The latest event from Downtown Drafts pits four local cooks against one another in a just-for-fun contest to determine the best chef working in downtown Gainesville.
There are just about no rules in the competition between Josh Hogan, Eric Baehr, Jeremy Wilkson Austin Calvert — they have to use a beer from Left Nut Brewing Co. and come up with bite-sized portions for the competition on Tuesday, Dec. 18.
But who are the men jumping into the contest, and where did they hone the cooking skills they’re taking into the battle?
The Times talks with all four leading up to the contest next week.
Eric Baehr, owner of K&E’s Catering Company
Eric Baehr’s passion for cooking can be traced back to Thomas Keller, a renowned chef in Napa Valley.
Diving into one of Keller’s books, Baehr thought to himself, “That guy really knows what he’s doing.” That was years ago, but the chef piqued his interest and the kitchen has held onto him ever since.
Now, he cooks because he likes the challenge.
“I’ll see something and I’ll say, ‘I bet I can make that work,’” Baehr said.
He never went to culinary school. Baehr said he was “trained by Alton Brown, cooking books and that’s it.” The first restaurant he worked in was Hiroba, a Japanese fusion spot on the Gainesville square.
“That’s where I made a lot of contacts and learned a lot about food,” Baehr said.
He’s bounced around from different restaurants in Gainesville since then: Seabones, 2 Dog, Recess, Atlas Pizza.
“Usually, it’s not about needing a job, it’s about finding a friend that needs some help and I’ll go do that for a little bit,” Baehr said. “That way it’s kind of like a jack-of-all-trades, master of none.”
Now, he’s started his own catering business, K&E’s Catering Company, so he can have a more steady schedule and experiment with things he wants to.
“There’s some kind of peace of mind making scalloped potatoes for 200 people while I listen to The Kinks because I’m the only one that wants to,” Baehr said. “It’s just kind of like you don’t have to run anything by anybody. You can just test things out, see if they work and if they do, run with it, without anyone trying to tell you no.”
Baehr has experimented with different things recently, like deep frying sour cream — he said the effort isn’t worth the final product — or deep frying poached eggs.
Now, tasked with making something using Left Nut’s Mighty Banyan, a double India Pale Ale, he gets to experiment even more.
“I’m going to smoke some meat and use that and mix it with some other stuff and use it as the spray on the meat.,” Baehr said. “It’ll add some flavor, but mostly to just keep the meat moist.
He said the Might Banyan is hard to work with because it “doesn’t really lend itself to much.” And instead of taking the easy route by making beer bread, he plans on complicating things a little.
“I’m going with an Asian flair just for fun,” Baehr said.
Austin Calvert, executive chef at Recess Southern Gastro-pub
For Austin Calvert, it all started when he was a 15-year-old kid in the dish pit at Seabones, a restaurant on the downtown Gainesville square owned by his parents.
“I started working in there when they had it, then moved to Atlanta to go to school and started working in restaurants there and realized, ‘Hey, this is what I like, this is what I want to do.’” Calvert said. “It just went from there.”
That wasn’t his plan, though. He originally went to school for construction management, but his time in the kitchen at Seabones kept coming up in his mind.
“I liked the energy of everything, the pace of everything,” Calvert said. “I liked the people at the different restaurants I was working in and always seemed to get along with everybody and never seemed to have any issues.”
Now, he’s the executive chef at Recess — his second stint with the restaurant after a period working at Mellow Mushroom. He’s excited to represent Recess during Battle of the Chefs and is happy to be working in Gainesville, a place where he can contribute to the growing food scene and the place where his passion for cooking began.
“I think as far as outside the perimeter goes, if you want good food, you come to Gainesville to get it,” Calvert said. “There’s definitely plenty of good places that aren’t your corporate restaurants.”
Calvert was given Left Nut’s Prime Minister Porter, an English porter, as his beer for the event and “in true chef fashion, I haven’t done anything with it yet,” he said.
He has a few ideas and has been talking with his team at Recess to get ideas on the best ingredients to pair with the beer. He said his first thought was a take on chicken and waffles, where he would use a beer-batter waffle, but he may be changing things up.
“We played with it the other day and it didn’t turn out like I wanted it to,” Calvert said. “So move onto the next one.”
Josh Hogan, chef at Mule Camp Tavern
Working at Waffle House wasn’t going to cut it when Josh Hogan found out he was going to be a father at a young age.
