A lot gets made about the chef's innovations at each Charleston Wine + Food Festival, as well it should. But in the case of Chef Duane Nutter, his home restaurant is just as fascinating as his food. You see, Chef Nutter is a pioneer in the land of terminal haute cuisine. He mans the helm at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport's first upscale restaurant. That's Concourse E for you frequent flyers.
There, Chef Nutter runs One Flew South, a "southernational" food experience. The kind of place where a pulled duck sandwich and a salmon hot pot with unagi fried rice, tofu, and miso broth could both reside on the same menu. Chef Mike Lata of FIG has been known to pull up the menu on his phone, call in an order from the runway, swing by on the way to his next flight, and eat it on the plane.
"I would describe my cuisine as a personal story. You could say food from my soul — it is shaped by my personal heritage as well as my travels and culinary experiences," says Nutter.
Nutter got his start in 1994 working at the Four Seasons in Atlanta. Eventually he ended up at the AAA Five-Diamond Seelbach Hilton Oakroom in Louisville, Ky. before being asked to compete in Food Network's Iron Chef America. He capped off 2007 by cooking at the James Beard House.
So how did a man with all that skill end up in an airport?
Quite happily, actually.
"The airport had the idea for the upscale restaurant and Jackmont Hospitality hired my team and me after they won the space," says Nutter. "We all worked together to make Hartsfield-Jackson the place to dine if you find yourself with a little time to spare."
Frequent traveler Lata quickly discovered this foodie oasis in the massive Atlanta airport. "I am always bummed out with food selections at airports," he says. "No matter how hungry, I almost always skip the food until I get to my destination. That changed when One Flew South opened. I've had killer pork belly sliders, comfy soups, and a delicious burger ... all while enjoying a glass of bourbon from their well thought-out selection."
Amazingly, Nutter has managed to maintain his level of culinary excellence at a venue that serves 88 million passengers per year.
"Cooking in this setting is one of the hardest things I have ever done," Nutter confesses. "Cooking during the Kentucky Derby, while at my previous stint as chef de cuisine at Seelback Hilton's Oakroom, I cooked a seven-course tasting menu for 160 people with a broken dishwasher — that was easier than cooking in the airport for 30 people."
Consider the fact that just as we ordinary passengers struggle with baggage, security checks, and waits, so does the staff at One Flew South.
"Some of the challenges I face with my jet setters are cooking with our knives chained down to the table," says Nutter. Add to that the very real challenge of getting all his supplies past metal detectors and a picture of culinary chaos begins to unfold. "If something gets mixed up during shipping, I'm out of luck or I have another restaurant's food. Have you ever seen a person go through TSA's x-ray machines with two bags of clams and a whole salmon?"
Luckily for Nutter his Charleston Wine + Food Dine Around will be security free. Nutter will be joining Chef Kevin Mitchell of the Culinary Institute of Charleston on Friday night.
Nutter says, "We collaborated on the whole menu. We wanted to make sure we crafted a few dishes that would get a lot of the students involved. A guest can expect this meal to be a balance of playfulness and seriousness, which is very much my personality."
Nutter is looking forward to his first appearance at the event, but ultimately it's all about the equipment. "This will be my first time at the Charleston Wine + Food festival, and I can't wait to cook with my knives that I can't use at the airport.