Ten Georgia Chefs to Compete in Showcase of the State’s Official Vegetable


Ten Georgia Chefs to Compete in Showcase of the State’s Official Vegetable


Vidalia, Georgia, USA (March 28, 2014) — Ten Georgia chefs will soon slice and dice the official state vegetable at the 37th Annual Vidalia Onion Festival. In the process, they’ll prove smiles are more common than tears when it comes to working with Vidalia® onions.

The 3rd Annual Golden Onion will be held on Sunday, April 27, 2014, in Vidalia, Ga., on the final afternoon of the 37th Annual Vidalia Onion Festival. This professional cooking competition showcases the famed Vidalia® onion and also serves as a platform for chefs across Georgia to display their skills and creativity.


From the mountains to the islands, fine dining to casual eateries, new business ventures to long-standing community mainstays, the 2014 roster of chef competitors represents a cross-section of Georgia restaurants and cuisine:


Chef Costanzo Astarita, executive chef at Baraonda Ristorante in Atlanta, Ga., is originally from Italy’s Island of Capri. When his food-centric family immigrated to Bermuda, he honed his skills at The Bermuda Culinary School and later in the United Kingdom. In 1989 he settled in Georgia and became the food and beverage director at Château Élan in Braselton, Ga. After revamping the resort’s culinary program, Astarita decided to realize his dream of becoming a business owner. Along with business partner and fellow countryman Mario Maccarone, he launched C+M Gastronomy Group, which includes the restaurants Baraonda, Publik Draft House and Fig Jam Kitchen & Bar. Astarita says that he enjoys cooking with Vidalia® onions “first and foremost because they are a Georgia Grown product and grown locally. Secondly, we enjoy the mild flavor that the onions have whether raw or cooked. Also, our experience has shown that they add a mild sweetness to any dish they are used in.”


Chef Jennifer Hill Booker, owner and executive chef of Your Resident Gourmet in Lilburn, Ga., was named a Georgia Grown Executive Chef in 2013. She authored Field Peas to Foie Gras: Southern Recipes with a French Accent, to be released by Pelican Publishing House on September 1. She writes a weekly newsletter, is a contributing columnist and recipe developer for several magazine titles, and hosts Basil Radio Show. She partnered with Hard Rock Café-Atlanta for its culinary series, served as a culinary expert for Williams-Sonoma, and taught at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts-Atlanta. A member of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, Booker is co-chair of its farm and garden initiative. After earning a B.A. from The University of Tulsa, she completed Oklahoma State University-Okmulgee’s Culinary Arts program and later earned a Cuisine de Base Certificate from Le Cordon Bleu-Paris. She led Grayson Technical High School’s efforts to earn accreditation through The American Culinary Federation, making it the first school in Georgia to boast such honors. Of Vidalia® onions, she says that they “add a great flavor to every savory dish without the bite or bitterness of other onions. I look at Vidalia onions as a delicacy because I can only get them while in season and only from Vidalia, Georgia. So I make a point of using them and have created specialty dishes just so I can use more Vidalia onions.”


Chef Brian Justice, chef and owner of Tasteful Temptations Café in Brunswick, Ga., is a Georgia native. He started working at the Sea Island Company in 1992, completed the Apprentice Cook Program and was named lead cook/banquet chef at The Cloister, Sea Island. Six years later, he moved to the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Fla., where he held multiple positions. In 2004 he leapt at the opportunity to drive fresh and frozen foods across the U.S. for Frozen Foods Express, based in Dallas, Texas. In 2007, he returned to his home state and hometown with his wife and opened Tasteful Temptations, which offers catering services, serves as the in-flight vendor for Netjets and most other private jets flying out of Brunswick and St. Simons Island, and also operates the café in the Brunswick Airport. He enjoys Vidalia® onions because, “They’re sweeter and don’t overpower dishes,” he says. He won 2nd place at the 2nd annual Golden Onion in 2013.


Chef Pano I. Karatassos is executive chef of Kyma in Atlanta, Ga., a member of the Buckhead Life Restaurant Group. After earning a degree in Hospitality Management at Florida International University, he trained at the renowned Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and worked in prestigious kitchens around the country including three Michelin three-star restaurants: French Laundry in Napa Valley, Calif., Jean-Georges and Le Bernardin both in New York City, N.Y. He started cooking at age 16, working in his father’s restaurants Pano’s & Paul’s, The Fish Market and 103 West. Kyma opened in December 2001 and gained national attention in 2002 when Esquire named it one of the top 20 restaurants in the country. “Vidalia onions give us a different dimension of flavor than regular onions,” he says. “They have good sugar content that gives different preparations that sweetness we need in many of our dishes at Kyma. They have great texture, color, earthiness and sweetness.”


