Han Vance reporting from WaterColor, Florida:
Certified Master Chef Tom Catherall’s creative career in cuisine was finely-crafted in the Caribbean, one could say. Being an actual friend of Tom, though, I wanted to go back much further.
All of our stories begin in our childhoods.
“Kind of like Pittsburgh,” Catherall told me, in his sumptuous home in the vibrant 30A area of the Florida panhandle, speaking of growing up in Newcastle, England. “Coal. Coal and beer.”
Looking somewhere close to his age for the first time since I’ve known him and still recovering from facial surgery for skin cancer, “Chef Tom” (as I’ve called him for years) hung up his toque recently, permanently vacating an Atlanta where he had steadily risen to prominence, then meteorically ascended to unforeseen worldly riches, reached new heights of wealth and success, plateaued perhaps, and then fallen pretty hard.
While we surely all fall in this life, folks, more recently he had dusted his strong shoulders off and gotten back to his restaurant roots, even been remarried, to a lovely lady I know and respect. His chef’s journey longer, richer, fuller than the others I’d examined in my occasional F&B writing to-date. He’s a real notable character of interest, to me and many.
I first came to know Chef Tom while in his employ as a fine-dining server (and aspiring writer) at his PRIME restaurant, atop the famous Lenox Square Mall in an upper-crust Buckhead area of in-town Atlanta. Of Atlanta’s so-called Three Jewels, with Midtown and Downtown, Buckhead is the most uptown, so named as it was once marked with the severed head of a deer, at its crossroads near the old Buckhead Village on Peachtree Road.
Here years after we worked together and a long state down, we chatted on the comfy couch of his retiree house, over a crisp glass of white wine.
“When I first came to [the] States, I had two suitcases and $2,000,” Chef Tom said in his Newcastle brogue. “It was only America you can do that. …I think when you’re a foreigner you can work harder.”
Off whites, baby blues, a faded gray or peach, the colors of WaterColor, Fla., complemented rather than drowned out in neon, those azure blues and emerald greens of the Gulf of Mexico. Oh yeah. I’ve been down here for days, even extending my annual Rosemary Beach vacation an extra day-and-a-half and pushing this interview back. Took the tempo and timeline of the trip way down, having that extra time. Good to be in the home of a friend, I thought to myself, knowing it was much more about people and places than simply just food for Tom Catherall. Always was, maybe.
He was POB4 he went to to the moon:
“Wanted to be an auto mechanic, born just after the War. Newcastle is 300 miles north of London. I was one of 10 kids. It was really hard to find work, and my mom heard of an apprenticeship, a four-year apprenticeship. Guernsey Islands. Jersey Islands. Channel Islands. 14 miles off France. Two years, each island. Then in wintertime, hop back to London, work in England. …We didn’t have frozen anything. We had no freezer. It was farm to table before farm to table.”
AmCulture: “When did you get married for the first time?”
“First married when I was 20.”
AmCulture: “And after your apprenticeship?”
“Became a head chef in Bermuda for the first time, then for the same company in Barbados and West Indies. I like all kinds of food. …It took me three years to emigrate legally; I went to Boston. Worked for the Parker House, Omni Hotels bought it. Famous for Parker House Rolls and Boston Cream Pie.”
“Worked in New Orleans just long enough to learn how and did a New Orleans brunch up in Boston they went crazy for. Omni had problems, sent me to iron out some problems there, didn’t want to go to Atlanta. They said, ‘You’ll love it.’ I did. Then when I quit Omni, I went back to Atlanta.”
AmCulture: “When did you get certified?”
“I was working for Cherokee Town & Country Club, two clubs, really prestigious and exclusive. This is around ’83. Bought a house near Cheshire Bridge. Eight months later, I was up in New York at CIA (Culinary Institute of America). They arranged for it. There were 10 enrollees, only three graduates. The other two are head of CIA and head of CIA in California.”
AmCulture: “Then you worked in Atlanta for them a long time?”
“Cherokee was seven years. I was there seven years. When I was at Cherokee there was a new restaurant opening on Peachtree Road. I took my daughter who was eight at the time. The place was empty, but I liked it. My daughter said, ‘When you close my dad wants to buy the place.'”
AmCulture: “And it just happened just like that…”
“He called me the next Sunday,” Chef Tom said, with tonal excitement palpable. “‘Do you still want to buy the place?’ Couldn’t afford it so I did 50-50. I got a 50-50 partnership with the owner, and we opened Azalea.”
AmCulture: “Then the rest is history, but it is never just that easy.”
“The restaurant would be busy as hell, and never any money in the pot. I was getting ripped off. I saw an opportunity at the mall, though, for Tom Tom. The Lenox Square management advanced me $700,000; I had $32,000. Azalea was a complete hit. Then so was Tom Tom.”
AmCulture: “Then PRIME?”
“Top floor. When I walked in the space I said this is a prime location. That’s why I called it PRIME. I said if I’m calling it PRIME, I might as well do a steakhouse. Christmas time it was crazy.”
AmCulture: “We’d be doing $55 grand a night.”
“Tom Tom was around 1983, and then when I had three restaurants I called it Here to Serve. Goldfish was before PRIME, 1994 at Perimeter [Mall]. PRIME was 1996. Noche in the Highlands. Twist [at Phipps Plaza] was busiest. $7.8 million on its best year. Shout [Colony Square]. Strip [Atlantic Station], spent $5 million on that building, with a ground lease for 25 years.”
AmCulture: “You get that money back?”
AmCulture: “There were more, too.”
“Noche Vinings. Brookhaven called and wanted a Noche in Brookhaven. Oyster bar next door, Shucks. Smash. Noche John’s Creek. I had four.”
AmCulture: “Then…the D word?”
“DIVORCE! …Leigh, we separated and it took five years to get divorced.”
AmCulture: “My dad was married six times, Chef, and he was engaged when he died. Not sure if I ever told you much about him.”
“My second wife I was only married for 18 months. 19 years to the first one. 19 years to Leigh.”
AmCulture: “Lisa is the one! You’ve done so well this time. …I was telling my (2nd) wife about the crappy article in Atlanta magazine, I didn’t like the article at all but loved the photo with you looking back atop the Lenox parking garage – I used to be in parking and transportation for eight years, before we worked together. You had your convertible and the big watch…and our city in front of you. The license plate said: POB4.”
“I was. I was poor. That was my Porsche. $48 million [annual] in sales at the height of the restaurant group. I’m 70 in 4 months, now health is the most important thing. …I bought this place before I lost the company.”
We walked to the 2nd floor of the home:
AmCulture: “You remind me of him some, Chef Tom, you remind me of Hemingway, like the Hemingway of restaurants. And with your BAMA shirt on, perhaps Saban a little…but definitely Hemingway.”
“Thank you, Han. …Thank you for your friendship.”
AmCulture: “That a picture of your boat, there?”
“Mine was bigger. …I had to sell it to pay my divorce lawyer.”
AmCulture: “What was the name?”
~Chef Tom Catherall sold his latest establishment (called Taco Cowboy) to his barman James and onsite Chef Scott Switzer, who rebranded the Virginia Highland of Atlanta hotspot into a fun space called bar.bacoa. Han Vance is an Atlanta-based writer (author-journalist-poet-blogger).