A Restaurant for the People: Madison native Zack Athearn returns home to serve up reinvented Southern cuisine

Portico August 2013Portico Jackson
August 2013

Most Southerners view food and cooking as much more than just a way to provide fuel for the body.  We to link our favorite dishes to emotions, feelings, and even childhood memories.  Zack Athearn, owner and executive chef of City Grille in Madison is no exception.  He has fond memories of working side-by-side in the kitchen with his grandmother, while Athearn’s grandfather taught him the finer points of hunting, fishing, and growing fresh produce.

What Athearn’s grandparents cultivated in him as a young boy sparked an interest that would stay with him as he grew up.  In high school, he recalls “Iron Chef”-style competitions that he and his best friend held in his friend’s kitchen.  By the time he left home to attend Ole Miss, Athearn was an enthusiastic member of the local food scene, always on the lookout for new restaurants and good food.

“At that point, I really considered myself more of a foodie than a chef,” he explains.  “But as I progressed into my sophomore year of college, I began to wonder cooking for a living was something I could actually do.”

Shortly afterwards, Athearn was hired to work in the kitchen of The Veranda in Starkville.  Almost immediately, he began incorporating locally sourced fresh produce and meat into all the dishes.

“Everything grown and purchased locally tastes so different than anything you can buy in a store,” he says.

Athearn also began catering for weddings and rehearsal dinners.  This gave him the opportunity to travel, try new cuisines, learn new techniques, and work with some of the best restaurants in the South such a Muriels in New Orleans.  After eight years in the restaurant business, he began to wonder if he was finally ready to take the plunge into owning his own business.

The deciding factor came in 2009 when Athearn’s grandmother, who played such a significant role in his life and career, was diagnosed with cancer.

“I knew I needed to be close to her and I had to figure out how I was going to get home,” he reveals.  “However, I didn’t want to come home and go to work for someone else. “

He began working on a concept for building a new restaurant from the ground up.  In 2010, Athearn and a business partner opened Georgia Blue in Madison, a casual family-style restaurant that serves up sophisticated American food.

When it came time for Athearn to leave Georgia Blue and open a new restaurant, he knew he wanted to stay close to his roots and open another restaurant in Madison.  He searched for almost a year for the prefect location, finally purchasing an abandoned Blockbuster.

Says Athearn, “There was nothing in that building but carpet and a bathroom.  I had a lot of work to do before we would be ready to open.”

After four months of construction, City Grilled opened its doors in February 2013.  Athearn describes the cuisine as reinvented Southern cuisine with French influence.  He prides himself on keeping everything fresh, from the fish, to the produce, to all the made-from-scratch sauces and salad dressings.  He also makes a point to keep the menu items manageable, changing it frequently according to what is in season.

“I don’t like huge menus because they can be overwhelming.  I believe if you are going to do something, do it well and execute it properly.  You can’t do that with a huge menu.”

One of the best aspects of owning a restaurant is bringing in menu items that diners aren’t likely to see anywhere else.  Like Athearn’s current favorite menu item, the tempura lobster roll.  Lobster claw meat and goat cheese risotto are rolled in a spinach wrap, lightly fried in a crunchy tempura batter, then served sushi-style with sweet corn cream and spicy “dragon sauce.”

“I love and am very passionate about food,” Athearn says.  “However, this restaurant isn’t just for me.  It’s for the people of Madison and the surrounding community.  I like bringing the people what they want to eat.”