For nearly 30 years, Fatz has specialized in hearty southern staples. That focus isn’t changing, but the chain is getting a chef-driven upgrade.

Fatz: The Casual Chain with Fine-Dining Chops

Fatz Southern Kitchen is kicking up its quality quotient with the help of a classically trained chef.

Executive chefs who have trained at illustrious culinary schools, worked under such notables as Alain Ducasse, and been invited to cook at the James Beard House do not defect to the ranks of corporate chefs at casual chain restaurants. 

At least, that used to be the case. But lately, to the benefit of both chain and clientele, that wall has been breached, and Fatz Southern Kitchen is one of the companies leading the charge.

With locations scattered across the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia, Fatz recently hired Brian Dukes as its new director of culinary operations. A Knoxville, Tennessee, native, Dukes was educated at Johnson & Wales and cooked in the San Juan Islands (off the coast of Washington state), Virginia, and New York City, where he landed a gig with Ducasse. Regionally, however, he’s renowned for his time at such establishments as Blue Marlin in Columbia, South Carolina, where he reworked Low Country traditions—and caught notice from the James Beard House and other eminent culinary outlets.

Now based in Greenville, South Carolina, Dukes is tasked with applying those same neo-classical Southern ideals to the 45-unit chain, which started about 30 years ago as a humble fruit shed. 

Fatz CEO Jim Mazany, a 25-year veteran of the restaurant industry, joined Fatz’s parent company Cafe Enterprises in 2016. He says the decision to hire Dukes reflects an overall shift in philosophy. 

“Today’s consumer expects quality and creativity and demands consistency. A chef that can excel both in the creation of new dishes and the scaling of those dishes is going to be the key to success for any casual-dining chain,” he says. “Aside from the consumer benefit, it also gives us an advantage in recruiting kitchen talent. Our kitchen managers have the resources and systems of a chain, but also have the ability to learn and train with a chef that would likely not be available to them elsewhere.”

For his part, Dukes says he enjoys teaching the proper techniques to make dishes more flavorful, but in a more efficient manner. That education filtered down through the ranks is proving valuable for everyone from line cooks to servers. 

Dukes develops and disseminates recipes that range from the Blue Ridge Bird Dog Chicken (sweet tea–brined chicken that is slowly roasted with house-made peach whiskey barbecue sauce) to Skillet Chicken Pot Pie with portabella mushrooms, fresh herbs, and a lattice cobbler crust. With these more elevated menu items, he’s also introducing a variety of technical aspects that must be understood in both the back and front of the house. The Calabash chicken, shrimp, and fish are all soaked in buttermilk and then spiced by hand; pickles are brined in store. 

Throughout it all, he’s sourcing ingredients that operators are proud to present at their restaurants: The Fried Green Tomatoes are plated over Adluh cheese grits, which are stone-ground in Columbia, South Carolina; oysters and shrimp are Carolina-caught; and cobblers are made with local peaches. The chain’s signature pimento cheese hails from Spartanburg, not far from the chain’s headquarters.

The hopes that Mazany and Zachary Painter, vice president of marketing, held for hiring someone of Dukes’s caliber proved to have a solid foundation. “The chef must be a good fit for the brand. Authenticity isn’t just a buzzword,” says Painter, a native of South Carolina who was born into a restaurant family. “Brian grew up in the South and has spent much of his career focusing on Southern cuisine.” 

But Dukes acknowledges that he is still learning in this new role. After all, he has moved from running a small group of fine-dining restaurants to leading 40-plus units on a harmonic track. The job has “challenged me to align purchasing strategy with menu strategy, choosing the best times of year to procure products for upcoming menu changes,” he says. 

Fortunately, Dukes has the benefit of a four-year stint at broadline distributor Sysco, where he was a corporate chef. The experience taught him how to avoid such pitfalls as creating overly complicated dishes with too many steps, or not cross-utilizing existing items. 

Dukes finds himself increasingly comfortable, savoring the tutelage provided by longtime members of the Fatz family. 

“We have a lot of 10-plus-year veterans who are very passionate about Fatz Southern Kitchen, [so] as I see systems that work, I share them with other restaurants in the brand,” he says. “I’m working with some successful operators on a taskforce to increase productivity by 5 percent. I find operators have more buy-in when they are a part of the solution.”

Moreover, Dukes, Mazany, and Painter would all recommend this position to other fine-dining chefs looking for a new challenge. Mazany even waxes poetic about having a chef with Dukes’s pedigree in the corporate kitchen. “With the new ‘Southern Kitchen’ brand positioning, we essentially started writing a love letter to the South, and it’s nowhere near finished.”