As I pulled into my parking space in front of the Georgian, a grand old building on Washington Street in Athens, Georgia, I noticed someone applying a fresh sticker to the front door. “2014 Best New Restaurant in Athens.”
Even looking through the windows, I was immediately drawn to South Kitchen’s inviting high-ceilinged space, rich with dark woods and century-old stained glass arched windows. Stepping inside, I was greeted by a wraparound brick bar and vintage floor tiles – and I was charmed.
So, after attending to my meeting, I ducked back into South Kitchen for a bowl of Cream of Crimini Soup studded with tasty bits of shiitake mushrooms and topped with parsley and chili oil. Besides being beautiful to look at, the soup offered complex flavor in every bite, and a slight lingering heat on the palate to make it a hearty lunch all by itself.
This simple bowl of soup intrigued me, and I wanted to know more about the chef behind the dish.
Meet Executive Chef Chris Benson
Executive Chef Chris Benson leads the kitchens at Athens’ “craft-savvy” Trappeze Pub and award-winning Highwire Lounge. At South Kitchen, the flavor profiles are all his – and delicious. As he describes, the flavors are a hybrid of New South with Cajun/Creole and a bit of Italian influence thrown into the mix. “I don’t really like categories,” he explains. “I really just want my cooks and I to make great food, whatever it ends up being, so that people can come and make memories.”
“Food is the Canvas We Paint our Memories On”
With menu items like Orange Blossom Honey-glazed Springer Mountain Chicken and a Pork Chop Hoagie with Sliced Apples and Sweet and Spicy Slaw, Chef Benson’s childhood and adolescence influence his food. “Big family meals were the norm on both sides. All of my extended family loves to cook and every holiday was a potluck (albeit assigned by my matriarchal grandmothers) with each family member bringing the dish they made best for all of us to over-indulge on,” he recalls. “Both of my grandparents loved to cook and grew many of the vegetables that we ate. I’m still not sure I’ve ever had better blueberries than the ones my cousins and I would pick down by the creek at my grandfather’s farm.”
Culinary prowess may have skipped his parents’ generation, and Chef Benson “learned to cook out of necessity. I picked up most of my early lessons from helping aunts, uncles and grandparents to make their dishes at our get-togethers.” Fond memories equate to his culinary inspiration now. “Those dishes for me have strong connections to the time I spent with them, and are what made me realize that food is not just food. Food is the canvas we paint our memories on.”
Like most chefs, time is his most limited commodity. So what is Chef Benson’s favorite food to cook? “Depends on my mood,” he jests. Though he may love manning the sauté station on a busy Friday night, his “favorite things to cook are the meals I get to share with my friends.”
Executive Chef Benson earned his culinary degree from the Art Institute of Atlanta where he received the award for Outstanding Academic Achievement in Culinary Arts. Now, 12 years later with fast-casual to fine dining under his belt, Chris shares his New American cooking philosophy at South Kitchen.
Two private event spaces are on site – the Grand Ballroom for 120 seated dinner guests and the Arch room for private parties of 40 seated guests or more for cocktail parties. South Kitchen + Bar offers a full range of restaurant dining and upscale catering.
Just an easy walk to Sanford Stadium, the restaurant is a great place for pre- or post-game cocktails and a bite to eat.
South Kitchen + Bar, 247 E. Washington Street, Athens, GA