Monday, September 19, 2016

Embraced by the Mississippi Delta... Inspiration from our benchmark trip

Ethan Lewis, Jillian Rooker, and Kerry Wittwer met up with our client and the locals of The Delta for a recent benchmark trip before the project kick-off of a boutique hotel in Cleveland, Mississippi.

By Ethan Lewis

"Getting there is the hard part. But once you are, The Delta is in your blood." 

Luke Chamblee with Chamblee Hospitality Group flip-flopped his way through the paint-chipped double doors of The Crystal Grill in Greenwood, Mississippi.  Like a star high-school quarterback walking through locker-lined hallways, he winked, waved, and nodded at everyone he passed.  It seemed as if everyone knew one another, and not in the "know-of" way, like really knew one another, like they had something in common.  Even Luke, a city slicker from nearby Jackson, making his maiden voyage to the Delta, was unconditionally welcomed... and Kerry, Jillian, and I were right by his side. 

Over a half-dozen steamy hot-tamales and "still the best around" fried chicken tenders, Luke explained the details of his new venture, a boutique hotel in Cleveland, Mississippi.
"But why?" I thought to myself. "I guess that's what we're here to find out."
For those of you who don't know (I didn't) the Mississippi Delta is not, in fact, the Mississippi Delta. The true delta of the Mississippi River is located some 200 miles to the south, in Louisiana.  The Mississippi Delta, however, is an alluvial plain cradled by the Mississippi River to the west and the Yazoo River to the east. Covering a great deal of the west side of the state, "the Delta" seems flat enough to see all the way down to the Vicksburg bluffs from its northern tip near Memphis. Setting out from Greenwood, we began our criss-crossed traipse through what has become known as "the most southern place on Earth."

I wiped the lens of my cell phone camera with my already sweaty waffle shirt and began snapping shots of vast soy bean farms. I thought to myself, "Oh, this one is going to turn out great," but was interrupted by Luke's sarcasm, "You better take those while you can, it's the only soy bean farm in the Delta." There's something about it, though -- the way endless rows of dark green crops meet the light blue summer sky, or how the breeze moves across the leaves, creating synchronized dances of waves.  Right then and there, my affair with the Delta began.

Sure, I love Atlanta, been here my whole life, probably going to die here.  But when I say I have an obligation to the Delta, an obligation to preserve what had been culturally neglected, I'm being honest as the rust and the heat, the mud and the mosquitoes.  For this reason, Luke's project has inspired us to dream a little deeper and attempt to involve the whole Delta community.  We drove to Greenville the next morning, under the spell of loose guitar strings plucked by Robert Johnson, to pick up Kerry at the Mid Delta Regional... err... Airport? Put it this way, Kerry dropped her ID in the bathroom and the one cop working the building approached her and drawled, "Think you dropped this in the bathroom, ma'am."

Carving our way through soy, corn, and rice farms, we arrived at a long and straight dirt driveway lined with sunflower fields leading to the Baby Doll House in Benoit.  Stepping out in the heat, we encountered a true character, epitomizing the spirit of The Delta. Eustace was his name.  He toured us all around the film-set-famed property of its namesake - a historic plantation house that was spared during the Civil War because the owner, Judge J.C. Burrus, had a personal friendship with the commander of the Union forces at the time.  Eustace walked us through his shotgun shacks (on Airbnb), introduced us to his skunk-huntin' dogs, explained that the blue porch ceiling confuses and deters "dirt-digger" wasps from nesting, and showed us his mastodon jaw signed by the "Gunslinger" himself, Brett Favre.  (Apparently, it was the only autographable medium he had on his person when he randomly encountered Favre in the Delta backwoods on a hunting trip.) Sticky with sweat, we felt a cool breeze pushed by a wall of rumbly dark clouds and all joked about the impeccable timing of Kerry's single-prop plane.  "We need it!" Eustace hollered, as we hurried to the truck and thanked him for the education and hospitality.

Rain.  Like I've never seen rain before -- a summer storm whitewash of water balloons.  Good thing the roads are as straight as bowling alleys with gutter-bumpers of soy fields.  When we safely arrived at the Delta Meat Market in Cleveland, we were warmly welcomed by a head full of long and sandy hair held back by black-rimmed eyeglasses and with a big smile, he said, "I'm Matty, it's great to meet you, welcome." Something was off, though; there was no drawl, no accent, and in fact he looked and sounded like he could have been from the East Village.  Sure enough, Matty had moved from Stuyvesant Town, New York, to the Delta after a stint at Teach for America, and had been captivated by the charisma of the region.  He started an ice creamery and recently joined forces with Chef Cole Ellis, a prominent and well-respected figure in the Delta.  Cole is the proprietor, owner, and executive chef of the Delta Meat Market and soon-to-be executive chef of the hotel restaurant.  Cole is a man of big dreams, big personality, and big skills.  He brought us out burgers under slabs of thick-cut bacon, watermelon wedges sprinkled with feta cheese and dribbled with balsamic glaze, and for dessert...? Hot, fresh powdered-sugar donuts with pounded, syrupy blueberries.  For lunch, y'all.

