After a convincing season-opening win against the Clemson Tigers on August 30, the Georgia Bulldogs became one of the trendy favorites for a national title run. Chef Eli Kirshtein, an Atlanta native and die-hard Bulldogs fan, knows a few things about living up to the hype. A charismatic, free-spirited contestant on Top Chef: Las Vegas, Kirshtein captivated a national TV audience in a similar fashion. As if impersonating UGA star Todd Gurley in the open field, Kirshtein ran with the buzz, opening The Luminary, a sophisticated French-American brasserie, before any other business this past August at the much-discussed Krog Street Market in Atlanta’s Inman Park. We were able to catch up with the 30-year-old toque recently to get his thoughts on restaurant ownership, the city’s culinary scene and, of course, SEC football.
There are a lot of new retail developments around the city. Why was Krog Street Market the perfect one for The Luminary?
I’m very passionate about the city. Being born and raised in the city and having grown up in the city — not in Alpharetta or anything — I have this really great passion for the city. There’s an interesting cultural dynamic that goes on here. Unlike any other city, there’s a huge combination of everyday culture mixed with music mixed with sports mixed with everything else that you don’t see in other cities. I think that the BeltLine corridor is really the epicenter of all of it. I live in Cabbagetown and I really love this part of town because it’s the most historic. There really aren’t a lot of tear-down-and-put-up-a-new-high-rise things in this part of town. You still have the cotton mills and this building [where The Luminary is] was built in the 1800s. We were really excited to be in a place that had history tied to the city. Outside of being a shipping house for the Stove Works, it used to be home of the AIDS [Memorial] Quilt. After that, it was Tyler Perry’s movie studio. So, it’s got this multifaceted Atlanta thing. It was great for us to tie ourselves to the city’s history and not just something that could be tied to any city anywhere.
Are you pleased with the direction Atlanta’s dining scene is going?
Absolutely. Having started as a cook here [at Buckhead Diner] when I was like 15 years old, there were only a few big restaurants. They were Buckhead Life [Restaurant Group] sort of things. That’s before even Bob Amick was rolling. That’s when he was still at the Pleasant Peasant. It’s really cool how much it’s grown and how much individual chefs get recognized. Oftentimes, when you see these cities, there’s one chef who’s like “the guy,” and everybody talks about how great the food scene is. Everybody’s talking about how awesome Pittsburgh is now. There aren’t a lot of big names there. But this city’s actually done really well. I don’t know how we’ve been able to do it, but we got so much great, organic press on our own that it became a natural thing. That just tells me that people are interested in what’s going on here. I do think it’s the Capital of the South and people are hot on the South right now. They’re realizing how awesome it is.
When a person comes to The Luminary, what do you want them to get from the experience?
The one thing that I really focused on with this restaurant was that I wanted it to be something for the neighborhood first — and the Greater Atlanta second. I want everybody to come in and feel welcomed but I wanted it to be for the people who live right here in the Old Fourth Ward, Inman Park and Cabbagetown. I’m always looking for a sense of time and place. When you come, you feel like you’re in Inman Park that night, eating that food and it’s appropriate. I’m not trying to recreate a meal that I had in Bangkok; I’m trying to create a meal that they’re having in Inman Park right now. I really want people to leave feeling like they’re in a comfortable part of their community that really resonates with them and is an extension of everything else that’s around.
I know you’re a big football guy, too. Instead of giving me your SEC title favorite, though, I want to hear about any sleepers in the conference.
First of all, if it’s involving [the] Florida [Gators], I imagine that they’re probably going to finish last. I hope that they’re going to keep [head coach] Will Muschamp forever. He gives me such great fun. They lost to Georgia Southern. Georgia won the national title just on that [result] alone. I think that you’re really going to see Ole Miss. They’re going to have trouble in the SEC West, especially with Alabama, but their defense is legit. They have a couple of good Georgia boys — the Nkemdiche brothers [Robert and Denzel]. They got a really serious defense that I think is going to be really good. Now, last year, I was saying the same thing, and they got whopped in Oxford [Mississippi] by Alabama. But I really think they’ll have a good run at it. In the SEC East, I don’t really think that anybody’s got a chance to beat Georgia because we got the best running game in the country. Gurley is the best running back and we got, like, 17 other five-star running backs.