Setting the stage

Sweet potato recipe has its roots in Atlanta

Chef Gavin Smith's Chipotle Sweet Potato Gratin. — Gavin Smith

Chefs have a long tradition of “staging” (pronounced more like stodging), in which you go and work in a kitchen with chefs you would like to work with, or learn more from. It is almost always unpaid, and requires all of the demand of being an employee of that restaurant. Last winter I reached out to Zach Meloy at Better Half restaurant in Atlanta. I had admired his whimsical food for years on Instagram, and hoped that he might have room for me to spend some time in the kitchen with him and his team. My wife and I were preparing to spend a month in Atlanta, and she encouraged me to reach out to him to see if I could stage alongside him and his staff.

I sent him an email, and was thrilled to receive a reply almost immediately. He told me I was welcome to come in and we’d “see how it goes.” I was there for no more than five minutes when he asked me to make chili from scratch for the staff pre-shift meal. I only had half an hour, so I concocted the best version I could in the allotted time, then jumped in to lend a hand prepping for dinner service. Zach approached me shortly after, and told me that I was welcome to cook with them as long as I wanted. It was a great feeling to be welcomed into their kitchen, alongside talented chefs I had admired and respected for so long.

Every chef has a different vision, a different approach, or a different touch, and I think it’s important to see what others are doing and share ideas. I learned a number of things during my time at Better Half, and I had a blast working with one of the tightest teams I have seen in a kitchen in years. As a private chef, I am often cooking alone, so I especially value the opportunities to be around, and be inspired by, other chefs.

One of the foods that really stuck with me from my experience at Better Half was a chipotle potato gratin with Cotija cheese. Late last season, after preparing potatoes as many ways as I could think of, I decided to recreate the dish with a few twists. Using Mermaid Farm’s Feta Style cheese (which is absolutely delicious), and some local sweet potatoes, I put my own spin on this amazing side dish. It’s the perfect comfort food for a cold winter night, and the flavor combination is unlike most things you’ve tried before.

Chipotle Sweet Potato Gratin

4 to 6 sweet potatoes
1 cup heavy cream
2 to 3 cloves garlic, grated
1 can chipotle in adobo (use adobo only, reserve peppers for other use)
1 cup feta (Mermaid Farm, when you can get it!)
Fresh lime zest (optional)

Using a mandolin, thinly slice the potatoes (be careful). In a medium-size casserole, make a uniform layer of potato slices shingled together. Cream together cream, garlic, and adobo. Spoon a thin layer of the cream mixture evenly over the potatoes, then sprinkle on some feta. Repeat layers in alternating directions until all of the ingredients are used.

Bake at 375° for 45 minutes to an hour, until a knife slides into the center easily (use knife to check doneness). Let cool before cutting to preserve the layers.

Serve with fresh lime zest.