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CNN.COM
WEATHER.COM (Atlanta)
Gerry Klaskala
by Jenica Smith

To Gerry Klaskala, co-owner and head chef of the popular Buckhead restaurant Aria, what is nearly as important as the consistency of the food he creates each night is the fact that those same items are constantly moving toward change. Undertaking what he calls the “evolution of a menu,” Klaskala strives to slowly take his dishes to new levels, while maintaining the quality and style Aria’s clientele have come to expect.

“It’ll always feel familiar, but it should always feel fresh,” he says.

Referring to Aria as “the anti-restaurant” because of its almost non-existent turnover, Klaskala says guests experience a level of comfort and consistency with every visit, from ordering the same delicious entrée to being assisted by the same valet each time.

Klaskala says he is confident in his current menu, but he is always curious about expanding it to reflect new trends and ideas. “I’m constantly peeking around,” he says. “I’m kind of a culinary voyeur.” The culinary trends in Australia are currently providing the strongest temptation for Klaskala’s wandering eye. “I’m very interested in the experimentation that’s going on over there,” he says.

Klaskala began his own experimentation when, as a gifted art student at age 15, he began working for spending money in an upstate New York kitchen. At 17, he was given the opportunity to compete in a local food show. Klaskala’s entries took best in show, a first for a novice, and he never looked back.

He graduated with honors from New York’s Culinary Institute of America in 1976. He was then hired by Hyatt hotels, which brought him to Georgia and eventually the launch of the Buckhead Diner, where he gained national acclaim for the restaurant and his creations.

After leaving the Buckhead Diner, Klaskala formed We’re Cookin’ Inc. with partners George McKerrow Jr. and Ron San Martin. That company has produced two popular Atlanta dining establishments: Canoe in 1995 and Aria in March of 2000.

When Aria opened, Klaskala was able to realize his vision of what he considers a “chef’s perfect restaurant.” Aria, with its contemporary American fare, provides an ideal environment for the practice of Klaskala’s self-described “slow burn” cooking style. He does not move quickly into any trend, but lets his ideas marinate and evolve until he has created a dish that is right for Aria. In fact, Klaskala considers his chosen career perfect in all respects.

“I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing,” Klaskala says. “I love the business.”
Klaskala’s passion for his craft has been retained through 27 years in the profession and a smattering of relatives who may have thought college was a better option.

Despite the long hours he puts in at work, Klaskala still enjoys cooking for his wife Sally and two college-age sons on Sunday, the only day he doesn’t spend at Aria. His love for his work runs deeper than mere enjoyment, and to hear him speak of it, one could believe that to Klaskala, to cook is to live.

Klaskala says he draws inspiration from the work of other culinary artists. However, it’s not their finished work that gets his creativity flowing. Klaskala says the ingredients can be just as inspiring.

“I love to look at menus,” he says. “I like to see someone else’s components and without ever seeing what they came up with, I try to think of what I could do with those ingredients. It’s a way of getting limited inspiration.”

It is this minimalist style of cooking that Klaskala has drawn upon to guide the newest step in the evolution of Aria’s menu. “I’m trying to see how little I can put into a dish to really reveal what it is,” he says. However, he maintains that his style, though different now than ten or even five years ago, is still recognizably his, and will still be so ten years from now.

Currently, Klaskala is working on a new project tucked away in the mountains of Highland, North Carolina. Set to open in spring of 2004, and housed in a renovated inn, the combination spa and restaurant will take Klaskala’s talent in a yet another new direction. “I’m trying to create a restaurant that has a sense of place,” he says. The menu will feature a modern interpretation of sophisticated Southern cooking.

Klaskala says though he is still in the process of finding a chef to head up the new venture, he will not be taking time away from Aria anytime soon. “[Aria] is my baby,” he says.

Aria serves dinner 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Reservations can be made by calling 888-795-9409.

Chef Gerry Klaskala