Q&A: Whitney Otawka Opens Cinco y Diez Today

January 21, 2014
by Christopher Hassiotis

It sounded like a joke, at first. After his flagship Athens restaurant Five & Ten relocated to a larger building, Georgia chef, restaurateur and TV personality Hugh Acheson suggested a Mexican-inspired restaurant called Cinco y Diez taking its place. Sounded like a joke, maybe, but what became reality became seriously promising. Acheson and his longtime business collaborator Melissa Clegg (Last Resort Grill, Five & Ten) recruited rising chef Whitney Otawka to helm the new restaurant after her previous restaurant, Farm 255, closed.

Otawka, who was born in California but moved to Georgia almost 10 years ago, drew on her culinary work at high profile restaurants like Five & Ten, Restaurant Eugene and apprenticeships at New York's Per Se and Le Bernardin, as well as her passion for farm-fresh produce. But she also looked back to her childhood in California, where numerous Latin ingredients provided explosive flavors and bright memories.

Also a onetime competitor on Bravo's Top Chef, Otawka traveled to Mexico last year to study cuisine and develop her menu. It uses abundant Southern ingredients and draws primarily from Mexican traditions for now, but she says as it evolves (a seasonal overhaul is expected every two to three months) diners will see a broader Latin American influence. A ceviche of Georgia shrimp, cucumber and red onion is topped with crisp pork skins, drawing parallels between cracklins and chicharrones. Chilaquiles incorporate chicken confit rather than the regular shredded white meat. Tacos go local as well - the braised lamb-neck taco is garnished with the very Southern sorghum, while a mahi mahi pibil, made with Yucatán achiote spices, is served with Carolina gold rice.

Cinco y Diez is open seven days a week for dinner starting today, and will serve a weekend lunch/brunch both Saturdays and Sundays. Zagat spoke with Otawka about the inspiration behind her cooking, her sourcing and her plans for the new restaurant.

Zagat: Are you feeling ready for the opening?

Whitney Otawka: Yeah! We had a dry-run service, and it went well! It's always hard to gauge because I'm so hypercritical. The team's all new to the menu, and that can always make for challenges in the beginning. And it's a new experience for me to open a restaurant as an executive chef. Opening a restaurant is one of the hardest (and best and worst) things you can do. Basically, though, it all comes down to having a good team. My chef de cuisine and I worked together for six years; my sous chef worked with me for two at Farm So I think we're all ready to go.

Zagat: Tell us about the food at Cinco y Diez.

WO: For me it's kind of a mash-up of experiences over time, creating that menu. My base in culinary education is French and Mediterranean, which I think is common among young chefs. But I grew up in California in the Bay Area, and had access to amazing Latin and Mexican flavors, so that's always been something I've loved. It was just something that I'd grown up around. And when I moved out here and began to study Southern ingredients and sourcing, I really fell in love with Southern foods, the variety, the flavors and all that.

So when Hugh approached me with this project of a Latin-inspired restaurant using regional, Southern ingredients, it was just like, "Yes! That's it! That's perfect for me!" I've spent a lot of time studying cuisines, really trying to blend South and Central American and Caribbean flavors, along with Mexican, using local things around us. People see the menu and think "Mexican,"  but there are so many flavors and traditions i want to pull from.

I spent my first chunk of time [preparing for Cinco y Diez by] studying in Oaxaca and Mexico City - my sister lives in Mexico - and really getting into all the flavors and regional cuisines. Things may start out a little more Mexican-influenced because that's more accessible for a lot of diners, but you'll see down the road as the menu changes that things may pull from Cuba, we'll have grains from Peru. Oh, and Argentina! Oh my gosh, I can't wait until I work some more Argentinean flavors into things.

Zagat: There are a lot of great Latin restaurants in Athens, with more variety and in more compact a place than Atlanta. How does Cinco y Diez fit in?

WO: What makes us different is in the way I'm sourcing ingredients, supporting local farmers and changing menus seasonally. It goes back to using local farms for fresh produce. That's exciting but also frustrating as we're just starting up… there are a lot of ingredients I can't incorporate right away, like peppers. I'm really excited, because Georgia can grow any kind of pepper. So as an example, we have a local farm planning to grow a certain kind of pepper I had in Oaxaca that's hard to find here and we don't want to ship peppers in from another country.

Also huitlacoche you can't find here, so I'm trying to talk to some farmers about starting to grow that. We'll be making our own chipotles, drying our own chiles, and we're using Anson Mills masa to make our own tortillas in house with South Carolina grain.

Zagat: Cinco y Diez is opening in Five & Ten's original spot. Did you consider any other names for the restaurant?

WO: [Laughs.] That's all Hugh! Hugh is a man who knows what he wants and has a very clear, comprehensive vision. So that name is his for sure.

Zagat: How involved have Hugh and Melissa been?

WO: When Farm was being sold, Melissa called me to talk about what I could do next. And then Hugh and I were talking, and he'd brought up the Mexican concept, and it all evolved from that. We talked at the beginning about expectations. I'd done a pozole on Top Chef and he remembered it and liked it. I'd done some different kinds over the years. It kind of all came together. Melissa owns the building, and was integral in creating the design and the overall aesthetic. We didn't want people to walk in and think, oh, it's Five & Ten with a different menu.

As far as the menu, we all talked about what we wanted to aim for, something affordable that people could eat all the time, not just every couple of months. You know, when you're using all local ingredients and wanting to be creative, it's easy to come up with a menu where the entrees are $35 a plate, but that was never what we wanted of course, so we've kept things reasonable. I wrote a menu back in August, and it's adapted since I traveled, but our launch menu is actually pretty close to what I came up with last year. Hugh trusted me as a chef.

Zagat: Did that experience on Top Chef affect your cooking, or the way you view restaurants?

WO: It was really fun, and a great growing experience. I was pretty exhausted, and it certainly wasn't my finest moment, but it opened tons of doors for me. If you put yourself in the most stressful environment, a totally weird and foreign environment - some people thrive in those environments. Not me! I was hungry, tired and unable to have the control I like to have in a kitchen. But for a young cook it's a rare opportunity to cook for your heroes, and that was really fantastic.

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