Q&A: Chef Duane Nutter on new restaurant, stand-up comedy

Chef Duane Nutter was part of the team that brought One Flew South to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and started Southern National in Mobile, Alabama. Now, he’s opening Southern National in Atlanta’s historic Summerhill neighborhood.

Nutter talked recently with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about cooking, stand-up comedy and returning to Georgia.

Q: Your family is from Louisiana, but you moved to Seattle. How did that happen?

A: I was a kid then, and they didn’t know anything about people writing upside down and backwards in Louisiana. We had relatives that moved to Seattle, and it was known for having more schools that could help someone like me. I went up to the University of Washington to figure out the type and severity of the dyslexia I had, then they found a school district to place me in. And, there I was, learning how to read and write, just like the rest of you.

Q: Is Seattle where got your start in restaurants?

A: Yeah, I worked at a little place called Salty’s on Alki Beach, which is still there. I did my pastry apprenticeship at WAC Cafe at the Washington Athletic Club when I was a wee pup. And, I sautéed at an Italian place called Cucina! Cucina!

Q: What brought you to Atlanta?

A: I tracked down chef Darryl Evans at a young age, and, of all the chefs I contacted to work with, he was the only one that called me back. By the time I got there, he was working at the Occidental Grand, which is now the Four Seasons. I think I was about 21 then, and living by myself in Atlanta.

Q: At a certain point, you were both a chef and a comedian. How did you get into comedy?

A: I was always silly, and I said, “I’m gonna do this.” So, I was always the a.m. sous chef, and then at night, I’d be doing open mics. Then, I got hired by the National Peanut Board. They needed someone funny who could cook, and I needed a break. So, it was three or four years I was traveling around doing cooking demos and telling jokes.

Q: Are you still doing stand-up comedy? Can you hit me with a bit?

A: I haven’t been up in a year or two, but I’ve been writing. The newest joke I wrote was: “People might ask why I went to Mobile to open up a restaurant. When I was driving to New Orleans, I noticed a Tesla with a gun rack, so I knew the demographics were changing.”

Q: When One Flew South opened as a fine-dining restaurant in 2008, it changed airport dining, correct?

A: It was actually the first. … Me, Todd Richards and Jerry Slater left the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, and we were commissioned to make that thing happen. And, you can still see the ripples from it now. We were getting a lot of heads of other airports coming to see the operation, and, next you know, you see a seafood restaurant in Houston with our same chairs, or a new concourse in D.C. with a chef-driven concept.

Q: You’re bringing Southern National to Atlanta, but the original location in Mobile has closed. Why?

A: It was tough negotiations with the landlord. We really wanted to open up in Atlanta and keep the one in Mobile. But, with the rising costs, it was a number we couldn’t live with, so we decided we would just relocate. We had a five-year lease in Mobile, and we just chose not to exercise another five.

Q: Southern National will be located in Summerhill. What’s your impression of that neighborhood?

A: I started digging into it, and didn’t realize the neighborhood was separated by the freeway. I didn’t know the first huge Jewish community was there, mixed in with freed slaves. That was pretty cool, really.

Q: Are you happy to be back in Atlanta?

A: I’m kind of celebrating a homecoming. I learned my craft here. I feel like I helped grow our culinary community here in Atlanta with what I did at the airport. Even though I fed a lot of people, a lot of people in the city never ate my food — they just heard about this guy cooking in the airport. I had a lot of regulars that didn’t live in Atlanta.

Q: What’s your take on the current Atlanta restaurant scene?

A: It seems like everybody has stepped their game up, so that’s always good. There was a period of time when, if I saw another thing in a jar, I was gonna lose my mind. Everybody was trying to be so safe. People being more educated has probably helped the relationship between chefs and guests, and we can push the envelope a little more.

By Bob Townsend for the AJC

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