By Darcy Lenz
Much like her cooking style, Whitney Otawka is a blend of grace, charm and steel.
Before she greets you with a relaxed West Coast accent (near foreign compared to your own southern drawl), you might find yourself intimidated by the sternness present behind her attentive gaze. It’s one that indicates extensively polished grit. The firmness she maintains in stature and in practice is a distinguished point of pride for the chef. That’s obvious by the unyielding eye contact she maintains while explaining this relentless personal discipline to you. You need to understand it before ever understanding her, so try not to blink too much.
Most widely known as a competitor on the ninth season of Bravo’s “Top Chef,” Whitney Otawka has since been nationally recognized as a culinary force to be reckoned with. She’s taken her delicious expertise from Oakland, California to the southernmost island of Georgia, serving in prestigious kitchens literally from coast to coast.
Even with successes at notable eateries like Just Fabulous Pastries, Five and Ten and The Greyfield Inn, Otawka’s path has been neither obvious nor straight.
The current executive chef of Farm 255 will tell you up front, “It’s kind of weird how I landed in the position I’m in.”
A love for all things French motivated Otawka, as a Berkeley undergrad, to apply for a waitressing job at a small crêperie just blocks from where she was living. After “fudging” her resume, she didn’t quite land the position.
“I was like 19… and it was pretty apparent that I hadn’t ever waited tables, so [the owner] pulled me into the kitchen instead,” Otawka says.
Otawka’s normally stern expression melts into a nostalgia-laced grin as she reminisces of day shifts filled with everything from routine prep-work to washing dishes, followed by educational evenings at the table. Over the dinner her boss and earliest culinary mentor, Eric LeRoy, prepared each night, they simultaneously discussed and savored essentials of French cuisine—the wine, the cheese and the galettes. To this day, Otawka hasn’t found traditional Brittany-style galettes to match the likes of his. For the budding chef, these night school-like sessions were “just the best ever.”
Post-graduation, it was logic that directed Otawka to pursue work within her degree field of American Studies. It was sheer boredom that told her to stop. After working roughly one year within historic preservation for the city of San Diego, Otawka left her job collaborating with the planning department on historic building certifications and protecting/cataloging historic landmarks.
An office job could never provide the hands-on interaction Otawka requires to thrive. This need to invest both mind and body in her work explains why today Otawka’s favorite kitchen tasks include braising meats and making pasta, observing formless masses become delicacies between her hands.
Thus, she turned from “bureaucracy” and tried her hand at food artistry in San Francisco’s restaurant scene, eventually making a cross-country shift to Georgia. A that ultimately set her kitchen-based might into motion.
Otawka didn’t come to Athens on a prestigious job offer. Ready to leave California, she came on the arm of a tattoo artist ex-boyfriend and subsequently found a job at Athens’ Five and Ten. But more importantly, she came on a chance that the arisen opportunity could better satisfy her ambition’s hunger. This bold appetite has characterized her career from the onset and is the driving factor behind her success to date.
Under Chef Hugh Acheson, Otawka eventually worked her way up to sous chef and for the first time, seriously focused on cooking as a profession. While working with Acheson, she found incentive to enroll at Le Cordon Bleu Atlanta, she found her current boyfriend and long-standing kitchen co-captain Ben Wheatley, and most notably, she found her fire.
“I went into his kitchen and that’s the first place where I really buckled down, got serious, focused on my knife skills, focused on basic training information. I studied in school, studied with him, and just totally focused,” Otawka said.
Even after moving on to serve as executive chef at the Greyfield Inn of Cumberland Island, it was with Acheson’s encouragement that she stretched beyond her cookery comfort zone to compete on “Top Chef.” The chaos and artificiality of the “Top Chef”environment made it less than ideal for Otawka, who tends to approach cooking quite methodically. However, contending in the competition was a golden opportunity for growth. An opportunity Otawka couldn’t refuse.
“How many times in your life are you going to be surrounded by 15 other people that are just as driven as you, just as motivated as you, and influence the way that you think and are giving you new inspiration?” Otawka asks.
After leaving the TV competition, she brought that fresh inspiration back to Athens and into her present professional home at Farm 255. Here, Otawka’s passions and experiences converge in a warm atmosphere and a frequently-changing menu.
Rather than linger on repetitive flavor arrangements, Otawka prefers to emphasize seasonality. Take for example her Winter Salad that glorifies hearty winter produce through fried brussel sprouts and roasted parsnips complemented by warm flavors of house made bacon, calvander cheese and a mustard vinaigrette. The same zeal for history that originally led Otawka to pursue work in historic preservation now provides a baseline for her rustic comfort cooking approach.
“Whitney has a definitive Georgian take on food, and her skill set is very respectful of the local sphere,” Acheson says in an e-mail concerning Otakwa’s culinary development. “That combined with the sustainable integrity of a restaurant like Farm 255 seems like a great fit for food in Athens.”
From the open-faced kitchen, she can observe the evening’s community of diners enjoy the food she’s created. It’s touched with southern culture, but equally demonstrates a deep appreciation for old world cuisine. These plates hold the best ingredients Otawka can find locally.
“I attach onto the southern culture,” Otawka says regarding her style. “But I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily southern in totality… I have a deep appreciation for old world cooking, like Italian food, and French food, and Spanish food.”
The pairing of carefully-prepared food with an informal atmosphere mirrors Otawka’s unique personality, which is a hybrid of dedication and relaxation. That said, Otawka doesn’t appear to notice what an anomaly her character presents while discussing tattoos and fried chicken, and especially not when moving on to more critical matters, such as cheese.
Her favorite right now is bonne bouche. This creamy goats’ milk cheese comes from a Vermont dairy, so you won’t find it on Farm’s current cheese board. She laments the way that gems of America’s southern creameries are often overlooked, like the semi-soft chocolate lab from Looking Glass Creamery in North Carolina. Thus, they’re the only cheeses you’ll find on her menu.
“Nobody else really does that around here,” Otawka says, “It’s kind of unique.”
She’s right you know. A cheese selection composed solely from products of a single region’s dairies is not something you see in most restaurants (especially when said region is the Southeast United States), but it works perfectly for Farm 255. Which goes to show, there’s something to be said for defining delectability on your own terms.
Otawka’s journey to this point demonstrates a certain fearlessness that can be admired by most anyone, whether they be an established professional enjoying dinner at her restaurant or one of her young employees clearing tables. She didn’t follow a conventional route to success, yet Otawka has found a medium that allows her to freely express her creativity.
Similar to the restaurant’s cheese board, Otawka’s methods and mannerisms are by no means the norm. Though certainly atypical, the unique balance present in both consistently keep customers coming back for more.