I started following Steven and Laurie towards the end of 2016 when I discovered their IG page on my feed. Someone posted a picture of these phenominal looking fries, and hash tagged Illegal Food. At the time, I had never heard of the place, but if they served fries like that, then they needed to be added to my ever growing list of restaurants! (I would late find out that these were their famed Okonamyaki Fries...similar to the chicken below) Unfortunately, I would never make it to the restaurant prior to it closing. Good thing for you, you, you AND me, the fandom, and support of the food culture that had been created with the resurgence of their pop ups. Fast forward to today, a relatively mild day in January where the two graciously excepted my invitation to go have coffee and chat.
So starting with the basics, how did Illegal Foods come to be?
-S: We've been together since 2009. But we did get started really until I began working at Spotted Trotter. I was working at Spotted Trotter at the time making chacuterie everyday, butchering hundreds of pounds of meat. I have a some thing kind of wrong with my arm where my hand gets numb a lot. Makes it a little difficult to butcher pounds of meat when you can't feel the knife in your hand. On April 1, 2013, Laurie told me not to go to work, and stay home. She said if you don’t like your job then you should just quit. It got me thinking that if I am going to work this hard, then I should just go into business for myself. At that time we had already been talking to Joystick (Game Bar) about hosting permenant pop-up. We received a call around Thanksgiving from the Joystick team asking whether we wanted a permanent residency for a year or two.
This would bring Laurie and Steven to eventually manage the concept restaurant inspired by their pop-ups under the moniker, Illegal Food.
With the new restaurant, when is supposed to open?
-S: We're hoping for May.
-K: Same Concept?
-S: Same vibe. A cool neighborhood spot: soups, sandwiches, tacos; better bar food. Seats like 130 people. Pretty nice kitchen with an awesome brick oven; used to be a pizza spot. It’ll be called Mouth of the South.
-K: Gotcha. So using the name that you switched to briefly late last year?
- S: Yep.
If you were looking for "Illegal Foods" on social media last year, at some point you may have noticed that their name changed to “Mouth of the South” for a time. This was added to the list of things that Steven and Laurie were still dealing with from their previous ownership. Another of which a wage-theft lawsuit that the duo filed last year.
-S: “They” told us, ‘We have your name’; it was a whole debacle. I couldn’t understand how, because I created the name. Turns out, "They" had filed a trademark for it without involving us, allowing them to counter sue for use of the name.
-L: This was just on top of everything else that was happening while we were trying to fight to stay a float (living and doing the pop-ups).
This was among the many stresses that Laurie and Steven faced while dealing with the last restaurant space, which closed in August 2017.
-L: Yea. We got screwed pretty hard. But we came out on top.
That’s crazy! If you were dealing with this in the after math of the restaurant, how was it during the day to day?
-L: Running the restaurant as owner/operators there was never a moment, or day that we were actually off. I could do the schedule, and five seconds after that, someone says they can’t show up, or gets sick, or someone says that they're quitting. My phone was blowing up all day.
-K: So no chill time?
-S: We took a small vacation for two nights once to go camping. We were picking strawberries in a field...
-L: We were going to be back in town that night, but then Steven gets a phone call.
-S: I get a call around 12pm from my pig farmer. He's at the door of the restaurant trying to drop off half a hog. He’s telling me that my guy isn’t there to check it in. Well, I certainly couldn't inconvience him by making him come back.
-L: We literally marched out of the strawberry field all pouty faced.
-S: That was just one of several situations (dealing with staff). Some nights I had to take bar shifts, because the bartender didn't show up or would quit.
-L: Bartended! *sarcastic scoff* I was on dish pit duty a few times instead of managing the front. Sometimes I'd be in the back on fry training people.
-S: There were plenty of times when it was just she and I. Laurie on Fry, and me on the Grill; no one else would show up.
That must be how you both work so in sync now.
-S: We work well together. She’s really good at anticipating my next move, and multi-tasking. Working kitchen shifts definitely broke in her cooking skills.
-L: I'm not very "culinary inclined" *laughs* aka skilled in the kitchen. Probably because I never had to be. My mom is Italian, and my dad is Puerto Rican.