Chef David Larkworthy, executive chef and founder of Five Seasons Brewing Company in Atlanta, Ga., has had a lifelong love of food: His first word was apple, he picked and sold blackberries at age eight, and began working at his father’s restaurant The Mushroom in Westport, Conn., when he was 12. After earning a marketing degree from Florida State University, he returned to Atlanta and, at age 23, opened his first restaurant, an Italian bistro, The Gourmet Grill. He later went to work for The Buckhead Life Group at Pano’s and Paul’s. In 2001, he opened the Five Seasons Brewing Company in Sandy Springs to feature local handcrafted beer and food served side-by-side; the company now boasts three Atlanta-area locations. Larkworthy, who works with local farmers and believes strongly in local, organic and sustainable foods, says that he likes “everything” about Vidalia® onions. “They are a wonderful ingredient. Georgia is a more special place because of them. They’re very versatile and a pleasure to work with.”


Chef Roberto Leoci, executive chef and owner of Leoci’s Trattoria in Savannah, Ga., was named a Georgia Grown Executive Chef in 2014. He developed a passion for food at an early age while spending summers in Sicily with his family. His culinary career began as he worked and studied in Florence, Italy, and continued after crossing the Atlantic to work at The Ritz-Carlton on Key Biscayne, Fla. He then worked as a private chef for several years. After moving to Savannah to help open Bull Street Chophouse, in late 2009 he opened Leoci’s Trattoria. The menu is influenced by his boyhood in Bari, on the heel of the Italian boot. With a family of shopkeepers, cheese mongers and cooks, Chef Leoci has a firm background in the region’s foodways. Among his many accolades, Leoci awarded 3rd place at the 2nd annual Golden Onion in 2013. “Vidalia onions are definitely the best in the world!” he says. “They have a unique delicious and sweet flavor that reminds me of my second favorite, cipollinis from Italy.”


Chef Danny Mellman is executive chef and owner of Harvest on Main and Blue Ridge Grocery in Blue Ridge, Ga., where his goal is to showcase local, sustainable products. The self-taught culinarian honed his skills in England, France and Italy. After returning to the states, he became executive chef of The Mad Batter in Cape May, N.J. In 1988, he headed south to Captiva Island where he opened The Greenhouse Grill, spending 25 years in Florida before joining the ranks of “half-backs” settling in north Georgia with his partner (writer and farm director) Michelle Moran. He has been featured in the “Great Chefs of the South” TV series. Certification from the American Culinary Federation, entrepreneurial endeavors, and recent writing assignments in Taiwan, Australia, Greece and Spain have additionally broadened Mellman’s knowledge and standing as a culinary professional. “I love the natural sweetness of a Vidalia onion,” he says. “They brown so quickly on the griddle and their shape makes for beautiful, uniform rings.”


Chef Austin Rocconi is the executive chef for Le Vigne Restaurant at Montaluce in Dahlonega, Ga. A native of southern Mississippi, he graduated from the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena, Calif. After a short time at The Jonathan Club Santa Monica, Calif., he returned south and worked in kitchens at Kyma, BLT Steak and Canoe in Atlanta before accepting his current position. Rocconi favors locally-sourced cuisine and hyper-seasonal ingredients; at Le Vigne he incorporates ingredients from the restaurant’s garden as well as from regional purveyors. “Onions play one of the most important and yet modest roles in nearly all recipes in any aspect of the culinary world,” he says. “They provide depth, complexity, flavor development and enhancement for the most traditional chef to the dangerously avant-garde. I consider it a blessing to live in Georgia where I have access to such a nationally sought after product such as the Vidalia onion. The Vidalia onion gives me the chance to support local agriculture as well as show my community just one of the great accomplishments their state has produced. The Vidalia onion season is something I always look forward to and a product I will use as long as I am cooking.” He won 3rd place at the inaugural Golden Onion in 2012.

Chef Marc Taft, executive chef and owner of Chicken and the Egg in Marietta, Ga., was named a Georgia Grown Executive Chef in 2014. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Alabama and then worked for the restaurant companies Carlson Hospitality and Brinker International. He has served as general manager for The Inn at Evins Mill in middle Tennessee, B.A.N.K Restaurant in Minneapolis, Minn., Domaso Trattoria Moderna in Washington, D.C., and Pacci Ristorante in Atlanta, Ga. Taft has also worked as the concept development director for Al Copeland Investments, where he helped develop Copeland’s Cheesecake Bistro, and has held executive chef and corporate chef positions. His experience also includes stints as the director of food and beverage for the Sheraton Music City Hotel in Nashville, Tenn., and director of restaurant operations for the Southeast region of Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants where he was responsible for overseeing several restaurants including Area 31 in Miami, Fla., and Central 214 in Dallas, Texas. “I love the versatility of the Vidalia onion,” he says. “The perfect balance of the onion flavor and sweetness make it the perfect complement to any dish but they have a big enough personality to stand alone as the star of the show.”


