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The Heart of a Restaurant

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The Heart of a Restaurant
Written by Catherine Lamb | Photography by Andrew Thomas Lee

STAPLEHOUSE IS ON A MISSION TO INSPIRE ATLANTA’S DINING SCENE

The entrance to Staplehouse, Atlanta’s buzzed-about supper club-cum-restaurant, is around back. To get inside, one must walk up a driveway, wind through an herb-tangled garden, and pass through a glass patio. Right from the get-go, dining at Staplehouse feels intimate, as if you’re heading over to your neighbor’s house instead of a spot named best new restaurant in 2016 by Bon Appétit and nominated for a James Beard Award. It feels personal.

That’s because it is. Staplehouse was the brainchild of Ryan and Jen Hidinger, a married couple who began running a supper club out of their home after relocating to Atlanta from the Midwest. The goal was to build enough buzz and traction to eventually launch into a full-fledged restaurant, but those plans came to a halt when Ryan was diagnosed with stage IV gallbladder cancer in 2012. To raise money for his medical bills, Ryan’s family and friends put on a benefit that raised $275,000. “That was the light bulb moment,” says Jen, one of the current partners and business manager of Staplehouse. “We realized that a backbone of support didn’t exist for restaurant workers, many of whom tend to live paycheck to paycheck.” That realization grew into the Giving Kitchen, a nonprofit that offers financial assistance to members of the Atlanta restaurant community suffering unexpected hardship. In September 2015, Staplehouse opened its doors as the Giving Kitchen’s for-profit subsidiary.

Ryan Smith of Staplehouse in Atlanta

Ryan passed away in early 2014, but his influence—and that of the Giving Kitchen—leaves a looming sense of gravity and importance to every meal of the restaurant. This seriousness bumps up against Staplehouse’s self-professed goal to perpetuate the same feeling of intimacy it cultivated in its incipient supper-club days. “Initially, we were, quite literally, inviting people into our home,” says Jen. “It was all about relationships, and we want the dining experience at our restaurant to feel the same way.”

Chicken Liver Tart from Staplehouse, Atlanta
Plating a chicken liver tart.

Dining at Staplehouse, I certainly feel welcome—and, perhaps more importantly, appreciated—as a diner. The servers chat lightly, yet take our experience seriously; they describe each dish in approachable detail. When we ask about the process behind the duck dish’s burnt garlic crisps, thin and brittle as stained-glass, our server inquires to the chefs and gives us a detailed run-down. Even our food runner knows that the potato bread, a recipe from the chef ’s grandmother, Lillian, was made with a thirteen-year-old sourdough starter. “We try to honor the story of our farmers, our kitchen, our food, and the story that is Staplehouse,” says Kara Hidinger, Ryan’s sister, a restaurant partner and general manager. “The service staff has the unique opportunity to take that energy and love and put it in the guests’ hands.”

Smith doesn’t mind mixing business with personal life. Because honestly, Staplehouse has always been personal. “It works because there’s a lot of purpose behind this project,” said Smith. “We’re all part of a bigger picture.”

At Staplehouse, there is a sense that staff is actually invested in the place, a rarity in the mercurial world of food service. This commitment applies to no one more so than Ryan Smith, who, in addition to holding the title of head chef, is a partner in the restaurant (and married to Kara). Despite the inevitable risks and challenges of working with family, Smith doesn’t mind mixing business with personal life. Because honestly, Staplehouse has always been personal. “It works because there’s a lot of purpose behind this project,” said Smith. “We’re all part of a bigger picture.”

Chef Ryan Smith of Staplehouse in Atlanta
Chef Ryan Smith

After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America and working at Atlanta hotspots, like Restaurant Eugene and Empire State South, creating the menu at Staplehouse gave Smith an opportunity to forge his own culinary style. Many dishes are vegetable forward, exacting, and often light—a clear mark of Ryan’s influence. After his diagnosis, he and Smith both became invested in healthier, more modest eating.

Most of the restaurant’s dishes take several days to create, multiple obscure ingredients, and an arsenal of equipment. It seems safe to assume even the most adventurous home cook wouldn’t attempt to recreate his dishes. And they shouldn’t.

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Corn ravioli, fromage blanc, onion, cilantro

What sets the food at Staplehouse apart is how minutely the chefs attend to every detail of each dish, from the fermented fromage blanc on the heirloom tomatoes to the burnt garlic crisps on duck confit, thin and brittle as stained-glass. Deeply toasting and salting the pecans that topped the dessert of chocolate cake, nutty buttercream, and cocoa-rich sorbet pushed the dish from good to spoon-scrapingly excellent. Smith’s exactitude, his flat-out refusal to overlook any aspect of a dish, keeps each bite interesting. Any cheffy techniques or ingredients serve to prop up the essence of the dish, not overtake it. And somehow, like any talented artist, he makes it look easy—though the process has been anything but.

The Staplehouse team knows what they’re doing is difficult: In a city undergoing a culinary renaissance, they are trying to create a wholly original—yet wholly familiar— dining experience. And they’re doing it with an agenda. “We go into this every single day knowing that regardless of our sense of purpose, we’re putting something together that is unique in Atlanta food. And it is not going to be for everybody,” acknowledges Jen. “But it’s our baby, and that’s one of the neat things: it’s changing constantly.” As with any child, there will be growing pains, both for the staff and the diners. But in the end, there will be love— because family is family, and at Staplehouse, you’re part of the clan as soon as you let yourself in the door.

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From left to right: Jen Hidinger, The Restaurant's jack of all trades, Chef Ryan Smith, General Manager Kara Hidinger