderous applause. “This night celebrates the theme of women, work, and food,” SFA Board President Angie Mosier tells the crowd.
In a far corner of the room, her head leaning against a wall, Quatrano watches the procession and claps.
The Queen’s Beginnings
Anne Quatrano is described as many things. An empress. A trailblazer. The single most important force in Atlanta’s farm-to-table movement. She owns a staggering four of Atlanta’s most celebrated restaurants—Bacchanalia, Quinones, Abattoir, and Floataway Café—plus Star Provisions market and deli. All this in an industry in which men outnumber women an estimated seven to three.
Quatrano’s younger sister Frances, who manages Bacchanalia, has a description of her sister too: bossy. “My mother says Annie came out giving orders and she never stopped,” Frances laughs. “I like that about her.”
Anne Quatrano grew up in Fairfield, Connecticut, where she became interested in cooking watching her grandmother, aunts, and uncles on her father’s side. She eventually enrolled in the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and worked for Judy Rodgers of Zuni Café fame. “That’s just when Alice Waters was starting Chez Panisse,” Quatrano recalls. “Chefs were having this kind of affair with products that were fresh from the ground. Judy was so passionate and knowledgeable about it. She had a big influence on me.”
A Royal Partnership
It was during those years that Quatrano met Clifford Harrison, who was also enrolled in the academy. They didn’t have a class together until the last semester of their senior year, and Harrison made a dubious first impression. As Quatrano remembers it, Harrison was in a huff about something, and he winged a ladle full of demi-glace into the test kitchen sink. As it so happened, the ladle’s cup was facing up, and it splattered him with the rich brown ooze. “I thought it was super funny,” Quatrano says. “He might have been mad, but he ended up laughing about it.”
The two became friends, and after graduation they drove across the country to start their careers—his in Nantucket, hers in New York. They kept in touch, and during one of Quatrano’s visits to Nantucket, they became a couple. “I think we decided we kind of wanted the same things and thought maybe we could get there together,” Quatrano says.
They eventually ended up in New York, where they worked as a team at Bimini Twist, La Petite Ferme, and The Grolier Club, all the while trying to infuse farm-to-table logic into their kitchens. Then Harrison started talking about the Quatrano family farm outside Atlanta in Cartersville, Georgia, and how great it would be if they could live there and actually grow much of what they cooked. Despite Quatrano’s lackluster memories of summer vacations to the farm (“flies, heat, and chores,” she recalls), she agreed to give it a go. They came to Atlanta, opened a little restaurant called Bacchanalia in 1993, and gave Atlanta’s food scene a permanent jolt. “When we first moved here, there were very few farmers who brought product to us,” Quatrano recalls. “Now there are hundreds.”
Many say that’s because Quatrano created a market for them, buying large quantities of things like Georgia strawberries that were four times as expensive as their California-grown alternatives. As Quatrano’s restaurant portfolio expanded, so did her need for fresh produce, meats, and cheeses. “I don’t feel like I went out and preached it,” she says of eating locally. “What I did was I went out and bought it.” Quatrano estimates she spends between $2,000 and $3,000 a week on regional products.
Steven Satterfield, chef-owner of Atlanta’s Miller Union and a James Beard Foundation Award finalist, credits Quatrano with ushering in the city’s farm-to-table movement. “Anne was a pioneer in Atlanta,” he says. “Her focus has always been on sourcing the best ingredients first, and local, seasonal ingredients have always been important to her.”
Quatrano and Harrison live on their own sixty-acre working farm, where a full-time manager cultivates everything from edible nasturtiums to giant mustard seeds. Fulfilling the couple’s career-long dream, much of what they grow winds up on their diners’ plates.
But not everything is dreamlike. Quatrano says she worries a lot about staying in the black. It might sound surprising for a restaurateur with five-star reviews and full waiting lists, but Quatrano says her overhead is a killer. “There are formulas for how restaurants work, and ours is always a little lopsided because the ingredients we purchase are very expensive,” she says.
