Chef Peter Dale Talks Mediterranean Food and Ecuadorian Chocolate
Georgia native chef Peter Dale’s eclectic body of work is influenced in no small part by the fact that his mother is from Ecuador and his New York-born father is half Greek. After interning at La Broche in Madrid, Peter settled down in his hometown of Athens where he works alongside James Beard Award winner Hugh Acheson at The National, the highly acclaimed restaurant they co-own. Peter also runs the Seabear Oyster Bar, and his newest concept is Condor Chocolates, a beans-to-bar attempt at capturing the unique flavors of Ecuadorean cacao. Peter spoke with us about the unique food landscape of Athens, the global appeal of Southern cooking, and the special challenges of dealing with artisanal chocolate in the heat and humidity of a Georgia summer.
KaTom: Tell us a little bit about your background and your journey to becoming a chef.
Peter Dale: It wasn’t the most direct, most common route, for sure. I grew up here in Athens, which is a college town. My dad is a professor, but he actually grew up in New York State, came down here for grad school, and ended up staying on the faculty here at the University of Georgia. He met my mom in Ecuador while he was travelling.
Athens is a pretty great place to grow up because it has a great community. My next door neighbor growing up, his family was from Georgia. His grandparents lived out in the country. I got to go to his grandparents’ all the time and they’d have these really traditional Sunday suppers, and I got to experience this really amazing Southern food. They had a big vegetable garden next to their house, so there’d be fresh butter beans and cornbread – the whole thing. While that wasn’t my parents’ background, I was exposed to it, and it was a really beautiful thing to see that connection to the land and eating right out of a garden and eating seasonally.
Then at the same time, we would travel a lot. We’d go to Ecuador to visit my mom’s family. Obviously, the food is quite different there. Today, Mexican food is really common and there’s a lot of Hispanic influence in the U.S., but at that time, in the early ’80s, there wasn’t. I remember when I was a kid, the Kroger grocery store down the street got cilantro for the first time. My mom was just blown away: “I can’t believe they have cilantro in Athens, Georgia!” Now cilantro is common. You wouldn’t even think it would be something unusual.
I also have family in Spain, so when I decided to start cooking, food from Spain was really appealing, just from having visited there. Also, my dad is half Greek, so I really have all these different angles. Even as a kid, for special occasions like Easter, we’d always have lamb. That wasn’t super common in Georgia at the time. We’d have a leg of lamb. I just grew up with those Mediterranean flavors, so that was always appealing to me. When I started cooking, I gravitated to Spain and the Mediterranean diet.
What I like is that a lot of what you work with in the Mediterranean diet grows really well in Georgia – tomatoes, eggplants, and olives. So there are certain times of the year, like late summer, when you can create a representative Mediterranean meal and be very much farm-to-table and eat seasonally. I think that’s pretty cool.
People in the Southern Mediterranean regions eat okra. That’s something we think of as Southern comfort food – fried okra or stewed okra and tomatoes, but you can prepare okra in different ways, with different spices. I think that’s really fun – to present something that’s a comfort food to people in the South, but present it with a twist. I think they can relate to it, but I try to give them something a little different.
K: You grew up in Athens, so it makes sense that you’d settle down there, but what is it about Athens, Ga., that fosters such a thriving food scene? You work with Hugh Acheson. What attracts a James Beard award winning chef to Athens?
PD: In order to make it happen, you have to have a supportive community that’s going to patronize your restaurant. Athens, above all, is really loyal to its hometown folks. It’s got an independent spirit, and its people are just incredibly loyal and supportive. When Hugh started Five and Ten, it was definitely different from anything else that had been in town before. There were really good restaurants, places that were really popular. A lot of college towns will come to have that. You know, you go to school and graduate and have this nostalgia for the places you have in college. But I wouldn’t say there was a foodie culture yet. I guess Hugh started that.
He was always taking advantage of everything we have around us. It wasn’t just this place in Athens, but all over the country we weren’t yet paying attention to what was growing and available around. When he started, there weren’t as many small farmers that were growing to sell at farmer’s markets and restaurants as there are now.
The cool thing about Athens is that there’s a lot of students that go to the University of Georgia – whether they study agriculture or not – they stay around Athens, and now we have a tremendous number of farms and a really thriving farmer’s market. We just have a lot to work with as far as what we’re serving on our plates that’s locally grown. We’re really spoiled, and I think that side of it is more developed than in similarly sized cities. So we’re really, really lucky for that.
Then also because it’s a college town, people travel a lot. Just having food that’s really thoughtfully prepared maybe reminds them of travels that they’ve taken. They really responded well to that.
K: Speaking of the role of place in cuisine, I want to get your perspective on a phenomenon I’m calling the “Southern food diaspora,” by which I mean the distribution of what is considered traditional, Southern food across the United States, and across the world even.
PD: Brian Dunsmoor, whom I cooked with at Five and Ten, has a place called Hatchet Hall in L.A. that’s been a huge success. It’s really Southern; he grew up in Georgia. It really tickles me that in L.A. of all places you’ll find pretty legit Southern food. I think Southern food in a lot of ways is comfort food and it tastes good. It’s satisfying and rich, and has a lot of soul to it. I think it translates well to anywhere. And then I think the South is really intriguing to a lot of people, even people outside the country, through movies and music. I think there’s a lot of intriguing things about the South in popular culture that people probably want to connect with and food’s a great way to do that.
