King + Duke: Atlanta’s Newest Restaurant Cooks From the Hearth

At King + Duke, one of Atlanta’s newest restaurants, Executive Chef Joe Schafer is cooking with a steam engine. Well, not exactly.

“What it is, is a hearth. It’s 24 feet wide and the centerpiece is a 72 inch wood burning grill that has a custom box sitting on top of it,” Schafer said. “The box has openings at the bottom so what you have is a wood burning grill with a wood burning oven above it. That grill is flanked by two pulley system grills that are stainless steel. You start a rolling fire behind the main grill and the coals fall onto the pulleys and you bring those forward into the main grill. And then you continue feeding the rolling fire all night.”

It may sound complicated, but the dishes that Chef Schafer and his team are serving every night are anything but—they are simple culinary creations that use smoke and natural juices and fats to create a dining experience that does away with notions of high-brow and low brow.

King + Duke is the latest creation from Southern chef and entrepreneur Ford Fry. Fry is behind such Atlanta restaurants as No. 246, The Optimist and JCT Kitchen, which is where he and Joe Schafer first started working together. Schafer has long specialized in the art of smoking and when he and Fry began planning for King + Duke, the prospect to cook using the “hearth” set up was something he was eager to experiment with.

The name King + Duke comes from the names of two characters in Mark Twain’s classic novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the old-fashioned, American theme for the restaurant was there from the beginning.

“We kicked the name around for awhile and it stuck and then we thought, oh, well then we could have a whole literary aspect going on which would be very interesting. The wine menus are actually bound like old books with spines of classic novels.”

The literary/historical aspect runs throughout the aesthetic of the entire restaurant. From cocktails named Sense and Sensibility and Grapes of Wrath to lunch and dinner menus that evoke the look and feel of title pages from 19th century books.

The menu itself features a variety of hearty dishes that reflect their unique cooking source. “We wanted to make a menu that fit the kitchen and not the other way around,” Schafer said. One can easily picture items like Bar Steak (coal grilled with fries), Lamb Saddle Chops (with crispy torn potato and herb salad, roasted olive and minted salsa verde), and Pasture Chicken Leg (with buttered potatoes, roasted mushroom, bacon lardons and chicken jus) benefiting from Schafer’s hearth cooking system, while dishes like North Georgia Brook Trout cooked “boy scout style” (which means cooking the entire fish) and lunch specialty Ploughman’s Lunch (“last night’s roast”, ad hoc salad, pickles, boiled egg,  and pumpernickel) bring visions of an historical America.

The menu will be changed seasonally, but for right now, Schafer wants to focus on cooking his current dishes the best he can and leaving the customers at King + Duke with a singular dining experience.

“I would like our diners to leave with an understanding that the work that goes into cooking the way we do is worth it. That learning how to use coal and wood and cast iron is worth it. The hearth itself is not just some kind a show. I want them to leave the restaurant saying, ‘Damn, nothing tastes that good anywhere else.’”

All photos courtesy of Andrew Thomas Lee photography.

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