Quatrano handles the money end of things, selecting everything they buy: She chooses which farmer to purchase heirloom tomatoes from (Celia Barss of Woodland Gardens Organic Produce); the dog toys to sell at the store (hemp bones from Harry Barker); even the restaurant supply company from which to buy paper (Restaurant Depot on Ellsworth Industrial). She also reviews all the menus at Bacchanalia and Quinones, manages the sandwich list at Star Provisions To Go, and spends “an inordinate amount of time” going over Abattoir’s menu with newly minted Executive Chef Brett Ashcraft. The one restaurant she leaves mostly to her husband is Floataway Café, though she does all their bookkeeping too. “I’m a micromanager; I’m not going to say I’m not,” she says. A typical day for her starts at nine a.m. and ends at ten p.m., “which isn’t so bad,” she says. “It used to be sixteen- or seventeen-hour days, always.”
Quatrano says she envisions a time “in twenty years or so” when she and Harrison will slow down and hand off their restaurants to the next generation. They’ll hang out on the farm, Harrison will grill their dinners, and they’ll spend time with their dogs (they have nine). Quatrano regards her animals like children; she once kept a chicken who’d been born with a bad leg in a cage away from the others for seven years so he’d live a long, bully-free life. “She just went out there and sat with that chicken almost every night,” Frances recalls. “She gave it its own water and its own feed. Any other farmer would have had that chicken in a bucket of warm water.”
The Velvet Hammer
Before Quatrano retires, there will be at least one more restaurant to open—she hints about creating something in Ponce City Market—but she says she’s less interested in expanding her territory than she is in preserving it. She gets offers all the time to open restaurants in other states, but she thinks it’s important to interface with her staff on a daily basis and doesn’t want to manage restaurants in which she doesn’t know each employee’s name and background.
Plus, Quatrano likes what’s happening in Atlanta’s dining scene, calling the city “the center for food in the South.” She says she’s glad the barrier of entry to restaurant ownership is lower than when she began, even if that means she has more competitors. “When we first moved here, unless you spent a couple million dollars, people didn’t pay attention to what you were doing,” she says. “We came along and didn’t do that and eventually people paid attention to us. Now I see a lot of restaurants opening that are really fantastic, and a lot of times people are pulling it together themselves and it’s not costing that much and people are paying attention to it.”
As she looks back on what she and Harrison have built, she knows some might accuse her of being dictatorial along the way. In fact, she doesn’t deny it. “I used to be mean as sh**,” she laughs, adding that she’s gotten softer over the years and a little more willing to delegate.
“I call her the Velvet Hammer,” Frances says. “She’s gentle but firm.”
Quatrano says she still finds amusement in the way others refer to her. “They always say ‘she.’ Sometimes I’m in my office and I’ll overhear [staff members] saying, ‘Do this, it’s what she wants,’ or ‘Here’s what she says,’ or ‘Where is she?’” Quatrano says. “I’m like, she?”
Her sister laughs. “There’s only one she here.”
Celebrating A Humble Host
Bowls of shrimp and grits created by Restaurant Eugene’s Linton Hopkins are passed around the New South Family Supper. Atlanta songwriter and activist Doria Roberts gets the crowd clapping with her acoustic tunes. Candles flicker. Glasses clink. When servers enter with the grand finale—vintage cake stands topped with strawberry cakes by Mosier—the entire room starts to clap. Then the chefs file in, and the whooping starts. Mosier takes to the microphone and thanks “Annie” for putting the whole event together. The room rises to their feet. Embarrassed, Quatrano gives a small nod and then hurries to the back.
Plates are cleaned. Tables are broken down. Chefs are thanked. Farmers still wearing their floral headdresses begin to leave, clutching their leafy scepters. They have full days ahead of them tomorrow; business is booming. When the construction site looks like a construction site again, Quatrano silently collects her things and walks to her car. It’s been a long day, and it’s time to go back to the farm.