Southern food is authentic. It’s not pretentious. It’s just accessible. It’s something you can eat every day. It can be white tablecloth, but it doesn’t have to be. Some foods are beautiful but inaccessible. There’s Michelin stars and a heavy price tag. Southern can be really beautiful when it’s elevated but it can also be served on a Styrofoam plate and eaten in any context.
K: Tell us about the inspiration for your chocolate shop, Condor Chocolates. What inspired you to start doing chocolate and what’s different about starting a chocolate shop compared to the restaurants you’ve opened in the past?
PD: The idea was born when I went to visit family a couple of years ago. I always like to bring back a couple of little gifts for the folks back at work. In Ecuador, they grow a lot of bananas and a lot of cacao. Those are their two big export crops. Everybody loves chocolate, so I thought I’d just bring back Ecuadorian chocolate.
When I was a kid and we would go, there was a brand of chocolate that we really loved and it just has this distinctive flavor that I haven’t tasted elsewhere. So I went to go look for this chocolate bar. It would come in this beautiful foil wrapper with this beautiful old-school design. When we went to look for it, we found out that that chocolate company had been bought out by Nestle and they didn’t even make that bar anymore. I couldn’t bring back a Nestle bar and say, “Here’s a gift from Ecuador.”
I just didn’t find any quality chocolate that was presented in a way that I could present as a gift. At that time, Mast Brothers had just got started and they had beautiful packaging. A chocolate bar could have a nice presentation about it. It was single-origin and really had a sense of place like wine or coffee. I was sad that I didn’t find that in Ecuador at the time, but that’s changed even just in the past year or two. I came back with this nagging thing that someone needs to be doing something with Ecuadorian cacao, which is the raw material that becomes chocolate.
My brother was working for a big company. I think he was kind of burned out and he really wanted to do something entrepreneurial. He’s always been a tinkerer, making his own machinery. He’d also baked a lot and he makes his own bagels. So one day he was like, “I kind of want to do something on my own.” So I said, “Why don’t you do something with chocolate?” He kind of ran with that idea. There’s not a lot of at-home chocolate making equipment. It’s all kind of big, industrial scale, so he tinkered and made some equipment and started processing beans at home and making chocolate and he really loved it. It was delicious and so after a while we said, “Let’s do something with this.”
Food in a restaurant is temporal. You have to be in Athens, at a restaurant eating it and once you’re done, the experience is over. What I like about getting into this big production space is that we can take what we’ve created here in Athens and send it elsewhere. So people can have an Athens experience and not physically have to be in Athens. You’ve got some really good breweries and coffee roasters here and there’s other categories where that idea fits.
We wanted to have a retail shop and a place where people can get together and eat chocolate and drink coffee. Everyone’s always happy in a chocolate shop. It’s always really good vibes and smiling faces.
Retail’s a whole new world in terms of accounting things and business things. In a restaurant, if I get some fish, a piece of meat, or vegetables – it’s out the door in a day or two. But once you process it, chocolate lasts a whole year. You kind of sit on big inventories, and it’s very seasonal. Christmas, Valentine’s, and Mother’s Day – that’s kind of like your whole year. It’s a whole different way of thinking from a business perspective.
Our goal is to produce chocolate bars that we wholesale outside of Athens. We’ve got a new production space that’s not open to the public. At our original location we produce chocolate and it’s an open space. It’s a café and you can watch the chocolate being made. But we weren’t making enough chocolate to sell what we needed in the shop and also to sell outside the shop in a meaningful way. So, we now have an offsite space where we have another production line.
There’s been a lot of things to learn. Chocolate doesn’t like humidity. As you can imagine, Georgia is a pretty humid place in the summer so we’ve had to buy a lot of dehumidifiers. Our building is in the Five Points part of Athens, which is a beautiful, historic neighborhood. But the building we’re in is an apartment building with storefronts on the bottom floor and apartments upstairs, and it’s heated with steam, so these steam pipes run all around our space. In the winter, we actually have to crank a lot of A/C, because chocolate doesn’t like to be very hot either, and our space is too hot, oddly enough, in the winter. So there have been challenges that we’ve had to figure out, but it’s been a blast. They’re cranking away right now trying to get ready for Christmas.
K: What else would you like readers to know about your work?
PD: I have this little oyster bar. We take a lot a care in sourcing and working with farmers. The Georgia oyster industry used to be a really big deal, but it went away about 50 years ago. We’re trying to do our part to help them rebuild that industry. We try to do a lot of good work, but ultimately we want to be a place where you can come in and eat, or have a drink, or eat chocolate. And if you want to know the story behind the food, we’d be happy to tell you about it.
I don’t tend to put a lot of names on the menu or where things come from. I try to limit that, but our servers can tell you everything you need to know. Ultimately we just want you to come, forget your cares, and enjoy good company, good food, and good drinks. All that other information is available, but I don’t like shoving it down anyone’s throat. We’re in the hospitality industry. We’re here to make people happy, and that’s the bottom line.