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My First Time: Kevin Rathbun's cooking secrets

  • 'My First Time' explores the first time your favorite celebrities did something significant
  • Kevin Rathbun is a renowned Atlanta chef who's been in the business for 30+ years
  • His secret: Practice simple cooking techniques and don't be afraid of salt!
Atlanta chef Kevin Rathbun knows something about food
Kevin Rathbun Taste of Atlanta

Editor’s note: Every Friday, HLN brings you the "My First Time" series. It explores the first time your favorite celebrities did something significant or memorable (so get your mind out of the gutter!).

In this installment, Kevin Rathbun, a renowned Atlanta chef who participated in this year's Taste of Atlanta, opens up about the one meal that still makes him salivate after more than three decades in the business. 

HLN: What was the first memorable dish you made that you are still proud of?
Kevin Rathbun: I’ve been cooking for so long now — 35 years — but the one that still brings a tear to my eye is the one I cooked for my mother on Mother’s Day. I did the stuffed roast beef tenderloin with goat cheese, pine nuts and dried fruit, and I made a bordelaise sauce and asparagus with hollandaise. And this was when I was 16 years old. That one in particular I’m still fond of.

HLN: When did you realize that you would be a successful chef?
KR: I started cooking when I was 14 years old. I think the first time that I really felt like I had done something was one day when I was a line cook at Sambo’s (it was like Denny’s). My brother was a cook there too and we did this dual line. And the owner of the place came to me and said, “You guys did great today — we made $3,000!” This was 1979, so $300 at $1.99 a plate — my brother and I, in seven hours, cooked for 1,500 people. And no complaints! And I said, “You know what? Maybe there’s something here.”

HLN: Have you ever been disappointed with yourself as a chef?
KR: I think failure is a part of our business. The restaurant business is full of complaints: Whether it’s too salty, whether it didn’t get there on time, whether it got there wrong. I’ve had failures every day of my life. So if I can be 97.5% true to making people happy, that’s my goal. The other 2.5% I’m going to make a mistake. And it’s all about the fix-it time. In the restaurant business, you try to make people happy, so if they’re not having a good time, you need to fix it.

HLN: What’s your advice for people who are trying to be the next you?
KR: Be humble. Be a sponge. Ask lots of questions. Don’t have an ego in this business because then you won’t learn, you’ll get stiffened. You’ll learn, but you’ll learn different things, and I think humility is a big part of what we do. I think that if you can ask questions, if you can accept constructive criticism, you can inspire to be a great chef one day. 

HLN: You cook all day, every day. When you come home from work, do you still cook for your family?
KR: You know, I do cook for my family. I do a lot of outside grilling. And the reason I do a lot of it outside is because my wife — we’ve been married for 20 years — is a clean freak. So she says, “Make it outside, because you make too much of a mess and I am not a dishwasher!” So, I do a lot of the outside cooking and she cooks inside. She’s a great cook, too — she’s from New Orleans and she’s of Italian descent. Dinner at our family is awesome! 

HLN: What advice would you give to someone who wants to branch out in the kitchen but doesn’t know where to start?
KR: There’s a million ways to be creative. Anyone can reference the Internet for recipes or different styles of cooking. But more than anything, when you’re standing over the ingredients that you purchased — that’s money out of your pocket, so you want to treat them with respect. One thing you want to do is learn some basic techniques. You want to know how to braise, how to grill, how to sauté, how to poach, how to steam. All of these techniques come first. You can learn them by reading a simple book and practicing them with cheap vegetables. Steam them until they’re perfect. When they’re perfect, take them off and eat them. Eat them before, during, and after they’re mush. Same thing with grilling a steak: If you have four people over to your house, buy five steaks. And if you don’t know what rare, medium rare, medium is, cook the steak and in one minute, take a slice off it and see where it’s at. In 2 minutes, take another slice off. In 3 minutes, take another slice off, and you won’t be buying five steaks for very long.

HLN: And what about seasoning your food — what are your tips for it?
KR: Seasoning is very important. There’s a reason why chefs in great restaurants don’t work in hospitals — because hospitals don’t allow you to use sodium, and chefs love sodium. Saltiness, acidity, sweetness, tartness — all that stuff goes together and great chefs know how to balance all of those ingredients. And salt is a huge component of that. Especially in the Asian tradition: When have you ever had sushi with no soy sauce? Never. When have you ever had Thai food with no fish sauce? Never. They’re the oldest cuisine in the world — they know how to season their food. 

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