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Story by Ale Sharpton
Photos by Ale Sharpton and featured chefs
The coronavirus pandemic has hit the culinary industry especially hard. With restaurant dining rooms barred from operating at full capacity (if at all) and strict regulations in place on even to-go orders, restaurant workers are taking huge financial hits. The turbulent year of 2020 has also brought racial injustice and social inequality to light where they can finally garner more attention.
As people persevere through unforeseen circumstances and challenges, we shine the spotlight on three prominent chefs in Atlanta, Georgia: Josh Lee, Simone Byron, and Jimmie Jackson. This trio of culinary geniuses have leveraged creativity, professional experience, personality, and hustle to keep going. They’ve found ways to keep the flames going in the kitchen, plus help raise funds for initiatives, and develop future game plans regardless of the uncertainties ahead.
We sat down with these chefs for their perspectives.
Meet Chef Josh Lee
Chef Josh Lee is an award-winning chef known for his creative, mouthwatering dishes rooted in soul and southern cooking. Chef Josh was the executive chef of Superica as well as the famed Chicken+Beer, partnering with rap star and actor Chris Bridges (aka Ludacris). Chef Lee has recently partnered with renowned chef and restauranteur Todd Richards to launch Lake & Oak BBQ between the Atlanta neighborhoods of East Lake and Oakhurst.
Chef Lee talks about the present…
Prior to the pandemic shutdown, I was working in Atlanta’s Battery District as the executive chef at Superica. When the pandemic hit, I was challenged with operating in an entirely different way in the restaurant and at home. My team and I learned how to cook and serve all day wearing masks. We’ve also had to adjust to maintaining more of a social distance within the confines of our kitchen. I have had to study and implement new industry guidelines and adjust to interacting with our guests from more of a distance.
I eventually parted ways with Superica and joined forces with Lake & Oak co-owner, Chef Todd Richards. Since opening Lake & Oak, our clientele has certainly broadened. We have enjoyed serving the neighbors of the East Lake and Oakhurst communities, as well as other nearby neighbors in East Atlanta, Gresham Park, and Decatur. Returning to the community where I grew up has also opened the door for former classmates, family, and friends to patronize our Lake & Oak venture. Social media, Yelp and articles like this one have also played a huge role in our gaining additional clientele.
Chef Lee on the increased awareness of racial injustice and social inequality…
These times have made me more aware of the impact the restaurant industry has on communities and the well-being of other chefs around the country. I have also gained a greater passion for looking out for other chefs as we grow together and support one another. At Lake & Oak we are using our space to showcase the skills and talents of chefs that some of our patrons may not know. I enjoy exchanging ideas with talented chefs and serving as a model for new up-and-coming chefs. Ultimately, our focus is to serve great food, be kind, friendly, be appreciative of our guests, continue to elevate our menu by offering new seasonal items, host a variety of talented guest chefs, and keep our customers aware of new items on our menu and special events.
Chef Lee about the future…
Our immediate plans are to continue to add new dishes to our menu and to get our staff acclimated to a full-service restaurant. Because of the novel coronavirus, I believe people have become more aware of how hard men and women in the restaurant industry work. I believe the industry will continue to strive and be stronger than ever before. To move forward, we must continue to be flexible, caring and patient with our team and our customers.
Lake & Oak
2358 Hosea L. Williams Dr. NE
Atlanta GA 30317
Fridays & Saturdays 11 a.m. – 8 p.m.
Sundays 11 a.m. – 6 p.m.; Sundays host Black Chef Celebrations
Meet Chef Simone Byron
After working with Disney Worldwide Services, Chef Byron became the manager and catering director for Compass Group. Loving to teach, she started an award-winning culinary program at Meadowcreek High School, was honored as the Georgia ProStart Teacher of the Year, and soon won the prestigious National Educator of Excellence award in Chicago, Illinois. Chef Byron currently serves as the executive director of the Hospitality Education Foundation of Georgia. She also owns Dishful Thinking Catering, a personal chef, meal prep, and boutique catering company which focuses on enhancing the customer experience through innovative food and attention to detail. Her most recent partnership alongside Master Chef Daryl Shular involves initializing the Shular Institute and FarmED Kitchen and Bar. (Disclosure: Chef Byron is my sister.)
