As the old saw goes, it's the little things that most often defeat us, not the big ones. Chef Todd Richards knows this lesson all too well.
When working as the executive chef of the Oakroom restaurant in the Seelbach Hilton Hotel in Louisville, Ky., the 6-foot-3, 250-pound Richards took on Cat Cora in a 2006 Iron Chef showdown — and the pixie-like champ defeated the challenger.
Today, as corporate chef at One Flew South, a new fine-dining restaurant in Atlanta's busy Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Richards is facing size challenges of another kind. Though the restaurant boasts 82 seats, Richards' kitchen is a trim 400 square feet. And if that's not enough to trigger a claustrophobia attack, Richards' executive chef, Duane Nutter is 6-foot-6 and of equal heft.
"We're not small guys by any stretch," said Richards, who opened the "southernational" (a fusion of southern and international cuisines) restaurant in mid-November. "There's no sliding by the other guy. You have to stop and let him by. It's that tight."
Richards said the tight quarters have taken some getting used to, but he understands that space is limited in airports. "And since the money is made out in the dining room, that's where our space went," he said.
Space, however, is but one test faced by the new kitchen staff. Airport security measures made receiving deliveries the normal way — brought to the door by purveyors —virtually impossible. Purveyors who deliver to the airport must have a $2 million insurance policy that covers that privilege, and not surprisingly, none of One Flew South's high-end providers would accept that expense. That meant the restaurant has to retrieve most of its supplies.
"Luckily, fish is flown directly to the airport, so we can just go to the receiving facility and pick it up," Richards said. "But everything else, we get ourselves."
And that's just getting the food to the airport. Once there, inspectors check the contents of every package with the same degree of scrutiny applied to passengers boarding planes. And gone are the days when Richards or Nutter could run to a purveyor for emergency supplies if inventory ran low. If inspectors aren't there to approve it, nothing's permitted, so strict scheduling is necessary.
"With a restaurant like ours, people expect extravagance from us, so you don't run out of things, period," he said. "It's really a difficult challenge when you don't have much storage space to begin with. You just have to simplify things and make those processes efficient so you don't run out."
Some changes are simply frustrating, such as working with knives that are required by Homeland Security restrictions to be tethered by steel wires to cutting boards and counters.
"Can you imagine working at our sushi bar? My guy's going crazy out there," Richards said. "Even our table knives have to be counted and secured every night."
Richards does enjoy the small blessing of flight schedules to help him estimate customer counts and food needs. General manager Jerry Slater combs over the slate of arrivals and departures to get a baseline, and then, like any ordinary restaurant, they handle walk-ins as they arrive.
Timely takeoffs keep business steady, but when flights are delayed, the place is packed. Also because the restaurant is located beyond the security checkpoint, all customers must be ticketed passengers.
Despite the adjustments, Richards enjoys other aspects of operating in an airport, including serving a variety of customers from around the world. Plenty of jet-setters find their way to the restaurant, as do regular folks craving a good meal away from the airport food court.
"You definitely can't judge a book by its cover in our concourse," he said. "You'll see a guy come in wearing tattered blue jeans and a baseball cap and order $150 sushi for himself. Some want to get in and out quick, and others want to linger. We had one table that was having such a good time that they ended up missing their flight"