Georgia Restaurant Association Announces 2018 Grace Award Winners

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The Georgia Restaurant Association announced the winners of the 2018 Crystal of Excellence (GRACE) Awards on Aug. 12 for excellence in the restaurant industry.

Gerry Klaskala Aria and Canoe Restaurants in Atlanta - Lifetime Achievement Award

"The GRA’s mission is to serve as the voice for Georgia’s restaurants in advocacy, education and awareness," said Karen Bremer, CEO of the GRA.

The winners of the 2018 Georgia Restaurant Association Crystal of Excellence (GRACE) Awards were announced Sunday, August 12 at The Fairmont in Atlanta. The GRACE Awards Gala is the Georgia Restaurant Association’s (GRA) annual black-tie gala event honoring Georgia’s restaurant industry.

The GRACE Awards are peer-nominated and winners are selected by the GRACE Academy, made up of past honorees. GRACE winners are presented with crystal works of art created by renowned local artist Hans Godo Frabel. A portion of the proceeds from this event goes to the Atlanta Community Food Bank. Along with the awards below, also presented at the event was the 2018 GRA Chairman’s Award, given to Senator Renee Unterman and Representative Meagan Hanson.

2018 GRACE Awards Winners:

Lifetime Achievement Award – Gerry Klaskala, Aria and Canoe

Gerry Klaskala, chef/owner of Aria in Buckhead and co-owner of Canoe in Vinings, has an intrinsic passion for food and art that has brought him much success throughout his career. Klaskala’s fascination with art began with painting but soon turned culinary when he found the same artistic fulfillment at his first job cooking in a local kitchen. After finishing his education at the Culinary Institute of America, Klaskala spent nine years with the Hyatt Hotels Corporation. His natural talent and dedication to his craft paid off as he quickly climbed the culinary ladder with the company, starting as a commis chef at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, then holding executive chef positions in Savannah, Ga. and Cambridge, Mass.. Along the way, he assisted in opening several Hyatt properties such as Hyatt Regency New Orleans and Grand Hyatt New York.

Beginning in 1985, Klaskala spent three years as co-owner and chef of 45 South in Savannah before making the bold move back to Atlanta to join Buckhead Life Restaurant Group as the executive chef and managing partner of The Buckhead Diner. Here, Klaskala was able to find a balance between his well-honed cooking techniques and his restaurant management skills, creating a fan following among Atlanta diners. This success allowed him to pursue his new passion for finding and using products grown with the utmost integrity. In 1995, he left Buckhead Life Restaurant Group to open Canoe, where he remains an owner to this day. Canoe’s favorable reception enabled him to advance his endeavors even further with the opening of Aria in 2000. Klaskala’s concept for Aria brought him back to the very thing that his whole career is based on: his love of art. His vision was similar to that of an artist opening his own gallery; somewhere he could showcase his culinary creations while also evolving as a chef.

Industry Partner of the Year – Bennett Thrasher LLP

As a dedicated team of professionals with deep knowledge of both the restaurant industry and the unique business issues facing privately-held restaurant companies, Bennett Thrasher's Restaurant Industry Services Group provides a full range of tax, accounting and advisory support services to the restaurant industry. They know that restaurants are one of top employers in the state and are critical to economic development.

"We've been fortunate over the past few years to see good growth within the industry which does present challenges that many are facing. These challenges are requiring restaurant owners to change their mindset to remain viable: constantly changing customer preferences and taste; work force issues such as retaining talent, salary and benefits; and intense competition, especially in the Atlanta market," explains audit partner Cory Bennett.

Bennett Thrasher has been a member of the Georgia Restaurant Association for 8 years and has enjoyed expanding the relationship during that time.

"CEO Karen Bremer and her team at the GRA bring such a unique perspective to our organization given her prior roll as a restaurateur," says Bennett. "We utilize the GRA as our advocacy group to work for and educate our clients on the various issues that the industry is facing. The restaurant community is very close knit and being a part of the GRA has helped us develop key relationships throughout Georgia and to better serve our clients from the partners we meet."

Distinguished Service Award – Andre Gomez, Porch Light Latin Kitchen

Chef Andre Gomez was born and raised in Puerto Rico and after Hurricane Maria hit the island in September 2017, he knew he needed to jump into action. It took him four long days to get in touch with his family.

“I was feeling helpless,” says Gomez. “People here need to know that our people in Puerto Rico need our help.”

But he certainly wasn't helpless. Gomez stepped up in a big way to help his home country by converting his Smyrna restaurant, Porch Light Latin Kitchen, into a hub for Hurricane Maria relief efforts. Through social networking sites and other various media outlets, he called for his Georgia community to donate supplies, from bottled water to battery powered fans. His voice was heard. In total, 12 tractor trailers were filled to the brim with supplies and they raised more than $50,000.

Gomez is proud of how fellow Georgians came together to help the people of Puerto Rico. “Being able to hear my mom’s sense of pride in her son and everyone else who is helping… it’s overwhelming,” he said. “What I do for a living is I run a restaurant. I cook food, and through food I am able to make people happy. And, now, because of that platform, I am able to help.”

