Eli Kirshtein: The Southern Jewish Chef Reviving French Cuisine
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Eli Kirshtein has a chance to put his stamp on Atlanta’s food scene, and maybe he doesn’t even need anyone to watch his back.
In 2009, Eli Kirshtein was the 25-year-old phenom on Top Chef. Stout and deadpan, with thick-rimmed glasses and gelled hair that he sometimes coaxed into a mohawk, Kirshtein made an impression. At one point, his beloved pressure cooker — a duct-taped thing abused by baggage handlers — exploded over him and a rival. Later, tasked with “deconstructing” sweet and sour pork, Kirshtein presented a pair of dirt-brown spheres on a square plate, claiming they were pork rillettes, fried tempura style. It was a risky move, but…
“I’m actually liking the pork balls. A lot,” said judge Tom Colicchio. Another taster concurred: “There’s something a little bit unhealthy and unpleasant in sweet and sour pork, and that comes across in this. And I think it’s a good thing.”
Five years later, Kirshtein is tackling a challenge that’s far riskier than the possibility his pork balls won’t fly: He’s just opened The Luminary, a French-inspired brasserie in a kudzucovered warehouse district in Atlanta. The foodies have been salivating for months. Kirshtein is an Atlanta food personality, a prodigal son who came back home after stints in New York and Europe and even a cameo in a Spider-Man comic (more on that later).
Treacherous territory, even for a native son: In this ever-aspiring city, the haute spot du jour can as instantly chill to last night’s leftovers. That Kirshtein’s is called The Luminary only raises the stakes, as does the advance praise: Zagat just named it one of the 12 Hottest French Restaurants in America. The Luminary could be a launchpad for Kirshtein, a place to invent a stable of new classics. Or it could just be a flash in the pan — like his Pompano “Amandine.” (It uses pecans with browned butter, not almonds.)
Two weeks in, the brasserie is buzzing with business, and Kirshtein appears to be keeping the lid on this pressure cooker. And though being any chef, let alone a Top Chef, requires more than a dollop of hubris, Kirshtein comes off as modest and mild mannered. He recoils at the notion that he’s the luminary, and not the restaurant. “No. I hate that; I’ve been asked that before. I don’t put labels on myself,” hastens Kirshtein. Except: “I’m a born and bred, self-loathing Jew,” he says, drily.
…waitstaff might come back in the kitchen and make fun of the guest. If they do that, then they’re basically a prostitute who’s just taking the money.
— Eli Kirshstein
Kirshtein named the brasserie for Atlanta’s earliest newspaper, established in 1846, shuttered in 1848. Less-confident entrepreneurs might have feared a jinx, naming their dream-come-true after a failed enterprise. Especially in Atlanta, where too often restaurateurs surrender faithless customers to a spanking new eatery on the block.
Kirshtein has chosen to put his head on a block most unusual: The Luminary sits among graffiti- and kudzu-covered warehouses in Atlanta’s new food hall, Krog Street Market. It’s no Buckhead, the glitzy ’hood where conventioneers can be counted on to prop up mediocre restaurants. This area takes some getting to, and parking isn’t easy, either, unless you’ve just walked off Atlanta’s new BeltLine. Then again, sweaty shorts and tank tops would be gauche.
The menu, he says, is not French — it’s French-inspired. There are classics like duck au poivre and steak frites, but also a fine, light catfish brandade and “Expat Snacks,” like shrimp toast with sweet pickles. Though Zagat claims a French food revival is underway in the U.S., Kirshtein is readying the staff for the occasional ordering faux pas. “Some of our guests are going to mispronounce menu items,” Kirshtein says. “Typically, the waitstaff might come back in the kitchen and make fun of the guest. If they do that, then they’re basically a prostitute who’s just taking the money.”
No snobbery, then. (Note the chicken wings on the menu.)
Kirshtein’s certainly known scorched-earth playgrounds besides his stint on Top Chef: Las Vegas. Kirshtein trained at JOËL, in Atlanta, while at the Culinary Institute of America. After graduation, he joined Richard Blais at ONE Midtown Kitchen, then ventured farther south to Karu & Y in Miami, before returning to his beloved ATL as executive chef at Eno. He hit pause to compete on Top Chef.
I surround myself with an inner circle that doesn’t allow for negative energy. I take input when it’s prudent, but the rest is just white noise.
— Eli Kirshstein
He didn’t dream of being a chef, he wandered into it — but early. His private high school required he have a part-time job. That suited his restlessness. He’d been working on race cars when he became “fry guy” at the Buckhead Diner at age 16. Soon he landed stints with chefs Richard Blais and Kevin Rathbun, who became mentors.
Kirshtein’s kitchen is shiny and spotless as he picks over chanterelles, leaving the slightly less desirable in the box. His fingers are as rapid as his speech, never a pause, never a moment’s reflection as he preaches his refrain of “staying positive and staying focused.”
Kirshtein moves onto monkfish prep. “I surround myself with an inner circle that doesn’t allow for negative energy. I take input when it’s prudent, but the rest is just white noise,” he says. Small, less-lovely pieces of white flesh fall fast to his knife and he weighs again. His sous chef, Billy, works quietly in another corner, but he chimes up quickly when I ask what makes Kirshtein angry.
“Everything!” says Billy. He sounds like he’s joking, kind of.
Kirshtein grabs the reins of the chatter. “But I’m more even-keeled now, more neutral; there’s more levity. Billy’s worked with me a long time, he knows. I used to be more high-strung, more aggressive, but now I focus hard on staying calm.”
He attributes his inner peace to his wife, Andrea, who is a pastry chef. They married last year, on a farm north of Atlanta; the groom and his men wore blue jeans. (The bride was traditionally attired.) “My wife has given me a lot of balance, to stay focused on what matters most. I used to get pissed off at random stuff.”
This chef seems so earnest that it’s hard to imagine him starring in a Marvel comic, Spider-Man, A Meal to Die For. How did that happen? A friend, C.B. Cebulski, worked at Marvel. “He’s a big foodie. We’re just shooting the shit one day in New York and he said, ‘So you wanna be in a Spider-Man cartoon?’ Why not? At the time, I thought I’d catch a lot of shit for it, but it was all positive,” says Kirshtein. “It was so damn cool. Every kid’s dream come true.”
The cover of the comic shows a kitchen-knife-wielding Kirshtein prepared for an atypical kitchen battle — but Spider-Man has his back. With any luck, Kirshtein won’t need Spidey anymore.
The photo essay below, by Austen Risolvato, documents the lead-up to The Luminary’s opening.