Amanda Plumb‘s gift for cultivating connections through food and storytelling has left an indelible impression on her adopted hometown of Atlanta, and altered the city’s arts and culture scene for the better.
Members of the Buford Highway Supper Club know her as a fellow chowhound and intrepid explorer of international dining options along the congested thoroughfare. Anyone who has ever bellied up to a table at Chow Club, the monthly underground dining experience she founded in 2017, has the native South Carolinian to thank for shining a spotlight on local home cooks with international roots — expanding palates and waistlines in the process. Early adopters of StoryCorps Atlanta might remember her as the nice lady who sat in the recording booth to facilitate their conversations and check sound levels. Plumb directed the oral history project for five years, including overseeing the studio’s move from WABE-FM’s headquarters to the Atlanta History Center campus.
Now, as the author of Unique Eats and Eateries (Reedy Press, 208 pages), Plumb is staking her claim that StoryCorps’s motto, “Listening is an act of love,” is applies equally to cooking.
“I’m convinced that food is the sixth love language — it definitely is in my Italian American side of the family,” says Plumb. “And in working with chefs from around the world with Chow Club, I noticed one constant — they all say that cooking was the way people in their culture expressed love.”
Plumb visited with ArtsATL to share highlights from her 80-plus interviews with chefs, give a shout-out to the auntie who taught her that there’s no such thing as peculiar taste when it comes to getting your grub on and offer a few tips to make dining out a pleasure for all parties.
ArtsATL: Unique Eats and Eateries is dedicated to the memory of your Aunt Patsy. How did her appetite inform your attitude toward eating and apparently insatiable gusto for trying new cuisines?
Amanda Plumb: My Aunt Patsy was an enthusiastic eater. It’s hard to remember a meal together when she didn’t moan with delight and exclaim, “This is the best thing I’ve eaten in my entire life!” Ever since I was a kid, she and I were in charge of the Thanksgiving turkey. Before I was able to lift it myself, Patsy would prop up the bird so I could remove its innards and season it before it went in the oven. Patsy was notorious for eating last night’s leftovers for breakfast. In my family, this was considered peculiar behavior but for the life of me, I can’t figure out why. Like Patsy, I find that leftovers, be they homemade or from Bacchanalia, are the perfect way to start the day.
ArtsATL: When did you discover that food could teach you about other cultures?
Plumb: Growing up on Hilton Head Island, my parents had a group of friends who got together for a dinner party each month. The host couple would pick a country, research the cuisine and assign dishes for each couple to prepare. This was pre-internet, so they actually went to the library and photocopied recipes. Through these dinners, my parents and their friends dined their way across the globe without ever leaving the island. As a kid, I wasn’t invited to the dinners, but I couldn’t help but take note of the fun they were having with their culinary adventures.
When I moved to Atlanta, I followed suit as a founding member of the Buford Highway Supper Club. Instead of cooking recipes from around the world, each month we’d select a restaurant on Buford Highway to try. Ordering shared plates for the table, we were able to learn about different cultures through food, while connecting with friends.
In 2017, Yohana Solomon and I founded an underground restaurant, Chow Club Atlanta. Each month, we serve up gastro-educational adventures by partnering with local home cooks with international roots. Each chef creates a multicourse menu that represents their family and culture. As they introduce their dishes, guests learn about the geopolitical, religious and cultural roots of the cuisine — how the Gullah Geechee people maintained their West African cooking traditions or how Eritrean cuisine includes Italian dishes, a remnant of their time under colonial rule. With a little context, food can be a lens for understanding the world around us.
ArtsATL: What’s your definition of a unique eat?
Plumb: A unique eat is a dish that gives you a sense of place. You can walk into a McDonald’s or Applebee’s anywhere in the country, and it feels (and tastes) the same. That works for people who want to know exactly what to expect from a restaurant, regardless of where they are. But if you want to get a sense of a place, you need to visit the restaurants that are unique to that city.
In the book, I include restaurants that are unique to Atlanta (you won’t find an R. Thomas, with its tented dining room and cages full of exotic birds waiting to greet you anywhere but in Atlanta) as well as places that are unique within Atlanta (if you want to try Gullah Geechee cuisine in Atlanta, you best head down to Virgil’s Gullah Kitchen and Bar in College Park).
And of course, I had to included places of historical significance to the city — like Paschal’s, a popular meeting spot for Dr. King and other civil rights movement leaders and the Municipal Market, which earned its nickname — Sweet Auburn Curb Market — because African American farmers weren’t allowed to sell their goods inside. And some Atlanta chefs are legends in their own right — like Ann Price (Ann’s Snack Bar), Ria Pell (Ria’s Bluebird) and Anne Quatrano (Bacchanalia, Floataway Cafe, Star Provisions, W.H. Stiles Fish Camp).
ArtsATL: Apart from being a guide to the best Malaysian street food, peppercorn crusted kangaroo and gelato in the ATL, your book also serves as a love letter to the people who prepare the food. In your experience, what’s the secret sauce that separates a great chef from the pack?
Plumb: Whoa. This is a hard question. I don’t think there’s one right answer. When I think of great Atlanta chefs, on the one hand, I think of folks like chef Atsushi Hayakawa, who re-creates a traditional sushi experience at Sushi Hayakawa and Masterpiece’s, chef Rui Liu who aspired to introduce customers to authentic Sichuan dishes. But on the other hand, I think of folks who are less interested in what’s “authentic,” opting to create something totally new — folks like Talat Market’s Parnass Savang who integrates classic Thai dishes with fine-dining techniques and local ingredients to create a menu that is as much of Atlanta as it is of Thailand.
Miller Union’s Steven Satterfield and Spring’s Brian So are obsessed with showcasing each ingredient. They harness every technique in their culinary arsenals to highlight the star of each dish. For Thip Athakanh, Snackboxe Bistro allows her to share her love of Laotian homeland with Atlanta.
There are classically trained chefs, those who learned to cook from watching parents and grandparents in the kitchen, to the self-taught. Folks who grew up working in restaurants and those who found cooking as a second, third or even fourth career. There’s no one road map to becoming a great chef, other than following your passion and having the courage to share your talent with the world.
ArtsATL: As restaurants pivot from takeout service to business as usual, what do you want diners to keep in mind next time they visit a favorite eatery?
Plumb: First off, if you can afford to and you’re vaccinated, get out there and start supporting our local restaurants. Visit your favorite spots and venture out to try new places. (When you order Unique Eats ATL from my website, I’ll send you a restaurant tracker so you can record where you’ve been and where you want to go).
It’s been a tough year-and-a-half for restaurant owners and workers. As dining rooms reopen, most restaurants are understaffed and many of the staff members are new to the industry, so be patient and kind to your servers and, of course, tip well.
ArtsATL: If you’ve been haunted by a unique eatery that didn’t make the cut but deserves an honorable mention, speak now or forever hold your piece.
Plumb: Oh my gosh. The hardest part of writing this book was coming to terms with the fact that I couldn’t include all the restaurants I love in Atlanta. I could write a whole volume on Buford Highway alone. There were a few places, like Lee’s Bakery, Slutty Vegan and Bankhead Seafood that I wanted to include, but I could never get a hold of someone to interview. I didn’t discover Guy Wong’s Ruby Chow until after the book went to print, but it’s become a favorite. And I can’t get enough of the cocktails and flatbread with pepperoni butter at Banshee in EAV.
Visit this link for updates on Plumb’s upcoming book talks. She’ll do a presentation and book signing at Bookish in southeast Atlanta in the fall and an author talk at the Alpharetta Branch Library on October 30.