Drew Belline is the executive chef and partner at Decatur’s No. 246, and a staunch supporter of Georgia Organics and local, sustainable producers. He’s participated in chef tastings at the Peachtree Road Farmers Market and graciously given time to participate in Ford Fry’s mega-popular fundraiser for Georgia Organics, The Attack of the Killer Tomato Festival. His full bio is way down at the bottom. But to get there you have to read this Q&A with Drew first!
You’ve gotten a lot of attention as a foraging chef. How does foraging inspire the dishes you create? Since I was a kid, I have always loved to be in the woods. However, as I began to spend most of my adult life in kitchens, my time in the outdoors began to dwindle. I remember when I found my first chanterelle on the banks of Lake Rabun while perch fishing in July of 2003 and my love for the woods was reignited. Now I had an excuse to get out of the kitchen and back into the outdoors for an hour or two a day, clear my head, and pick some great mushrooms. A great friend of mine (and chef) Brandon McGlamery always says “Sometimes you have to slow down to speed up.” In fact a lot of my favorite spots to forage are located in a close proximity to the restaurants I have worked in or still work in. Of course I use what I forage in dishes at the restaurants, but I wouldn’t say that it really inspires the dishes that we create, it just makes me more sensitive to the seasons. The seasons are what inspires new dishes for me—what grows together goes together!
What is the craziest, or most surprising, item you’ve foraged and used in a dish? One of the best finds we made in North Georgia while digging for ramps was a bush called spice wood, also known as the American Spicebush. I think it might have been a better story than anything! My dear friend, Ken Zinkand, and I had our heads down digging onions in the middle of nowhere North Georgia on top of a mountain, when out of nowhere comes this skinny old man with a silver beard that must have been two feet long carrying a 20-gauge pump action shot gun! He was dressed in dirty old baggy jeans, with a red and black flannel shirt, and he must have been missing five of his teeth. Our initial response was somewhat shrouded with fear as you can imagine, but after we began to chat we realized that he was just a good old boy with a wealth of knowledge about our current surroundings. He was the one that turned us onto the spice wood that we had been crawling underneath all day to gather wild onions. The spice wood when chewed on raw has a very spicy aromatic flavor. In the past, it was often used to make teas. I took a whole bag full of it back to the restaurant and gave it the bartenders, and they concocted a delicious bitters for drinks!
You forage, you love fishing. Is it rare for an elite chef to be outdoorsy? I don’t think so. Food grows from the dirt so it just makes sense. Also most of my chef friends here in Atlanta love to get in the woods as well. Every April a bunch of us get together and head to north Georgia to dig ramps. It’s awesome, a lot of cook talk, food talk, and a pile of wild spring onions!
What percentage of your dishes do you estimate contain local items, and why is that important to you? We try to source as much of our product as we can at 246 from the Southeast. If we can’t find what we need in the southeast then we try to source everything from the USA. I would say that around 75% of our products are sourced from the southeast. It’s important to us at 246—aside from the obvious reason of global climate impact, I need a good story. We take a sense of pride in knowing where are products come from, we love to tell our products’ story. One of our favorite products that we are using right now is Bottarga from Clearwater Florida. Our friend Mike Lassiter goes out and cast nets for yellow mullet in the salt marshes, and cures the roe sacks in the sun. It’s such an amazing product with a great story and now I don’t have to purchase bottarga from the Mediterrean.
Tell us about the black sheep table, and where the idea for it came from? When you are surrounded by amazing cooks for a long time you are always brainstorming new restaurant ideas. One of our ideas that we were tossing around was a family-style restaurant with no choices. When you sit down, what we cook is what you get. It’s my favorite way to eat when I’m not working: no decisions, easy, just cook for me. The one thing that always makes me laugh when I go to someone’s home for dinner is when they say something along the lines of, “I’m so nervous to be cooking for a chef.” Why? I’m the least picky person in the world, and on my days off if I’m not cooking I’m a happy camper! The concept was to be somewhat like one of those southern family style restaurants (ex. the Dillard House, Mary Mac’s Tea Room, etc.) in terms of service, but not be pigeonholed into the “Southern Food” category. It could be whatever it wanted to be with good thoughtful food! Of course financial restraints put “Rag & Bone” (we even thought up a name) on hold, and since we already had a restaurant the “Black Sheep” table was born! My dad and I (mostly my dad, I was in charge of getting fresh beers) built a long wooden table out of wood scraps leftover from the construction of the floors at 246 that is positioned directly under a beautiful picture of a black sheep, hence the name “the black sheep table.” When you sit down with your friends and family we cook whatever we think is our best in the kitchen at the moment!
Overall, how would you describe the experience you hope diners have at No. 246? When you come into to 246, order some meatballs, some pastas, some simple local greens, maybe even a little wine with some good friends and don’t forget to share. Pass the plates around the table and have a good time.
Drew Belline is the executive chef and partner of No. 246, where he combines his leadership and culinary experience with a passion for letting ingredients develop organically into innovative dishes. Like his business partner Ford Fry, Belline is an avid believer in utilizing local products and even does his own foraging for edible mushrooms. At No. 246, Belline’s passion for simplicity and locality melds with rustic Italian techniques for a menu that is beautifully executed yet satisfying enough to enjoy on a daily basis.
Prior to partnering with Fry to open No. 246, Belline worked for more than four years as the chef de cuisine at Floataway Café in Atlanta, where he was in charge of the daily menu creation and executed dishes based upon local and seasonal ingredients.
Belline is a graduate of Johnson and Wales University in Charleston, South Carolina, and he headed straight to New York after graduation to sharpen his culinary skills. While there, he worked under such highly esteemed chefs as Charlie Palmer at Kitchen 22 and Tom Colicchio at Craft, who helped mold his culinary foundation. Upon returning to his home state of Georgia, Belline served as a sous chef at Bacchanalia and trained under renowned Chefs Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison in Atlanta. He then became the opening chef de cuisine for Quinones at Bacchanalia, designing a daily changing 12-course tasting menu and soon achieving his goal of a five star rating from the Atlanta Journal –Constitution.
In 2007, Belline was named a Rising Star Chef by Starchefs.com and has also been featured in Food & Wine, Bon Appétit and Southern Living. In January 2013, he was selected as the Springer Mountain Farms Chef Appreciation recipient.
Belline resides in Decatur with his wife Marguerite and two daughters, Madeline and Kiley. He is an avid fly fisherman and spends his spare time fishing throughout the Southeast for both freshwater and saltwater species. Belline is a member of the 2013 Community Farmers Markets Chefs Advisory Board. Belline also regularly updates his blog, chefdrewbelline.tumblr.com, with photos from his latest foraging adventures.