South's Greatest Chefs, a Q&A
This year’s Greatest Chefs Contest turned out to be cutthroat. With 46 entries, more than 30,000 votes, and a shocking turn that left some of the Lowcountry’s best chefs in the lead, it’s no surprise that citizens of the Hostess City have such a passion for their chefs. We sat down with the top ten winning to pick their brains on the foodie scene in Savannah.
Chef Chaz Ortiz from Chazito’s Latin Cuisine, chazitos.com
How long have you been cooking? About eight years.
Do you remember the moment you realized cooking was your passion? That would have happened when I was a little boy. My family is very, very big, so definitely at our family cookouts. I think my passion came from my grandparents teaching me, and that’s kind of where it hit.
What’s your favorite dish to make? My favorite dish to make would probably be paella. I love seafood. It’s probably one of my favorite things to eat, too. I do a pad Thai paella. Traditionally, it’s a Spanish dish, but I mix in a lot of seasoning and I add in mixes of Thai.
Chef Tommy Dye from Top Deck, topdeckbar.com
How long have you been in the chef game? Well, I’ve been doing this on and off since I was eighteen. I’m 46 now. I’ve been steady with it for the last four or five years.
Do you remember the moment you realized cooking was your passion? Yeah, actually. I went to school for nursing and didn’t like it. I would always watch cooking shows on TV. Right before I decided to go full time and do cookin’, I was actually repairing restaurant equipment. I found myself staring at the chefs and just listening to everything. I remember thinking, “That is stupid. This is what you really need to be doing.” So that’s what I did.
What’s your favorite dish to make? My favorite thing to make would probably be our Salmon Top Chop.
Chef Emanuel May from Bon Appétit at the Savannah College of Art and Design
How long have you been cooking? I’ve been cooking all my life, but professionally for 24 years.
Where did you get your start? Well, my father owned an old-school pharmacy and it had a grill behind it. As soon as I could see over the counter, I was cooking and running the cash register.
Do you remember the moment you realized cooking was your passion? My grandmother Rachel used to cook a lot. I still have her cast iron skillet. She would make fried okra and it was the best thing in the world to me.
Chef Marvin Sterling from Treylor Park, treylorparksavannah.com
How long have you been cooking? The first job I could get was as a dishwasher at Ruth’s Chris here in Savannah. I took it and busted my a-- for a year and a half, and then three years later, I was the executive chef. While I was working there, I took a couple jobs for a seafood place, salad shop, and a couple restaurant jobs to get more experience. I figured, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to go all out. And then Treylor Park was going to open up four years ago, I applied and got the job. Ever since it just took off and we’ve just been cranking it out.
What started your passion? For me, it was at a young age I knew that cooking was something I was kind of good at. My parents both worked when I was younger. I had to cook dinners and I was good at coming up with stuff. Experimenting is my niche.
What’s your favorite dish to make?
Definitely the shrimp and grits tacos. That’s my jam.
If you could only have one meal for the rest of your life, what would it be? I don’t know why I’m such a carnivore, but I love short rib that falls off the bone. I’ll make that at home for me and my girlfriend.
Chef Johnny Smalls from Jazzed Tapas Bar, jazzdtapasbar.com
How long have you been cooking? Well I was the sous chef at Vic’s on the River for six or seven years and I left to come to Jazz’d. I’ve been here for about two years.
What fueled your passion? I grew up with a very large family, so cooking was always a way to bring everyone together. Mom did a lot of cooking. Grandparents did a lot of cooking. So it was always around.
What’s your favorite dish to make? I don’t really have a favorite, but I love to cook fish. Any type of fish.
Chef Peter Schott from Savannah Spirits, savannahspirits.com
How long have you been cooking? I’d say about 30 years.
Do you remember the moment you realized cooking was your passion? I don’t remember the exact moment. I always grew up with cooking. I was always around my grandparents and they cooked all the time. My parents cooked all the time. It’s kind of like I knew when to do it.
If you could only eat one dish for the rest of your life, what would it be? I’d have to say my grandmother’s baked chicken.
Chef Kevin Conway from Local 11Ten, local11ten.com
How long have you cooking? I’ve been cooking since I was 15, so about 14 years.
How did you get your start? My sister’s boyfriend, back whenever she was in high school, was a sous chef. I was looking for a job and started off dishwashing. I was there for about three months, then I started cooking on the fry station, sauté, grill, so on and so forth.
Do you remember the moment you realized cooking is your passion? I was sitting in class at Armstrong. It was my senior year. Classes weren’t going as planned and I kicked back, thought about it, and realized I should be cooking, which is what I was doing a lot of at the time.
Chef Bryce Knott from A.Lure, aluresavannah.com
How long have you been cooking? I’ve been cooking for almost 13 years. I’ve been doing fine dining for almost seven of those. Started off in a very corporate background, Outback Steakhouse, and then I eventually hit a point in my career where I figured this is what I want to do and got into fine dining. Did a little bit of traveling. Spent a few years in New England on Nantucket Island.
Do you remember the moment you realized cooking was your passion? My first season in Nantucket, at the end of it, I was the youngest guy. At the end of the season, on the last day, the chef brought me outside of the kitchen and he gifted me a handmade Japanese chef’s knife. It meant the world to me. I was looking at it like it’s Christmas. He said, “Don’t you dare darken that knife at an Outback.” I said, “Yes, chef.” I came back to Savannah and started at a.Lure.
How long have you been there? Four years. Started as the line cook for about two years, then I was sous chef for a year, and now executive chef for almost a year.
Chef Justin Grizzard from The Ordinary Pub, theordinarypub.com
How long have you been cooking? I’ve been doing this for 18 years. I got hired on my 16th birthday at a restaurant in Virginia and ever since I’ve been cooking and sweating and bleeding and all that.
What fueled your passion to be a chef? To be honest, it’s just because I like to eat. There’s only a few things I don’t like, but I genuinely love being around food. I love creating food. I like surrounding myself with people who like to push the boundaries of what food can be. I’m very fortunate now because I have the best team in Savannah that makes me want to come to work every day. I am so proud of my team. I couldn’t have done any of this without them.
What’s your favorite dish to make? Gumbo is my favorite thing to cook, just because it’s very technical. Everyone knows what gumbo is, but they don’t know what a trinity is, the process of when things should go in. Gumbo seems so simple, yet it’s so technical.
Chef Kevin Nape from Richmond City Center, richmondhillcitycenter.com
How long have you been cooking? I’ve been in it for 37 years.
Do you remember the moment you realized cooking was your passion? It was when I was going through college, working three jobs. I wanted to be an architect, but things just happened.
If you could only eat one dish for the rest of your life, what would it be? Probably oxtails.