Recently, Gomez participated in the Puerto Rican Heritage Celebration at the Battery Atlanta. Proceeds from the event benefited Ser Familia, Inc. and Puerto Rico recovery efforts.

Diversity Leadership Award – Eddie Hernandez, Taqueria Del Dol

Born in Monterey, Mexico, Chef Eddie Hernandez acquired his passion for cooking from his restaurateur grandmother. At 17, Hernandez moved to Texas to pursue a career as a drummer, simultaneously working in a local Tex-Mex restaurant chain where he advanced from dishwasher to manager. When he realized he didn't want to live the life of a rock star any longer, Hernandez relocated to Atlanta for a change of scenery. But he couldn't stay away from the hospitality industry for long. He got a restaurant gig at another Tex-Mex chain, El Azteca. This time around, Hernandez left a lasting impression in the kitchen, laying the foundation for his business partnership with Memphis, TN native Mike Klank, El Azteca's managing partner. The two ended up parting ways with El Azteca, and after trying their hand at a couple of different concepts, they created Taqueria Del Sol. The cuisine is a reflection of Klank's Tennessee roots and time spent in the Southwest paired with Hernandez's creative twist on traditional Mexican fare.

Hernandez likes to push the envelope in the kitchen, and it's brought him much success. Taqueria Del Sol has been named a James Beard Award finalist for Outstanding Restaurateur five times and you can often see lines of loyal patrons flowing out the doors into the parking lots of any one of the five locations, four in metro Atlanta and one in Athens, Ga.

Hernandez recently released his first cookbook, Turnip Greens & Tortillas, which highlights Taqueria Del Sol’s mash-up menu with dishes like Memphis barbecue pork tacos, turnip greens in “pot likker” spiked with chiles, and the “Eddie Palmer,” sweet tea boosted with tequila.

Restaurateur of the Year Award: Small/Independent – Federico Castellucci III, Castellucci Hospitality Group

According to the National Restaurant Association, nearly one in three Americans had their first job at a restaurant. Federico Castellucci’s first job, at eleven years old, was in a bakery in Rhode Island. As a teenager, Castellucci began working in the family business holding various roles in the kitchen, including cook and kitchen manager, before heading to college at Cornell University. There, Castellucci studied Hospitality Management while simultaneously partnering with his father and consulting on new restaurant openings back home in Atlanta. Upon graduation, he took over the family business and since 2007 has taken the company from a single-unit mom and pop operation to a multi-unit multi-concept restaurant group consisting of Bar Mercado, Cooks & Soldiers, Double Zero, Recess, Sugo and The Iberian Pig.

Castellucci is proud to be “a small part of this larger fabric” that is Georgia’s hospitality industry. He says, “We do our best to create places where people want to dine and where people want to work. As a small independent operator, we have the luxury to still make a personal impact with our guests and our employees.”

As President and CEO, Castellucci is focused on building and implementing systems across the restaurant group that streamline operations and improve communication.

“CHG has always been an early adopter and has been part of building and testing technology solutions for the restaurant industry that have gone to find great success,” he says.

Along with running multiple successful concepts, Castellucci has been a GRA Board member for 4 years, assisting the restaurant-industry advocacy group in various capacities. CHG also supports the communities in which their restaurants reside through local charitable organizations and schools. As the group grows and looks forward, community impact is becoming their main focus.

"We have spent the last year evaluating opportunities to direct CHG resources towards a singular charitable mission, and are excited to push this path forward in 2019," says Castellucci.

Restaurateur of the Year Award: Large/Corporate – Delaware North

Founded in 1915 and owned by the Jacobs family for more than 100 years, Delaware North is one of the largest privately held hospitality companies in the world, with global operations at high-profile places such as sports and entertainment venues, national and state parks, destination resorts and restaurants, airports, and regional casinos.

Delaware North knows the power of success comes from people. In 2012 when the company was selected from a field of serious competitors to establish operations in the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, they recruited professionals who were well informed and connected with the GRA. Selected to run the business in the Atlanta Airport were Robert “Bob” Filipp and Scott Knight.

Knight says, "Bob and I both have great, long-standing relationships with the GRA that started before we worked at Delaware North. Throughout the years, the organization has provided us with easy access to ServSafe Certification resources, health insurance programs and a wealth of industry relationships."

Delaware North has high standards in not just operations, but also community involvement, excellence in culinary expertise and leadership in sustainability.

Last year at the GreeningATL Excellence Awards, the world’s busiest airport gave Delaware North the Footprint and Community Impact Award for leading the way when it comes to sustainable practices.

Delaware North has continued their contribution to the Georgia hospitality industry by being named sole concessionaire for the Atlanta Braves, a true testament to their dedication and investment in the Georgia hospitality industry.

ProStart Student of the Year – Preston Gouge, Maxwell High School of Technology

ProStart is a nationwide, two-year high school program that unites the classroom and industry to develop the best and brightest talent into tomorrow’s restaurant and foodservice leaders.

