Joey Ward comes from a generation of well-trained young Atlanta chefs who a decade ago pushed the city into a new and more adventurous chapter. No place embodied that era more than Kevin Gillespie’s brash, delicious Gunshow, where Ward spent six years as executive chef. Now he creates bold dishes that honor the region’s ingredients and the city’s many flavors at Southern Belle (named for his wife, Emily) and his small tasting room, Georgia Boy (named for him).
“Yes, we might have some grits on a dish, but we are also using kimchi,” he says.
Ward wanted to be a chef from the moment his grandfather put him on a stool as a kindergartner and showed him how to cook pancakes with blueberries they had picked themselves. He was a busboy at fifteen, and then made pizzas. He participated in a two-year high school culinary arts program, during which time he learned kitchen fundamentals at Atlanta’s Cherokee Town and Country Club. From there, he headed to the Culinary Institute of America.
Experience breeds both daring and confidence, and it can also produce some terrific recipes. In this case, it’s a spicy, Chinese-influenced take on Southern winter squash that both looks and tastes much more complicated than it is. Ward based the recipe on a dish of cold, thinly sliced pork belly in chili garlic sauce from Masterpiece, a Szechuan and Hunan restaurant in Duluth, Georgia, just outside of Atlanta. “That is one of my hands-down favorite dishes to eat,” he says.
He starts with a quartered squash—acorn and butternut both work nicely—and roasts it with olive oil until its texture becomes soft and silky. While the squash is roasting, garlic, scallion, and ginger go into the blender with soy sauce and rice wine vinegar, plus a big pour of Szechuan chili oil. (There are several styles of chili oil on the market, usually made by sizzling garlic, shallots, and a host of spices in oil. Sometimes the oil is strained. Most often it’s poured over crushed chile peppers.) Ward uses a quarter cup, which makes a fiery sauce. For a milder punch, use less chili oil and make up the rest with any neutral oil.
The dish is a breeze to assemble. Slices of well-aged country ham—or prosciutto in a pinch—get a bath in the sauce and are then draped over the squash. The whole thing is finished with a sprinkle of sliced scallions and chopped peanuts. The sweet squash makes a perfect foil for the heat of the sauce, which is balanced by the salty ham. It’s the kind of dish, Ward says, that reflects the city’s evolution. “I’m doing the cuisine of Atlanta, a city based in the modern South with international influences.”