-S: Her mom's a great cook! (Laurie) was eating Marie Calendar dinners when I met her though. I've broadened her palate SO much.
Where did you get your taste for Asian cuisine? Apparently Asian food is your thing?
-S: My friend's dad when I was younger would come pick us up in his Champagne colored Lincoln. We would sit in the back seat and ride over to this Chinese restaurant that was drive through only. We would each get an egg roll, and we would be the two happiest kids that you've ever seen. That was my first taste of Chinese food.
What about your parents?
-S: My parents are vanilla as s***. They don't eat anything. I mean you would think that since my dad's German that he would at least eat mustard, and pickles and various foods of that kind, but nope.
-L: I asked him if he wanted mustard on his hot dog one day *mimics country accent* "Y'kno ion lie-ke mustard"
-S: He has probably never tasted mustard...I KNOW for a fact that he has never eaten a mushroom. He's never tasted soy sauce. Because, I could never have it, when my parents would go out to eat, I always wanted to get Chinese take out.
That would definitely explain you love for the cuisine. On another note, how are ya'll in the kitchen together? Outside looking in you both work pretty seamlessly together.
-S: Laurie is really good at multi-tasking, plus we get along for the most part. I'm not a perfectionist, but I like things to be a certain way. She's able to keep me pretty cool headed in the kitchen.
*I give Steven a searching look to get him to explain a little further*
-S: I tell people 'forget everything you know, and let me teach you something. Don't come in here acting as if you know everything.
-L: It's very hard to find that quality (hard working/attention to details) in people unless they already have it. I think for some of the servers that were there, they weren't quite used to working close to the actual Chef.
-S: Every plate before it left the kitchen was being touched by me. I would cook and expo. I mean, I never had a full (kitchen) crew. In the beginning we had 5-6 guys, then slowly they started to trickle out. Eventually, it was just two guys. I was back there cooking just as much as them.
What caused them to leave?
-S: (At Illegal) We tried really hard to keep everyone’s moral up by showing them in various ways that they were appreciated. I think we did everything we could to appease everyone. Giving people raises by not paying ourselves. Honestly, it’s hard competing with places that cause for their employees to do less work, by say, buying items pre-packaged, and then pay their employee $15 an hour. But I am asking you to do a little more work by butchering a pig, and learning their way around various cuts of meat. Really learning your way around the kitchen.
-L: Or reminding people to cut up potatoes as prep work for their station, but wondering why we don't have any for dinner service.
We go on to talk about the struggles of finding and keeping good staff. What’s most interesting about the above statement is that it seems to be a growing trend: young Culinarians and hospitality professionals who are unwilling to put in the time and hard work for growth. The drive to make as much money as possible (immediately) gives an unmerited chip, and blinds people from putting in “that hustle”.
#Facts: It takes awhile before you reap the benefits of your labor in This Industry.
But what’s prompting you to even reopen a storefront? Based off everything you’ve been through?
- S: I don’t want another restaurant, although we’re opening another one, but our hands won’t be in it as much. I mean ½ million dollars (of not our money) worth of build out, on supplies, and other various things. A lot of money went into all of it. (With the new concept) We will still be working for ourselves. The creative direction of the food is still ours, but we can work as little, or as much as we want to. Mikey (who they are going into business with) is not a restaurant guy, but his partner is.
-L: We’re just happy that he is apart of it. I mean Mikey has always been such a big fan and supporter.
-S: He was a big supporter of Illegal Food (the restaurant); in at least once a week. I’ve actually known him for about 15years. It really started as a joke between all of us: opening another restaurant. Next thing you know, Mikey sends me a picture with a lease agreement next to a stack of cash. So I was like “Let’s do it!”
-L: They will be running it, and we get to do as little, or as much as we want. Gives us time to work on other projects like getting our food in stores, or selling through Amazon. Having more time since the day-to-day aspects of running a restaurant will no longer inundate us.
What else do you do with your free time? Do you go out?
*BTW: By the time you read this, Steven and Laurie would have taken a 14 day trip to Vietnam.*
-S: Honestly, I can’t remember the last time we went out to a bar; like in Atlanta. I like dirty old bars though.