Atlanta, Ga. native Preston Gouge has taken full advantage of every opportunity to learn the ways of the culinary world. While enrolled in the culinary arts program at Maxwell High School of Technology, Preston joined various career technical student organizations focusing on the ProStart curriculum. Through these organizations, he has competed in culinary competitions at both the state and national level. He knew that the ProStart Program would provide him with a stable foundation to build his skills upon.

While at Maxwell, Gouge was part of a culinary competition team that designed a signature Mexican dish which, along with demonstrated teamwork and safety skills, took them from regionals to state, receiving first place at each level. The same team went on to win the national “Shake it Up” Junior Chef Competition at Sullivan University in Louisville, Kentucky, where they were each awarded a full-ride scholarship.

Taking everything he learned from the ProStart curriculum and experience from competition, Gouge took the Certified Fundamentals Cook examination sponsored by the American Culinary Federation and ServSafe managers certification and passed with the highest score compared to his peers. He attributes his passion and success to the ProStart Program.

"I would tell someone who wants to get involved with ProStart to always be willing to go above and beyond," says Gouge. "You must be a highly motivated individual, and be willing to work very hard in this industry.”

The young chef has committed to continuing his education at Sullivan University, and intends to graduate with an Associates in Culinary Arts. He currently works at a restaurant called Gather, located inside The Grant Park Market in Atlanta, Ga. Gouge plans for the future include traveling and gaining knowledge of international cuisine. His ultimate dream is to own a restaurant that practices sustainability and uses fresh local produce.

Restaurant Employee of the Year – Richard Davis, Goldbergs Fine Foods

Goldbergs Fine Foods started in 1972 as a small, father-and-son run Atlanta deli serving authentic New York-style boiled bagels and one very popular Po’ Boy sandwich. Now the restaurant has eight total locations, seven in Georgia and one recently opened location in New Orleans, La.

Richard Davis, born and raised in Atlanta, Ga. just like Goldbergs, has been working for the restaurant for nearly 12 years. He first started at their West Paces Ferry location and seven years later was promoted to head server, transferring to the restaurant's original location where he still serves guests today. His daily responsibilities include answering questions, serving the restaurant's famous deli food and processing payments.

“At the end of the day, my ultimate role is making sure guests leave both happy and full,” says Davis.

Davis understands the importance of Georgia's restaurants, not only economically, but also how they affect communities.

“The restaurant industry serves as a place where people can come together to enjoy a meal, have a drink to celebrate a special occasion such as a promotion or birthday, or have a business meeting with a client.”

Manager of the Year – Sammy Jimenez, Hal’s on Old Ivy

Originally from Mexico City, Sammy Jimenez started cooking when he was just 14. His father recognized his passion for food and gave him the opportunity to study culinary arts and restaurant management in Lyon, France with Paul Bocuse, a chef who was known for the high quality of his restaurants and his innovative approaches to cuisine. Jimenez spent three and a half years in France, working with many great chefs like Paul Bocuse, Marc Marchand and Marc Veyrat. In time, he wanted to be closer to family and got a job at the Ritz Carlton Atlanta, where Olivier Gaupin took him under his wing and taught him how to run an operation with passion and love.

"From there, life itself took me into Hal’s. I met them through friends and I decided to go in without knowing it was going to be my life from there on. Mr. Hal and I started to think alike and he continued teaching me the business and more, we became family. Twenty years later, here I am!" says Jimenez.

National Restaurant Association Education Foundation and Golden Corral Corporation James H. Maynard Excellence in Education Award

The GRA also recognized Simone Byron of Meadowcreek High School in Norcross, GA for winning the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation and Golden Corral Corporation James H. Maynard Excellence in Education Award. Established over a decade ago as a tribute to Golden Corral’s founder, James Maynard, the James H. Maynard Excellence in Education Award honors ProStart educators for their tireless dedication to providing remarkable experiences to their ProStart students. Byron worked to grow her ProStart program from one teacher and 60 students to three teachers and over 320 students over the course of seven years.

About the Georgia Restaurant Association (GRA)
The GRA’s mission is to serve as the voice for Georgia’s restaurants in advocacy, education and awareness. The GRA is sanctioned by the National Restaurant Association to operate Georgia’s only not-for-profit representing the state’s foodservice industry. The GRA serves as the unified voice for over 18,500 foodservice and drinking places in the state of Georgia with total sales in excess of $20 billion which provides more than 476,500 jobs. From large chains to start-ups, the GRA helps make Georgia a better place for restaurants to do business and helps make restaurants better for Georgia.

About the GRACE Awards
The GRACE Awards is the Georgia Restaurant Association’s annual black-tie gala event honoring Georgia’s restaurant industry. The GRACE Awards finalists are peer-nominated and honor the top performers in the following categories: Lifetime Achievement Award, Industry Partner of the Year, Distinguished Service Award, Restaurateur of the Year, ProStart Student of the Year, Restaurant Employee of the Year, and Manager of the Year. The winners are announced at the event and are presented with crystal works of art created by renowned local artist Hans Godo Frabel. A portion of the proceeds from this event benefit the Atlanta Community Food Bank, whose mission is to fight hunger by engaging, educating and empowering the community.

For media inquiries, please contact Rachel Bell, director of marketing and communications, at (404) 467-9000.

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