In November, when Thanksgiving is celebrated, Americans are eager to bite into the turkey, sweet potatoes, squash, and apple pie, as well as the rest of the holiday’s traditional fixings. “Seasonality in food should have the same anticipation,” says Gerry Klaskala, co-owner and head chef of Aria in Atlanta. “We shouldn’t be eating peaches in September, grown in South America. It’s not natural.”
Under the direction of Chef Klaskala, the menu at Aria pays tribute to the seasons, to the excitement each new harvest brings to the table. While there are mainstays, much of Aria’s menu changes nightly, depending on what’s in season and found at the farmer’s market in the eatery’s neck of the woods. Chef Klaskala’s method sets an example for how a restaurant can leverage seasonality to create a riveting menu.
“The creative process starts with the elements,” Chef Klaskala says. “I like for it to happen somewhat naturally, using seasonal, traditional, and previous touch points, but with a bit of a twist.”
For example, instead of a traditional Pasta Carbonara, Chef Klaskala offers Stinging Nettle Pasta alla Chitarra. The chef combines the pasta with Aria’s house-cured pancetta, English peas, and Parmesan Reggiano. He also adds a soft-cooked farm egg, topped with crispy potatoes cut into shards.
Waiting for ingredients to become available from nature brings a sense of adventure to the menu development process. While it’s temping to start thinking about corn and tomatoes, which are poised to harvest, Klaskala is keeping the kitchen focused on spring.
“We just lost ramps and Vidalia onions, but butter beans are now coming in,” Chef Klaskala says. “I like to feel the rhythms of the seasons, keeping a culinary clock connected to a farm-table perspective. There’s a certain excitement seeing the first strawberries showing up down here in March, as opposed to seeing them in November, when they come from a different hemisphere.”
Chef Klaskala looks to the strawberries that are harvested 40 miles from the restaurant, which are red from inside out, minus the white center found in strawberries picked too early because they have to travel.
Chef Klaskala’s approach to food is also realized in the way he prepares proteins, an approach he’s used since the restaurant opened in 2000. It’s a slow cook that requires skill, patience, and time. The braised beef short ribs, the single most popular dish on the menu, are cooked for hours, as are the pork shoulder and the duck legs, allowing for incredibly tender bites of meat.
“When we started the restaurant, there was a lot of flipping in the pans, sautéing,” Chef Klaskala explains. “There wasn’t a lot of cooking where you started [preparing] the meat at 2 p.m. to be available at 5:30 p.m. It takes a lot of time to create those brooding flavors, that silky meat that melts in your mouth.”
Calling his menu for Aria modern American cuisine, Chef Klaskala’s focus is ultimately toward the guest experience. “We try to stay connected to our customers but not appear boring, to offer a fresh look at food, without making it too much about us.”
By Joann Whitcher