Photos Cameron Flaisch
Tucked around the corner from Beaver Slide Saw Mill on N. 5th Ave. resided one of DeSoto’s most popular cotton gins, boasting four Lummus gins crammed inside a rusty post-and-beam shack.
It would be decades before this edge of town would be absorbed into Rome proper; and nearly 100 years yet before this area would be known to us as the area between the rivers, an up and coming arts district in Rome, Georgia. Downtown has witnessed many changing eras of commerce, an industrial kaleidoscope throughout the generations. The building, erected in the midst of WWII, housed various businesses over the years; a farm supply depot, a grocery store, and many others all laid claim to 401 W. 3rd St, until it lay forgotten and derelict. This neglected space was the blank canvas on which Kevin Dillmon, owner of AVENTINE and Honeymoon Bakery, and an entire team of creative collaborators would pin their adaptive reuse project. The renovation was extensive, and the vision, true: to build a place as inviting as home, where the old meets the new, the wine flows freely and people delight in being together.
DESIGNER SUMMER WILLIAMS
Summer Williams has over 15 years’ experience in hospitality and residential design. Originally from Rome, Georgia, she has worked around the world and is the director of her own design company with locations in London, UK, and Atlanta. Aventine was a passion project, as it enabled her to work with old friends and be a part of the rejuvenation of a town so dear to her heart.
How would you describe your inspiration for the space?
The heart and soul of the restaurant’s concept has always been centered around the celebration of Kevin Dillmon’s culinary artistry (Southern in nature but with Italian and other European influences) and as such, the design was crafted to echo the beauty of this ethos. Though contrasted with various new elements, inspiration was taken from the history of the building (both physically and metaphorically) became a natural influence on the overall look and feel. Many of the architectural features of the old structure (brick, walls, ceiling beams, and concrete floors) were stripped back, polished and showcased for their interesting character, texture and raw beauty. As a nod to the location’s historical origin, a crisp palette of whites and warm browns offers a modern take on a stalk of cotton.
AVENTINE has been defined over and over again as a project of collaboration. How would you tell the story of how the spirit of collaboration continues?
The open kitchen was the keystone of the project. We placed the bar in the center of the room to create a hospitable and social focal point, while the open expo kitchen was located with direct adjacency to the main room to illuminate the connectivity between chef and patron, a key aspect in farm-to-table gastronomy. Paired alongside private seating, community tables crafted in reclaimed heart pine persuade camaraderie, as one or two parties share the table. The gentle scenes of pastoral southern landscapes by local photographer Kelly Moore work in harmony with the industrial lighting pendants above the bar, sourced from England, where the remnant fixtures once served to illuminate an old Rolls Royce factory; recycled, rewired, and repurposed in the spirit of adaptive reuse. Overall, the goal was to maintain a sense of balance between old and new, familiar and curious, and ultimately offer a space where exceptional food can be tasted and enjoyed in an environment that is as stylish as it is comfortable.
EXECUTIVE CHEF ADAM O’HARA
Chef Adam is originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He received his training from Le Cordon Bleu, Pittsburgh, and developed menus at high esteemed restaurants such as The Yard Gastropub and Monterey Bay Fish Grotto before taking the position of chef de partie at the internationally acclaimed The Georgian Room at Sea Island, Georgia. A new Roman, Chef Adam is the executive chef of AVENTINE.
You had an amazing career in Pittsburgh. Your tenure at Sea Island, and success here in Rome, prove you are unstoppable. What kind of beginnings did you have that inspired you go into the culinary industry?
I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Which is a wonderful place to call your hometown – it’s a very blue-collar city. I grew up in a part of town that was depressed; after the steel mills had gone out, there wasn’t much industry left. I had fantastic parents, but very blue-collar workers. Learning to cook, I was inspired by my mother. She was the one that took the shopping budget, made it stretch and found ways to make things tasty that most people weren’t buying at the time. I have two older sisters, but I was the one that was spending time in the kitchen with Mom. That was our thing and we used to watch cooking shows together… reruns of Julia Child and “Good Eats” with Alton Brown.
What dish can you describe that would whisk you immediately back through time, into your childhood kitchen?
Oh my God, my mother’s potato soup takes me back. And it was very, uh, humble, I guess that’s a good way to put it. It was a mistake somehow, we ended up enjoying. She was making a roux to make the soup – she saw it on whatever cooking show at the time – and she wasn’t paying attention and the roux got way too dark. It burned. But she didn’t have the ingredients to make it again so she just kind of went with it. It was almost like this creole-style potato soup that had some type of pork, anything from braised pork to hot dogs, you name it. It just depended on what the budget was for that particular week. But she would make gallons of the stuff – potatoes were cheap – and we’d eat it all week long and never complain.
You orchestrated the renovation and new menu launch for The Monterey Bay Fish Grotto, the #1 rated restaurant in Pittsburgh. It seems you were at the top of your game. Why did you leave Pittsburgh?
Once we launched the new menu, the restaurant was doing so well, but soon after I got bored. I had nowhere else to go. I mean – it was the best the city could offer. What more could I do? In this industry, there’s death or staleness if you get stuck inside a box. I threw myself into a chef de partie position at Sea Island’s Georgian Room as a means of sinking or swimming. Going from refined to very VERY fine dining. Sea Island is one of the most renowned resorts in the world. It was incredible being there. I was exposed to so much so quickly.
How have you grown with Aventine? What is unique to this experience that keeps you passionate?
