Chef Michael Paley Looks South To Atlanta

The inaugural Atlanta Food & Wine Festival is drawing on chefs throughout the South like Tim Love and John Currence to name two. Executive chef Michael Paley of Proof on Main in Louisville, Ky., is another of the 2011 festival's participating chefs.

In this interview Chef Paley discusses participating in the festival, what about Louisville's dining scene people may not know, and details about his newest venture, a Neapolitan pizzeria in a former service station.


What does it mean to participate in the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival?

I think it's awesome, being involved. I've been waiting years for a really good Southern festival and I think that's what they're shooting for. Atlanta's perfect for this because it's in the middle of everything — regions more to the north like Kentucky, west to Texas, and to the coast. The South is a hot topic and has been for a number of years, so I'm pretty excited about it.


Your event is called "The Misunderstood" What's it all about?

I just kind of picked that. It was the name I ended up with considering the subject of my event. Being a chef over the years, one of my favorite things was when I started to discover I could work the things I really didn't like as a kid — that's real cooking. Beets, turnips, rutabaga, these are really great things that for some have lost their luster and popularity. Rutabaga for one is a first example. What I love about that, about all of these things, like turnips is that they're just as good raw as cooked. And in the different preparations there are different flavors and textures. They're great shaved over a salad, or pickled, roasted, blanched and seasoned — beets as well. You can poach them, you can slice them thin and fry 'em. You can make a great soup out of beets. Brussels sprouts are really great roasted, that's one of the most popular dishes here. Also, shave them with some parsley and lemon and you've got a great salad. That's the other great thing about these vegetables, they can be prepared in a number of ways — hot and cold.


Any spots you're looking to hit in Atlanta while you're in town?

Holeman & Finch is doing a dinner at Restaurant Eugene on Saturday, night. It's Chef Hopkins, myself, and Andre — compelling producers, just each of us bringing ingredients from some of our favorite farmers. As far as eating, Antico Pizza Napoletana — I gotta get back there. Empire State South — that place looks great. And then Holeman & Finch. There are tons. Shaun Doty has a couple of burger places I want to check out.


Any events you're most looking forward to attending?

I think the festival has done a great job with putting together some great sounding seminars. There's a charcuterie seminar with Anne Quatrano and some other cool panel discussions. I like going to panel discussions where you can listen to other chefs debate and discuss.


What about Kentucky's food scene do people not know but should?

I think what I'm most proud of and what they may not know is what a gastronomic region we have. They may know about bourbon, but because of our geography, and the river valley, there are great farms, and great soil. There is an abundance of farms, because there were all these tobacco farms, and now they raise livestock and produce. There are a lot of artisanal food makers: cheeses, soy sauce, a bunch of interesting things to find out that I'm still discovering.


If you're visiting Louisville from out of town what are the three meals you have to have, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, highbrow to lowbrow?

For lunch, the Blue Dog Bakery and Café. That bakery has an oven from Spain called a llopis. They make great artisan breads and they do breakfast and lunch. It's a small menu but top notch. For dinner, the Mayan Café downtown run by a Mayan guy named Bruce Ucán. He focuses on local producers.


Can you talk about the wood-fired pizzeria and bar you're opening?

We're opening probably in July. It's under construction and we're getting it ready to go. It's an old service station and we've been retrofitting the inside. We don't plan to do much work on the outside — it was a building built in the 20s I think, and at first it was a saloon and then an edition was built on and ever since it was a service station. There are opening garage doors. I've always wanted to do a restaurant in a garage. Ever since I went to Barbuto.

Where are you getting the pizza oven from?

I did a lot of research for a year, and zeroed in on ovens made by Stefano Ferrara in Naples. So we got the oven and it's supposed to arrive in about four weeks. We ordered it in January. Once you place the order they start to build it.


You've talked about the importance of creating a great bar. What are you planning to do to make that happen?

We're working on that whole menu more. We're looking to do some artisanal beers. We want to have a growler program. There will be eight beers on tap. I'm not sure how many bottles yet. Being where we are, there are tons of beers we want to get, but allocations are a little difficult. And then of course, everyone in Louisville has to have a strong bourbon program. We plan on having maybe about 25 to 30 and a small but quality, affordable wine selection.


What do you think about the Neapolitan-style movement sweeping the country? What will you be doing?

I think it's great, what I really can't wait to do is get in the space and work with the dough. That's the key. Neapolitan tends to be a little more wet, and I definitely want to go for a crispy middle ground. But I love the size, that 10- to 11-inch size. I'm really looking for something with a great crust. What I love is it's all about the crust. Essentially you're trying to make a really great bread.


Any special toppings or pies you're going to be doing?

We're still deciding on the mozzarella. We'll definitely use fresh toppings — do seven or eight pies with seasonal specials. Everything will be somewhat seasonal.


You're from New Jersey. What's your favorite Jersey pizzeria?

It's not there anymore. It's still a pizzeria but it's a different place now. But when I go to New York I always go to John's of Bleecker.


Chefs are often asked the same questions, what's the question you most wish you were asked?

I don't know. I generally like people who enjoy talking about a dish, when they really want to know what went into it technically. Sometimes you're just looking at beet salad on the plate and they don't know what kind of beets, why we used watercress and not arugula. That's kind of what we get off on talking about.