Chef Jordan Wakefield is executive chef and owner of the new Smoke Ring in Atlanta, Ga. After his first culinary job at age 14 at a casual Italian restaurant, the Georgia native attended Le Cordon Bleu in Atlanta, Ga., where he took a coveted three month externship at the exclusive Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, Va. He stayed and worked his way up to junior sous chef then returned to Atlanta to work as a lead line cook at Spice Market. The owners of Food 101 hired him as sous chef of Meehan’s Public House Sandy Springs; he was soon promoted to executive chef of the downtown Atlanta location. In 2010, he was invited to cook at the James Beard House in New York. With his wife he is opening Smoke Ring, which will serve his take on “Georgia-Style Barbeque” in Atlanta’s Castleberry Hill community. “At Smoke Ring, we aim to cook only with the freshest ingredients,” he says. “We are a large supporter of Vidalia onions since they are grown right here in Georgia, and we use them daily to produce our popular onion rings. I enjoy cooking with Vidalia onions because they are the freshest and most flavorful onions available. It makes me proud to know that they are a product of my home state, Georgia.”


Chef Astarita also competed in Golden Onion 2012. Chefs Justice and Leoci also competed in Golden Onion 2013. Chefs Rocconi and Taft join the competition for the third consecutive year.




About the Golden Onion

The Golden Onion professional cooking competition challenges Georgia chefs to create and prepare recipes featuring Vidalia® onions. Competing chefs will have one hour to prepare and present their recipes. The First Place champion will be presented the Golden Onion trophy to hold for one year along with a cash prize of $500. The second place winner will receive $250 and the third place winner $100. All winners will also receive commemorative plaques. The Golden Onion competition will be held at the Vidalia Community Center, 107 Old Airport Road in Vidalia, Ga. The event is open to the public starting at 12:30 p.m. Admission is free. For details visit www.vidaliaonionfestival.com.


About the Vidalia Onion Festival

Celebrating its 37th year in 2014, the Vidalia Onion Festival will be held April 24-27 in Vidalia, Ga. The event has been featured on The Food Network and recognized as one of the “5 Don’t-Miss Festivals Across the U.S.” by MSNBC. The four-day festival offers something for everyone, including the Miss Vidalia Onion Pageant, a children’s parade, outdoor music concerts, an arts and crafts festival, opening ceremonies and fireworks, car show, the Kiwanis Onion Run, and the Famous onion eating contest. Come to Vidalia to experience the “whole onion.” For more information, visit www.vidaliaonionfestival.com.


About Vidalia® Onions

Vidalia® Onions are the pioneer of sweet onions and Georgia’s official state vegetable. Grown only in the mild climate and unique soil surrounding Vidalia, Ga., they’re loved by chefs and home cooks throughout the world. Vidalia® onions are hand-planted and hand-harvested each year, with sweet, juicy bulbs available seasonally from late April to late August. Their mild, sweet taste makes Vidalia® onions more versatile than stronger onions. And these Georgia sweeties are a low-calorie, fat, cholesterol, and sodium-free way to get a healthy dose of Vitamin C. For more information, visit www.VidaliaOnion.org.


About the Georgia Restaurant Association (GRA)
The GRA’s mission is to serve as the voice for Georgia’s Restaurants in Advocacy, Education and Awareness. The GRA is sanctioned by the National Restaurant Association (NRA) to operate Georgia’s only not-for-profit representing the state’s foodservice industry. From large chains to start-ups, the GRA helps make Georgia a better place for restaurants to do business and helps make restaurants better for Georgia. For more information, visit www.garestaurants.org.


About Georgia Grown Executive Chefs

The Georgia Department of Agriculture and the Georgia Restaurant Association appoint four Georgia Grown Executive Chefs each year, as part of a program that debuted in 2012. The goal of the program is to help raise awareness about the availability of the quality, local products that can be found in Georgia and promote relationships between chefs and farmers across the state.


Ingrid M. Varn

Executive Director, Vidalia Area CVB



Hope S. Philbrick

Freelance Writer & Editor / Golden Onion Judge