-L: I want to go to Johnnie’s Hideaway
-S: I heard the Royal Peacock was cool, and Southern Comfort (restaurant & lounge). The Morris Lounge is the oldest black owned bar in the city. Gives you bottles of Forties: brown bag with plastic cups and all. Awhile back, I used to live in the Westend. Right there by Peaches! I used to go there when it was called Queen City. I lived in the warehouses, next to that water tower that doesn't have a top on it. I was there for like 2-3years.
Been to Northside Tavern?
- L: I have, (to Steven) you would like it, and we should go. Truthfully we got so used to 3 years of not having a life, and being so tied down to the restaurant. We frequent our "secret spot", where we are taking you to tonight, some times twice a week.
By "Secret Spot" Laurie is referring to Northern China Eatery. A small family ran Sichuan Chinese restaurant on Buford Highway. Discovered by the twosome through a mutual friend. Don't come in expecting "Sweet & Sour" Chicken here. Authentic all the way. Pictures featured under the Consumption tap.
What do you like to drink?
-S: Red stuff, wines that taste like earth. Really good wines. I enjoy Beaujolais, and Burgundy. I like Rose as well. *I give a quick high five knowing in my mind that Rose still gets a bad wrap*. Oh, and I like Bubbles too. But I like to have fun though. Like bottles of Forties after work, and then going to the Cheetah for food.
I feel you. The fried chicken there is bomb!
-S: One of my first jobs out of culinary school was working at the Cheetah.
Cheetah is a reknown Atlanta night club. Not Magic City, the other one.
- S: Right out of (culinary) school I was working at Veni Vini Vicci’s making $8/hr. I saw an add for a kitchen position at the Cheetah. Sheesh, I was making like $1,300 a week. I mean they treat their employees well.
Not a bad money at all for a beginning culinary gig!
- S: Yea. I had to get out of there though. Way to many temptations of the bad things that go on in strip clubs. A lot of drugs, a lot of alcohol... a lot of sin. Plus, it's never your mom's ideal place for you to work.
-L: Your mom came out one time though right?
-S: Yea she came to eat. I come out the kitchen, and she’s getting a back rub by some girl in a nurse’s uniform with a glass of champagne in her hands.
We wind down our convo with random conversation, eventually talk about driving through The Bluff, and a Freaknik encounter.
-S: I remember in ’98 going to "The Bluff". Man that was life changing
Between English Avenue and Vine City, also known as “The Bluff”, an area that had been known for years for being famous for being a high crime area (Watch “Snow on the Bluff")
*I think both myself, and Laurie simultaneously cocked our heads to the side upon hearing this.*
-S: I wasn't by myself. I was with 3 friends.
-L: What were you doing there…?
- S: Just driving through. That place scared the s*** out of me. It’s changed a lot though. Man, I still remember coming down to Atlanta with my parents, and being caught in what obviously had to be FreakNik. Right over by Freedom Parkway we were driving back to Louisville in our station wagon. Traffic was stopped. I still vividly remember a girl dancing on top of a gold Cadillac, and a guy grilling on the back of a truck.
Closing out our interview, Steven and Laurie continue to hype up the feast that is about to ensue when we get to Northern China. I'm excited for multiple reasons: real Chinese food, sharing with people who love to eat a much as I do, plus Steven and Laurie are good people. They have defiantly done a great job at creating a food culture that has merited a mass following. Ever humble, Illegal Food has received such past accolades as: Zagat Best Burger in the State; recognition on both The Travel Channel and Food Network. It'll be exciting to see what the duo (plus new team) will accomplish with the opening of Mouth of the South
Fun Facts With Steven:
S: So apparently SOME Chinese places are using pig rectums as Calamari. I was watching one of those court shows, and this lady was suing a restaurant. She was suing, because she was Jewish, and they had been feeding her pork rectums instead of squid.
L: I would have been more upset about them feeding me pig butt.
Restaurant Recommendations from Illegal Foods
- La Pastor Cita: Dueling Mariache bands while eating Mexican.
- The Colonnade: Chicken livers and shrimp cocktail.
- Benton Farms: Ask about "Hoop Cheese".
- Sushi Hayakawa: Get down with some sushi.
- Northern China Eatery (obviously).