What really blows me away about Rome is how much product we have right here in our own backyard. Chefs kill for that. The beef comes from Berry College, right down the road. I worked in the most elite resort and there was no connection to where our food came from. But here, I know Rachel from Bella Vita, because she comes in twice a week with containers full of the mushrooms she grew. Tucker Farms and Rise and Shine, these are all people that we have a relationship with, that bring us fresh, unbelievable resources. For the menu, you won’t find me meditating over a chalkboard; this is far from a one-man show. We have a team of trained cooks coming together, discussing what is about to come into season. We find really good products from local sources and strive to do them justice, letting the fresh flavors speak for themselves.
GM/PASTRY CHEF MEGAN WARE
A Rome native, Chef Megan studied Food Industry Marketing and Administration at UGA and Baking and Pastry Arts at The New England Culinary Institute in Vermont. She worked at The Georgian Room in Sea Island before bringing her culinary mastery back home to Rome.
After training at NECI, what was your most formative work experience?
My time spent in The Georgian Room was the most influential. How it shaped me as a chef, it was such an intense environment. I am a perfectionist to the core, and at the restaurant everything had to be perfect from a little dot you put on the plate to the texture of the ice cream. Everything had to be perfect. The experience taught me that everything matters, all the tiny details. It also taught me about family in the kitchen. The people that you work with become your family. You spend so much time with them: holidays, mornings, nights, even lunches sitting on buckets turned over in dry storage. You spend every moment with them.
What challenges have you faced in your career?
Depends where you are, the kitchen can be a very male-driven place, the boy club mentality if you will. That is one thing I have had to overcome. I’ve had to find my own balance of still being who I am as a female but also stand up to the male-driven mentality. Earlier in my career, I saw that a lot. It’s gotten better now. Nowadays, women are seen just as strong and given the respect for the positions that they have worked hard for.
How would you describe the culture of AVENTINE?
It’s all about respect from the bottom to the top. A restaurant is so many moving pieces. I can’t get through a shift without the host, the servers, the servers’ assistants, the dishwashers and the line cooks. Not one single person could put this together alone. That is something we are big about here. We want every guest that comes here to feel that we are so grateful they are here. There are so many great restaurants in Rome they could have chosen. Thank you so much for being here. We want our employees to feel the same way. Thank you so much for being here and being a part of this dream with us. It’s all about gratitude and respect.
What is your process like when you are working on a new item to add to the menu at AVENTINE?
Keeping within the theme of southern food meets southern Italian fare, I usually start with tastes that pull at my heart strings, flavors that take me back to my memories. For example, right now we have the sweet potato soufflé on the menu. That for me is my childhood Thanksgiving in a dessert. Coming back here, back home. Being reunited with family, I wanted one of the initial desserts to be something that brought me back to childhood. Next, I ask myself, ‘where do I want to take this? How do I make this different but still recognizable?’ That’s when I start playing around with flavors and textures I want to use. The way a dish looks is really the last thing that I focus on. Which for a lot of people it is the opposite. They have the look or image in their head before they even get started.
OWNER KEVIN DILLMON
Kevin Dillmon has been a prominent business owner in Rome for over 14 years, establishing Riverside Gourmet and then opening Honeymoon Bakery. His presence on Broad street has been the delight of patrons for years. His newest venture, AVENTINE, is the latest success to sweep the town. It is inspired by his travels to Italy and the South that he calls home.
How did you approach creating a niche for the restaurant?
This building caught my eye two years ago. I watched the area for a while. I think it is an excellent location. We are still close to Broad Street, and that is where people want to be. In my mind, I had the idea for the menu and where I wanted the restaurant to lead. I wanted it to be a family neighborhood restaurant. Somewhere you would come for a casual dinner on a Tuesday or date night on a Friday or Saturday. It needed to be comfortable, like if you were to come to my house for dinner. Kelly Moore’s photographs here; he’s my best friend, and I have his work on the walls in my house. It’s personal to me. The wine list is personal, many of the selections have a story from some of the places I’ve been.
You have been very successful with Honeymoon Bakery and now Aventine. Your employees describe your expectations of quality as the “Kevin Standard.” What does that mean?
I always tell people it’s just as easy to do a good job as a bad job. You still have to do something. It takes the same amount of effort to do it. So why not just do a good job? I expect people to do their best and to treat people how they want to be treated. I expect my employees to all be professional; in my opinion the dishwasher is equally just as important as I am. Because without him, I can’t do my job. It doesn’t matter what your job is, your job is important. That’s how I treat everybody. I couldn’t have done any of this without the people around me. My name is not on the menu. It’s not about me; I may set the standards, but my expectations mean nothing without the people around me.
How has life changed since the enormous success of Aventine?
Professionally, it’s been busy. Since opening on Nov. 26, we have been full every night. It’s great the people are enjoying it. They come and want to hang out. So, it’s everything I wanted it to be. Personally, I’ve given up a lot of my time, but that’s not a bad thing. In order for the culture to establish the way I want it to; I’ve got to be here. I don’t want people to work here because they want a job. I want people to work here because they want to be here. To be a part of something cool and to learn. I want them to learn and grow inside themselves to become better at everything that they are doing.
The team stands paramount. Without Kevin and Summer’s vision for the corner of 401 W. 3rd St. and Chefs Adam and Megan’s incredible talents and culinary expertise, AVENTINE would not be the jewel it is today. However, more than the efforts of these incredible four, it’s the communal support – the coming together – of so many individuals that make AVENTINE a great place to share good food, good service and good company.