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Atlanta’s Black chefs share mixed reactions to Keith Lee’s upcoming ‘Redemption Tour’

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Instead of discontinuing his viral food reviews, in a TikTok post published last Saturday, Lee now says he will return to Atlanta.

“Just to be fair, we’re starting at the bottom of the list. Atlanta: we’re coming back,” Lee shared with his TikTok followers. Lee did not provide a date for the repeat visit.

It’s the first stop on what he’s calling a “redemption tour,” in which he will give a second chance to cities he and his family visited last year. He says there will be new judging criteria, and that he will not return to the eight restaurants he previously visited, including Kandi Burruss-Tucker’s soul food chain Old Lady Gang, The Real Milk & Honey in College Park, and brunch hotspot Atlanta Breakfast Club.

Black chefs at other popular Atlanta restaurants have mixed feelings about Lee and his foodie opinions.

Malik Rhassan, chef-owner of Cleveland Avenue restaurant Che Butter Jonez, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he thinks Lee’s approach isn’t helpful, and accused him of gaslighting Atlanta.

“He uses his platform to criticize small businesses unfairly, under the guise of promoting small businesses,” Rhassan said. “So the whole ‘redemption’ piece is like putting restaurants on notice, and then (he) wraps it in a bow by saying he is coming with armed security.”

Chef Malik Rhasaan and his wife, Detric Fox-Quinlan, own Che Butter Jonez. (Mia Yakel for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Mia Yakel

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Credit: Mia Yakel

Rhassan also believes the massive response Lee received from his first Atlanta visit and the potential for another viral moment are motivating his return. “It’s good for his engagement. Social media thrives off of negative things, which translates to clicks and views.”

Much has been said about the “Keith Lee effect,” which has generally resulted in food service businesses around the country receiving overwhelming patronage from new customers, usually immediately after Lee posts a favorable review.

But Lee’s less-than-glowing criticism of Atlanta sparked a robust discussion of dining in Atlanta, with responses both in agreement with his assessments and in defense of Atlanta restaurants.

“When Keith Lee announced his first trip to Atlanta I knew it wasn’t going to go well,” said Melanie Forehand, sous chef at Breaker Breaker. “The popular restaurants aren’t always the best restaurants. A lot of them are just places to be seen and aren’t an accurate representation of what the food scene is here. And he definitely didn’t get the best of the best when it comes to the best Black chefs in Atlanta,” Forehand asserted.

Duane Nutter, Southern National’s executive chef and co-owner, and a 2024 James Beard semifinalist, signaled a similar perspective. “When I first read he was coming back, I wondered if he knew that there’s different levels to the restaurant industry,” Nutter said.

Duane Nutter is the executive chef and co-owner of Southern National. / Photo by Rebecca Carmen

Credit: Rebecca Carmen

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Credit: Rebecca Carmen

Demetrius Brown, chef-owner of Bread and Butterfly in Inman Park, said Lee chose to visit what he called “social media establishments” in Atlanta, which he said focus on aesthetics like neon signage, grass walls and hanging plants rather than food.

“My hope is that he actually visits excellent restaurants that prioritize a quality dining experience from hospitality to food, regardless of being Black-owned or struggling, which may be his focus. But the sad truth is most independent restaurants are one or two weeks from struggling. Many owners have their entire lives tied up as collateral for business loans or investors. In short, if he’s coming back to give us our ‘redemption,’ at least do some research and do it right this time,” Brown said.

Justin Dixon of sandwich shop Humble Mumble admitted being unimpressed by Lee’s attempt at reviewing Atlanta’s food scene. “If you have a bad experience at a restaurant, that restaurant is the problem — not Atlanta. There are great places to eat in this city with great service. Don’t make it seem like Atlanta is trash because you didn’t do your research. But go off bruh.”

Not all of Atlanta’s Black chef talent were as dismissive of Lee’s return.

Chef Simone Byron leads Byron Hospitality, a workforce development program that provides high school students with professional and culinary training for sustainable careers in the hospitality industry. Byron believes it’s a great time for Atlanta to change the cultural dining narrative.

Chef Simone Byron is the president and CEO of Byron Hospitality. / Courtesy of Byron Hospitality

Credit: Courtesy of Byron Hospitality

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Credit: Courtesy of Byron Hospitality

“Keith Lee is coming back for a reason: We’re worth it. We just need to tighten up and get back to true Southern hospitality. Just the fact that Michelin came to Atlanta should speak volumes for the city’s potential to lead in hospitality — as we should!”

Robert Butts, executive chef of Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours, believes Lee has an opportunity to get to know Atlanta restaurants better. “A city like this, that is so diverse in cuisine with our added culture, it’s only right that you really understand where all sides are coming from,” Butts said. “It’s a place where mom and pop, upscale, grass walls and fine upscale dining can come together and show we are here for everyone.”

Read More: Atlanta’s Black chefs share mixed reactions to Keith Lee’s upcoming ‘Redemption Tour’

2024-04-02 02:01:46

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