Georgia tastemakers

Keira Moritz, Marchet Sparks, Jiyeon Lee, Maria Runggaldier and Mary Schowe

5 Fierce Female Georgia Chefs You Should Know

Taking inspiration from their hometowns (and home countries) in the kitchen, on the farm, and behind the wheel of a food truck, these Georgia tastemakers are creating some of the state's most outrageously good food. From barbecue to cinnamon rolls, these five chefs serve up flavors worth traveling for again and again.

Jiyeon Lee, Heirloom Market BBQ in Sandy Springs, Georgia

Jiyeon Lee

Heirloom Market BBQ, Sandy Springs

After moving from South Korea to Atlanta in 1999, Chef (and former K-pop star) Jiyeon Lee fell in love with American barbecue. Wanting to tastefully combine her new favorite fare with her home country’s flavors, she opened the Korean-inspired barbecue restaurant Heirloom Market BBQ in 2010 with her husband and fellow chef, Cody Taylor. Atlanta natives and visitors alike quickly embraced the couple’s flavorful cultural fusion, with menu highlights including gochujang-spiced pork and tender beef brisket seasoned with doenjang (Korean miso). Lee also incorporates the Korean tradition of offering a wide variety of side dishes, including kimchi slaw (pictured). “We get lots of vegetarians who come just for the sides,” she says, many of which are cooked using her grandmother’s time-honored techniques. “It all makes sense flavor-wise, and it connects me with my childhood memories.”

Keira Moritz, Steel Magnolias in Valdosta, Georgia

Keira Moritz

Steel Magnolias, Valdosta

Keira Moritz’s culinary talents have taken her around the country, but she couldn’t escape the pull of her hometown. “If you’re going to work that hard, you might as well do it for yourself and close to the people who love you most,” she says of her decision to open Steel Magnolias in Valdosta in 2011. There, in a restored 1891 building, she serves seasonal, upscale Southern comfort food, as well as perennial menu favorites like pulled-pork deviled eggs and pimento-cheese wontons. “I like to eat fresh, clean food. Normally the things that are close to you are the best,” says Moritz, who takes pride in using local ingredients like Gayla’s Grits and Georgia Olive Farms olive oil whenever possible. Moritz jokes that, with no elevator or dumbwaiter, Steel Magnolias' three stories of dining space can sometimes “feel like exercise. We have six burners in our first floor kitchen and service 170 seats. But it’s as charming as it can be.”

Marchet Sparks, Le Petit Marché in Atlanta, Georgia

Marchet Sparks

Le Petit Marché, Atlanta

“People appreciate the feeling of family here. They feel loved and hugged the moment they walk in our door,” Marchet Sparks explains about the atmosphere at Le Petit Marché, her eatery in Atlanta’s Kirkwood neighborhood. She launched her business 11 years ago as a grab-and-go market with produce, fresh bread, cheese, and sandwiches, but people loved the food she and her mother prepared in their tiny kitchen the most. To keep up with demand, she began offering breakfast and lunch options, and the business grew so that she had to expand into a larger space across the street. Guests now line up for favorites like the French toast sandwich and “The Grits Stack” with eggs, cheddar, Georgia shrimp, and bacon. “I had to be open to change on this whole journey,” Sparks explains. “It was a beautiful surprise for me, and I’m glad I let it carry me where it did.”

Maria Runggaldier, Ristorante da Maria at Dublin Farm in Dublin, Georgia

Maria Runggaldier

Ristorante da Maria at Dublin Farm, Dublin

In Italy, farmhouse resorts dot the countryside and offer visitors an up-close experience with the land’s agricultural bounty. For Italian-born chef Maria Runggaldier and her Austrian-born partner, Heinz Krassnig, opening their own farmhouse resort, Dublin Farm, was a dream. Guests may stay the night in one of four rooms at the couple’s bed and breakfast or simply stop in for one of Runggaldier’s seasonal, multi-course Italian feasts. “I’m really proud to present people with my authentic Italian cooking,” she explains. “It’s so fresh and made from scratch.” While her dishes hail from her home country, many of the ingredients used to create them — including beef, peaches, blueberries, and heritage poultry — are grown in Georgia. And guests can pair their pasta (all hand made by Runggaldier) with Italian wines to round out the experience — all part of living la dolce vita. “I cook and people are happy,” says Runggaldier, who also shares her secrets in cooking classes throughout the year.

Mary Schowe, Southern Soul BBQ in St. Simons Island, Georgia

Mary Schowe

Southern Soul BBQ, St. Simons Island

Every savory meal needs a sweet finale, and that’s where Mary Schowe of Southern Soul Barbeque (and its beloved food truck) shines. Unleashing her creativity on the sweeter side was serendipity. Schowe began making cinnamon rolls for the truck’s Saturday brunches after owners Griffin Bufkin and Harrison Sapp enlisted her help with desserts. “I really admire [pastry chef and Milk Bar owner] Christina Tosi. I started doing plays on what she does,” Schowe recalls. Her riff on Tosi’s birthday cake was a social media sensation, as was a colorful St. Patrick’s Day Lucky Charms cake. “I’ve got a little bit of a sweet tooth, and I like to play with unexpected ingredients and come up with something delicious,” she says. One of those concoctions? A sugar cane syrup and boiled peanut ice cream flavor, coming soon.

Published: July 2019