With a food-induced coma dangerously nigh, Kelli Carr, the bright-eyed and energetic tourism director for the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce, took the reins and led the way to Studio 230, where we spoke with local artists.  Later we cooled off in the shade of the lush gardens at McCarty Pottery, where we met the owner. By the sweltering 3 o'clock hour, we immersed ourselves in the history of the blues in Dockery Farms, where B.B. King said, "You might say it all started right here."  Soon after, we toured Delta State University, home of the Fighting Okra, and got a lesson in the history of music at The Grammy Museum.

On our way out to legendary "Po' Monkeys," one of the last remaining tried-and-true juke joints, we received word that Willie "Po' Monkey" Seaberry had passed away that evening.  I had only heard of him days before, but everyone from Memphis to Vicksburg, surrounding Mississippians and Arkansawyers, and anyone who had been down the Mississippi blues trail considered him the spirit of the Delta.  You could feel in the thick, hot air that this was a tragic loss for the entire community and the end of an era.  With Kelli in tears, we waded through black clouds of mosquitoes and approached Po' Monkey's dilapidated shack to pay our respects.  Justified by Cole, even with such a tragedy, there would still be celebration, "Because that's what 'Monkey' would have wanted."

Somehow, after only 48 hours, I felt like I was a part of a bigger family -- a family full of crazy uncles and cousins, but family nonetheless.  And amidst the poverty, the lingering racial divides, and the confining reliance on agriculture, the Mississippi Delta embraces you with its history, charm, humor, and eccentricity.  As designers and architects, we have the unique challenge of telling stories without words.  Fortunately, the Mississippi Delta has a story to tell, and a damn good one at that. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Congratulations Kerry Wittwer, ai3 Principal!

Last month we announced 1 new Principal to ai3: Kerry Wittwer. 

Kerry joined ai3's studio a few months before I left for maternity leave, 9 years ago. We'd all remained friends since our previous firm-life and believed she'd be the perfect addition to our growing studio.

She has been a tremendous mentor to our staff and a trusted leader to our clients. Her personality and free spirit have been a HUGE part of our culture, and while we miss her daily since she decided to work out of Nashville, we don't want to live without her! How could we? She's the only one to take on ANY dare!!!

Let me share the uber fun that is Kerry Wittwer....

Kerry Wittwer
Principal, ai3

Kerry and her husband Clay pose for ai3's Holiday calendar - inspired by "Juno"

Kerry at ai3's annual Chili Cook-Off. Has she won yet with her Tennessee chili?

Jason Carney, Kerry and Clay polishing off some chili
Bowling for Charity with the ai3 team

Running first 1/2 marathon with Ann-Marie Lima in Nashville

Kerry actually DOES get a lot of work done...

Kerry's dedicated mentees: Jillian Rooker & Elisa Gangone

Wouldn't you love to have these 2 as your studio Principals?

I have no idea.
Yes, our tom-boy had two beautiful girls: Clara and Lilian
Our very own, Kerry Wittwer, Principal at ai3, Inc.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

1 Fish, 2 Fish, 3 Fish, GIANT FISH - Dragonfly

Nestled in the suburbs of Miami, Dragonfly is an authentic Japanese Izakaya and Fish Market concept. Hiro Leung, our friend and client introduced in a previous blog post, initially approached ai3 with a dynamic vision for his restaurant to exude "artful flavor." Steeped in deep heritage, the authentic nuances of Japanese fishing culture inspired our design. From the bustling market stalls of the Tsukiji Fish Market to the traditional tools, clothing, and boats, we cultivated our design out of the intricate details of life on the coast of the Pacific Ocean. 

Suspended in the central focal point of the restaurant hangs a giant fish head composed of hundreds of steel hooks. From a mere discussion, to a sketch, to reality, the process and collaboration between ai3 and artists, Stephen Evans and Mark Wentz, brought a distinct "artful flavor" to Dragonfly's design.

Initial sketch of Fish Head

A small scale, 3-dimensional model from Mark and Stephen
Hey little fishy! 

The fish head arrived in two parts in order to travel from 
Atlanta to Doral, Florida. 

Hundreds of whimsical-looking fish hooks were cut from sheet steel and distressed to give a patina of rustic warmth. 

Artist Mark Wentz climbs onto his "Fish Head Jungle Gym" in order to weld the two parts of the fish head together on site. 

How many guys does it take to hang a giant, steel fish? 
Very impressed that the scissor lift fit PERFECTLY within the fish... 

Finally, after a few hours, the fish head was installed and every hook was thoughtfully hung. Now, all that is left is to hang a light fixture in the middle of the fish to create a chandelier effect. 

