THE CHASTAIN’s Emilee Durrett on Green Stars, great people, and the best neighborhood restaurant in Buckhead

General Manager and Operating Partner Emilee Durrett enjoying THE CHASTAIN's famous fire pit. Photos by Rob Knight

After 18 years in the restaurant industry, Emilee Durrett has made a home in Buckhead as General Manager and Operating Partner at THE CHASTAIN. Durrett spent the majority of her career in Los Angeles, but she has also worked with several prominent restaurants in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas and Austin. She was familiar with Executive Chef Christopher Grossman from the California restaurant community before she was invited to join the team at THE CHASTAIN.  

Durrett didn’t know much about Buckhead or THE CHASTAIN when owner Andy Heyman called to ask if she would consider moving her family to Atlanta. The timing was fortuitous because of her growing family and a desire to move closer to her mother. Durrett says she was convinced to make the move once she met with Andy and his wife Melissa.

Encouragement from the top down

The organic garden at THE CHASTAIN is a point of pride for Emilee and her staff

Durrett appreciates the way Heyman finds talented people, and provides the opportunity to apply their talent. “I feel like he’s so good at selecting people that he thinks are wonderful to invest in. And then he just creates the space for them to do what they do.” She continues, “He and Melissa both, in different ways, have a very uncanny way of connecting others and really putting the right people in the right places.”

Durrett says Heyman’s management style provides opportunities you don’t see everyday in the restaurant business. “To be able to be creative, and then also do what we love to do is challenging to find, but when you find it, you’re like, Oh, my God, this is what I want to do forever.”

“I was really inspired by the mission and who THE CHASTAIN set out to be. By Chris and by Andy and Melissa and the team, and it’s beautiful. When I got to learn the history, and I got to learn the fact that we’re in a historic space, and the fact that we were the longest standing restaurant in Atlanta… I mean, it’s huge, right? This is definitely something I’m excited about.”

Durrett has been delighted with Buckhead and the Chastain Park neighborhood. In fact, she and her family live right next door to THE CHASTAIN. “I think when you own a business, and you invest in a business, it is a living breathing thing. I care about it a lot, so it’s so nice to be able to be so close.”

Taking the helm of Buckhead’s favorite neighborhood restaurant

THE CHASTAIN had been opened about a year and a half when Durrett became GM. “I was brought in, I think, to usher us into a new era, and really fulfill what Chris always thought was possible.” Executive Chef Christopher Grossman has always had ambitious ideas about sustainability in the restaurant industry, and Durrett was excited by the chance to make a difference.

“So much happens in restaurants that has just sort of always been that way. So [it is exciting] to come at it and say, ‘Hey, how can we rethink this thing?’ and ‘How can we give people something that is higher quality?’”

Durrett and her team are up for the challenge. “Maybe it’s going to be harder, right? And maybe it’s going to take more effort, more talent, more people, or take more time, but it is going to be better for the environment, better for the neighborhood, better for the palette, better for our future, better for all of it.”

The restaurant celebrated its third birthday this November, and there has been a lot to celebrate. THE CHASTAIN was recognized in the first Atlanta Michelin Guide with a Green Star, Best Sommelier, and as a recommended restaurant. Durrett and Chef Grossman are especially pleased to be awarded the Green Star for their efforts with sustainability, organic ingredients, and recycling. The Michelin Green Star is a relatively new award, and Durrett says it is an important step for the industry. “I think is a definite indicator of where restaurants can go and should go in the future, and it’s an exciting thing.”

What sets THE CHASTAIN apart?

The goal of the team at THE CHASTAIN is to be the best neighborhood restaurant in Atlanta, and Durrett has specific ideas about what that means. “We want to redefine what a neighborhood restaurant could look like. Not only having the quality behind everything and the intentionality behind everything, but then we also want it to feel a bit like Cheers, where you can walk in and, despite how busy it is, you feel like you’re home.”

The customer experience is paramount. “I want our guests to feel a sense of ownership over the space, and to feel like whatever we’re doing they are very much a part of. Whether that’s from the food or the service, or the people, or the space itself.”

To see Durrett interact with the employees at THE CHASTAIN is to see an engaged, caring manager in action. Her care for the staff is obvious, and it helps to create a sense of calm and cohesion in the space.

It is important for Durrett to engage the staff beyond just getting a paycheck. “The challenge becomes- how do you create a culture that people really feel like they’re a part of, and they want to be a part of, and that they’re inspired to be a part of.”

“I love how many different people we have in this space. And it’s such a fun experience.” She thrives on the challenges of working with a diverse group. “How do you take people from three different generations spanning all different walks of life, who have all different values and ideals and desires and dreams, and give them all something to connect to?”

Durrett gives a lot of credit to the people who work with her at THE CHASTAIN. She strives to “Find great people, encourage them, give them the runway, and give them the space to be great. And then great people also love great people. So it there sort of is this connectedness to it all.” She adds, “It’s hard not to feel inspired by them every day.”

What’s next?

Not content to rest with a Michelin Green Star, Durrett says she and her team are always looking for ways to improve. “We’re only three years old, right? We’re little babies. We’ve got so many dreams for what is possible here in this space and for the community in Atlanta as a whole.”

“I think the fun thing is like every day is different, every service is different. So our goal is to keep pushing, right, like what does great look like? What does hospitality look like? What does constantly challenging and pushing yourselves and others to continue never hitting the status quo [look like]? What does what does it look like to keep moving the bar? If it’s a mountain with no top, we can just keep keep fucking going.”

Buckhead is lucky to have residents like Emilee Durrett, who are so invested in building and growing neighborhood businesses. “I think where THE CHASTAIN goes is wherever its guests take us, and that’s what we’re in it for. So it’s awesome.”

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