Duane Nutter launched his culinary career on a leap of faith. At 20 years old, he packed everything he owned into his car and left home to work the salad station for a chef he’d seen on TV—Darryl Evans—at the Grand Hotel in Atlanta (now the Four Seasons).
During his time there, Nutter’s perception of the food he grew up with changed completely. Take his black-eyed pea salad, for example. Nutter grew up with his mother and grandmother cooking the legume in as a side in the classic meat-and-three, like hoppin’ john. Under Evans, he learned to cook them with more water for less time and transform them into an accent for a bright salad. “It was where I learned, ‘oh, you can do so much more with food,’” he says.
He quickly worked his way up through the ranks to sous chef. “There I was, 22 or 23 years old, eight employees underneath me, in charge of the whole department.” After splitting his time between the kitchen and open mic nights doing stand-up comedy, Nutter was named the chef and spokesperson of the National Peanut Board, which took him on the road for demonstrations and cooking shows. “I touched every state by vehicle except Hawaii and Alaska in four years,” he says.
From there, the nomadic chef touched down in Louisiana, Florida, and Kentucky before making a national splash at the helm of upscale Atlanta airport mainstay One Flew South. “As I get older, I’m always trying to bridge my past with my present,” Nutter says. Some of the iconic flavors of his childhood have made their way into dishes that represent him as a chef now.
Bourbon evokes memories of his years cooking in Kentucky; stirring it into a maque choux nods to the liquor’s mash bill and the funkiness of the fermentation process. He also considers the concept of potlikker as a unifying factor. Nutter was born in Louisiana but raised in Seattle, where mussels were plentiful. While at One Flew South, he combined them with collards for a signature dish accented with coriander and ginger.
This year marks a sort of homecoming for the chef. After departing One Flew South in 2016 and opening his James Beard Award-nominated Southern National in Mobile, Alabama, (temporarily closed) Nutter plans to return to his Atlanta roots and open a second Southern National in the city’s historically Black Summerhill neighborhood in late 2022.