Other ai3 creations of "Arftful Flavor," soon to be introduced to the Dragonfly space:

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Chef Doug Turbush of Atlanta's 2016 Most Anticipated Restaurant - Drift

The days of January are passing quickly and the speed of construction is reaching a whirlwind pace to complete Chef Doug's newest restaurant. February will be here soon and this much-anticipated restaurant will be one of the first of 2016 to please diners of Atlanta and Chef's loyal Guests of East Cobb. 

Chef Doug Turbush of Drift Fish House & Oyster Bar
What about the East Cobb neighborhood is special to you?
The people in this community are simply awesome. They helped make all of this possible and have shown so much support for what we are trying to do here. Plus, this is where I raised my family, so it means a lot to us. 

Do you have a favorite part of the design process, and if so, what was it? I like the Vision Session, where we get the entire team to express what we really want to get across. Watching that materialize into a restaurant is a unique process and fascinating.

What advice would you share with someone who wants to build a restaurant from ground up? Spend the time and do the homework in the beginning on exactly what and where you want it. Once it's on paper, it's yours forever, good and bad.  It's difficult to fix at that point. 

If you could offer your teenage-self one piece of advice, what would it be?
You are so much cooler in your 30's and 40's, so don't sweat this phase. Go study cooking in Europe while you're young, 'cause it's too late now and weird for everybody.

What is your favorite kitchen tool/gadget?
Currently, the Garganelli Board makes my favorite pasta and gnocchi.

Are there any aspects of the menu inspired by your family?
Sure, my wife and mother-in-law are both great cooks. We cook a very simple grilled whole fish on the weekend at home, Thai style.  I think you will see that pop up.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Dragonfly Fish Market & Kitchen (Doral): Hiro's Story

ai3's team is in the trenches, battling through construction administration on the Dragonfly restaurant in Doral (close to Miami). If you went to U of F, then you may have had a special date night in the original Dragonfly in Gainesville, Florida. While we wait for the dream to take shape, Jillian Rooker and Kellen Minor wanted to introduce you to one of our most creative clients, Hiro, as he builds his empire.  Don't worry, we are doing everything we can to get a Dragonfly Atlanta!

Our chat with Hiro Leung
What is the story behind Dragonfly?
We graduated from the University of Florida some time ago (no time... uu hmmmm) with a P.H.D. - Poor, Hungry and Determined- (not the real Ph D., but the hard knock one). Our venture began with the opening of a small sushi joint with not more than ten tables in 1999. My business partner (Song Kim) and I decided to do this until we found "real jobs" like our friends who were going into the corporate world. As the years passed, we absolutely fell in love with what we do.

What were you going to do with your life?
Growing up, I knew I wanted to be in business. I also knew that I never wanted to have a job. I couldn't stand the thought of going to work and doing something, for the rest of my life, that wasn't fun. I was determined to create a life that would allow my passions of creativity, eating, and drinking to intersect. Yes, we have tough days, but to be able to express that on a blank canvas when we open a new restaurant is amazing- and to watching it grow is an absolutely awesome feeling!

Why did you name it Dragonfly?
Sixteen years ago, when we were in search of a name, we wanted a name that represented Asia and symbolized grace, beauty, and enlightenment. We knew the answer was in nature, and the dragonfly spoke to us. The dragonfly is a symbol that represents the grace and beauty of Asia, but for us it goes even further. With eyes that are much larger than its body, the dragonfly reminds us to keep our vision huge but our bodies nimble.
What is it about an authentic fish market that inspired you to include this retail component in Dragonfly Doral?
Japanese culture is all about creating true meaningful connections. When you look at the restaurant landscape in the U.S., it's all the same. We want to be seen as the misfits; the ones that people ask, "Why?" We are driven to push the boundaries of Japanese cuisine beyond Sushi. When we landed on the Doral location, we knew that Seafood was a huge part of the Hispanic culture there, and using the Tsukiji Fish Market as inspiration was a no brainer!

Amongst your travels internationally and nationally, what is your favorite Japanese restaurant?
I have two favorites. One is a hole in the wall in Okinawa Japan. My grandparents used to take me there when I was a child, but it's not there anymore (the owners have passed away). The food was great, but the time spent with my grandparents going to that restaurant was one of my most fulfilling memories.
The second is Kyoto Japan (I know I'm cheating, but the whole area deserves to be mentioned!). The service, food culture and humility found in many of the restaurants there is simply breathtaking. I think there are more Michelin star restaurants in Kyoto than in Paris.

Is there a place in Japan that you find truly inspiring? If so, what is it and why?
Again, I'm blown away by the attention to detail, service, and food that exists in Kyoto. It inspires everything we do.

Hands down, what is going to be the BEST item on the menu at Dragonfly Fish Market & Kitchen (Doral) that everyone must order?
haha... It's going to be a completely new menu and design. We'll feature fresh seafood prepared with the love and inspiration of traditional Japanese comfort food. From our grab-and-go hot and cold dishes to the Dragonfly Izakaya experience, everything will be unique. 
If you're reading this... you'll have to come and see!