Chef Byron talks about the present…
Prior to the pandemic, I was building internship programs in low-income, high-potential neighborhoods to build a pipeline of young talent into the hospitality industry. I run a nonprofit organization, Hospitality Education Foundation of Georgia. We rely on donations and grant opportunities to keep us up and running to do the work that we do. Unfortunately, when the pandemic hit, a lot of our grant and sponsorship opportunities dissolved. As a result, we have had to be very creative with our programming to fit with the current industry needs while maintaining the integrity of the industry through engagement.
Chef Byron on the increased awareness of racial injustice and social inequality…
I’ve seen an increase in support in primarily small minority business. The awareness has also provided a larger system for the internship programs that I am trying to initiate in communities of color in Atlanta. The programs will help the youth build self-confidence and culinary experience. To further push the program, I am shooting videos and doing interviews so that the audience can get a real visual of the mission and vision.
Chef Byron about the future…
I think that the industry will show strength. With coronavirus the industry took a big hit, but the comradery and the family orientation of the industry will pull us through these unfortunate times. We are currently preparing ourselves for the influx of workforce that is going to be needed in the industry once it starts to pick back up. We want to make sure that we maintain the integrity of the workforce here in Atlanta.
The Hospitality Education Foundation of Georgia is seeking support for its hospitality engagement programs in low-income, high-potential neighborhoods in Atlanta. Any donation, grant opportunity, and volunteerism supports the Navigate Program and focuses on training and development of underserved youth in predominantly minority neighborhoods. We train in culinary arts, soft-skills, and the workforce.
I also cater events, serve as a private chef, and create weekly meal plans under my company Dishful Thinking Catering. I come from a very cultured background, so my style of cuisine is expansive; I don’t have one particular specialty. And with that, I love the way food influences culture and seasonality really inspires my culinary direction. I am very fortunate to have gems like the DeKalb Farmers Market in my backyard which allows me to get creative with the wide array of global specialty ingredients that it offers. Preparing for specific dietary restrictions is also a fun challenge I enjoy and embrace. Whatever the order, I guarantee they will be coming back.
Last, but certainly not least, I am working closely with my college mentor and now partner Master Chef Daryl Shular to build workforce development projects for his new Shular Institute and FarmED Kitchen and Bar. I am truly excited about this new venture.
Embracing his stepfather’s Jamaican culture from a young age, entrepreneur Chef Jimmie Jackson studied culinary arts in Atlanta, began entering in jerk competitions in 2010, and within two years won 2012 Top Chef at Atlanta Caribbean Jerk Festival, followed by consistent cook-off honors nationwide. Applying his culinary and bartending skills at the esteemed Muss & Turner’s deli, Chef Jackson also launched Jimmie’s Jerk Chicken (JJC), a small jerk and barbecue seasoning company. His flagship product JJC Jerk Seasonings led to more awards thanks to showcasing what he calls “American Jerk” that fuses Jamaican spices with New American influences. Staying busy during this pandemic, Jimmie continues to expand his brand with catering, pop-up dinners, and collaborations with other chefs.
Chef Jackson talks about dealing with the pandemic…
Well, I planned on going full-time catering and doing pop-up dinners down the line; since 2018, it was about gradually building a following. Once Covid-19 hit and being furloughed from my Muss & Turner’s job, I was forced to speed up the process. I used the money I received from that to buy supplies and jumpstart the catering business. It’s been a perfect storm in some ways because once I started posting orders and thanking patrons for support on social media, other people came on board and started to demand my cooking. Now it’s private catering, pop-ups, and getting the word out through friends and family.
Chef Jackson on the increased awareness of racial injustice and social inequality…
I know that I’ve been getting a huge amount of Black support and that will not change. Atlanta is like that. It feels good to serve Black families. But even more, the masses of different ethnicities are coming with a more open-minded approach, coming to my pop-ups, and most importantly enjoying my food and spreading the word! From breweries to restaurants, they continue to reach out and invite me to come showcase my talent using their business locations as platforms. I believe the current times and awareness of inequality certainly helps. Thank you.
Chef Jackson on the future…
So far, it’s been actually positive, and I am happy to say my business is growing. I try to stay busy cooking, come up with more recipes people will love and show the world what I’m about. The main goal is to focus on growing the catering service and looking to buy a mobile food unit, food trailer, or food truck. I am hopeful this will lead to making my dream a reality – my own brick and mortar. To add, I’m also looking to grow my Jimmie Jerk seasonings brand and make it more accessible and in local grocery stores in 2021.