In search of a second job, he made his way to Lake Lanier Islands for a job fair. But when he got there, the position he had his eye on had already been filled, leading him to other tables around the hall.
Finally, he found a table with information about catering at the Islands, so he decided to give it a shot.
“I had an official interview with the chef, and there’s a spot on the application where it says, ‘Is there anything else we should consider you for,’” Hogan said. “And I put on there, ‘I’m good at everything that I do.’”
That caught the chef’s attention and led to Hogan getting a job in the main kitchen, learning under the chefs that provided food for the park and other events.
He said when he first walked into the kitchen, it was nothing like he expected.
“What goes into cooking and building stuff and what is actually used to produce the things that everybody else sees, it intrigued me,” Hogan said. “And they had no problem with this kid — because I did all the grunt work — I asked, ‘Why are you using that wine? Why didn’t you use this instead?’ I really owe a lot to those dudes.”
Hogan never went to culinary school, but that Lake Lanier Islands job at 20 years old gave him the experience he needed to move into a career.
He’s worked at the Orr House in Dahlonega, the University Yacht Club in Flowery Branch, Truett McConnell University in Cleveland and Scott’s Downtown. Now, he’s working at Mule Camp Tavern where he’s able to use his knowledge and experience to create an exhaustive menu.
“I seem to be really good at just kind of making whatever taste good,” Hogan said. “I’m that kind of chef that could open my kitchen cabinet and take a bunch of random stuff and just create something completely off-the-wall with it. I really get into doing that.”
With the Battle of the Chefs competition, Hogan is hoping to show people exactly who he is.
“I felt like maybe this was a good way to kind of get my name out there, because I’ve been around the square for a bunch of years,” Hogan said. “I’ve kind of always been hidden behind the name, I felt like this was a good way to get people to recognize who I am.”
He’s been charged with coming up with a bite-size meal using Left Nut’s Leaping Lena, an imperial red ale that has “slight hints of pine and very subtle fruit.”
Mule Camp Tavern has it on tap, so Hogan has been able to test it out a few different ways.
“I made a beef bourguignon with the Leaping Lena and I tried a stroganoff,” Hogan said. “I’m not sure if I’m going to go that route or with a beer and cheese soup. Just something along those lines, though.”
Part of the reason he’s thinking about making soup is because of the weather. Another reason is because that’s what he made when he first started in a kitchen. After tucking in his chef’s jacket on his first day — which he quickly learned he wasn’t supposed to do — Hogan learned how to make soup.
“I was kind of intimidated, so one of the things I gravitated toward was making soups because that was one of the things that seemed easy to me and it was a good way to make myself valuable,” Hogan said.
Jeremy Wilkson, former chef at Scott’s Downtown
Jeremy Wilkson grew up on a farm in California, growing many of the crops that feed the rest of America.
“Food has always been a big part of my life,” Wilkson said. “We raised chickens, grew almonds and we got into doing farmers markets.”
He said he remembers filling up the truck with his grandfather each week and heading out to the markets to sell the produce they had grown.
He moved to Georgia during his senior year of high school and to Gainesville shortly after that. He’s been in the area for about 15 years.
“Once I found Gainesville, I knew this is where I wanted to be,” Wilkson said. “The people, the place. It was just the right amount of everything.”
He comes from a management background after working at Papa John’s Pizza and Locos Grill & Pub. He went on to co-own Wedgy’s Pizza and finally landed at Scott’s Downtown.
“That was my first real introduction to real restaurant cooking, and from-scratch cooking and that kind of thing,” Wilkson said.
He’s no longer a chef at a restaurant. All of his cooking is done from home, but he’s still up for the challenge of taking Left Nut’s Shade Tail Nutty, an English-style brown ale, and making a meal out of it.
“I messed around with some Sunday game stuff where there was a dip I made, but that was more I just wanted to see what it would do” Wilkson said.
He also tried out a meatball dish and plans to make more of an appetizer-type dish when the Battle of the Chefs event rolls around. It’s the sauce he plans on making that he’s excited about, though.
“The sauce I’m thinking about bringing is with fresh cherries,” Wilkson said. “Like an ale sauce where it starts with a saute and then the butter, onion, and then the beer. And then cut it with the cherries and cherry juice, and then thicken it where it’s got some viscosity and put it on a nice piece of protein.”