The artist’s way is forward. No one had to tell that to Alex George. Forward is his default mode. Do the milestones he’s passed—important ones—gratify him? Hard to say. Ever-evolving, ever-creating, his eyes are onto the next. This is a person who taped “watch me burn” where he could see it working the line. The words have faded, but the fire has not. In just three years, this chef has evolved his doughnuts-and-burgers hotspot into a small, unassuming restaurant that’s turning out some of the most interesting cuisine in the region.
Some might say the pace he’s set—the one he burst into the Village with when he opened GB&D in 2016—is unsustainable. Maybe right this very second, cupping his coffee mug with slightly trembling hands and his phone buzzing constantly, he would say so too. Who can blame him: Alex George is tired. He is cooking at his signature restaurant GB&D every day; running his other ventures, Carol’s Ice Cream and the GB&D food truck; overseeing his new bar, Bar Mars, and is currently neck-deep in the buildout for GB&D’s new location in The Commons. His attention is fragmented mercilessly by people who need something from him (everybody needs something from him). And yet, in the midst of this high-speed ballet, George’s artistic vision has never been more ambitious or more exciting.
Dialogue is what he’s after now, a back-and-forth between cook and diner that influences every course of the meal. The new home of GB&D will include two kitchens: one for all-day lunch service, and one that will focus on elevated dining. Tucked at the end is a six-seat chef’s counter open to the kitchen—so open that George imagines handing a customer a spoonful of something to taste before a course even arrives. Why? He really, truly, wants to know if they like what they’re tasting. He dreams of tailoring their next course to their feedback, turn-by-turn navigation for the tasting menu.
The kitchen design acknowledges the growth in George’s journey. There won’t be a menu at the chef’s counter; it will be a new experience every time. “There’s a term in writing called consecution where everything builds on itself,” he says, “and it would be amazing to work a concept like that into an experience for the diner.” He doesn’t know if this is possible yet, but he can’t stop thinking about the potential of tapping into memories besides his own. Imagine a couple sits down at the chef’s counter. Maybe George, or one of the chefs on his team, could lean over and ask about the couple’s first date, what they ate, find a narrative from the past that could arc all the way through the five-course dinner he’s about to create. “Maybe we could carry a story like a plot through food in a way that’s not usually done,” he says.
MAKING IT //
Here’s the thing: George resists being described as an artist. Instead, he comes up with words like maker, creator, craftsman before writing them all off as trendy. Here’s the crazier thing: seven years ago, what he was making was cars. He had never worked in a kitchen. He graduated from Bob Jones University with degrees in English and graphic design, planning to freelance design his way through law school. But freelance designing was boring, so he ended up working at BMW until a shoulder injury sidelined him. Recovering at home offered time to explore the love of cooking he’d always had, so he studied cookbooks and tried new techniques, basically teaching himself. And when his son was born, he knew it was time to make good on his passion. In 2013, he got a job in the kitchen at Stella’s Southern Bistro, where he worked hard until the opportunity to open GB&D came to him unexpectedly.
Was it risky, opening a restaurant in a changing neighborhood with only a few years of restaurant experience to his name? Of course, the question answers itself. But the impact has been enormous. It’s hard to imagine the Village of West Greenville’s trajectory would be the same if people like George and his sister Lindsey Montgomery, co-owner of The Village Grind, hadn’t jumped in before anyone else. It’s also hard to believe it’s only been three years, as the Village has transformed (Carol’s and Bar Mars are among the neighborhood’s new growth) and so has GB&D. The former lunch spot still serves a quality lunch, but has added Sunday brunch and dinner service most nights.
“I think it’s easy to make good food,” George shrugs. “It’s way more difficult to make impressions with food.” If you’ve been to GB&D in the past year and ordered something besides the burger—which is a hang-up for some people, because the burger really is good—you know that George’s menus are already making impressions. Or maybe you don’t know it, but you feel it when you’re eating, which is George’s whole goal. “My food is always memory-driven. For me, it’s tied to a sensory experience, and I’m trying to recreate a memory,” he explains.
Sometimes it’s not a memory so much as a moment in time he tries to transpose to food. Music often sparks the inspiration for a new dish. He says a song will give him a feeling, and he’ll try to get that feeling on a plate. When I ask him about his process, I expect to hear the standard chef bit about the local producers he sources from, and instead, he gives me a glimpse into his brain. “Yesterday I was listening to a song, ‘9 Crimes’ by Damien Rice, on repeat,” George begins. “It’s a very delicate piece of music, very quiet, just voice and cello for the most part. The feel from it was somber, but really beautiful, and it almost has . . . a lightness to it,” he says.
He breaks the song down and then builds it together again on a plate. The delicateness of raw tuna is his connection point to the song; then, he thinks, maybe a cream element for the smoothness of the cello. “This sounds ridiculous,” he interjects, but continues, “I did a buttermilk miso for a sense of heavy to contrast, but I made it into an emulsion to keep that lightness.” Judging by how sheepish, even mildly embarrassed he seems as he explains, this glimpse is an intimate one—but he offers it easily, like opening a door and inviting a stranger in.
I am reminded of artists, of how they chase ideas about the world in whatever medium comes to them. Of course, all chefs have ideas, but George’s seem to come from a different place, a conceptual place beyond food or flavor that just happens to unspool onto the plate. I am reminded of the artist’s ego, the stubborn tango of self-doubt and self-confidence it takes to put anything into the world. Will he ever make anything that achieves the bar he’s forever chasing in his mind? He smiles now, a self-aware smile. The answer is, unsurprisingly, no.
OUT THERE //
A few days later, my family and I were having lunch at GB&D. (I did not order the burger, but my kids did. Their plates came out as soon as their burgers were ready, unasked—a sign of a kitchen run by someone who knows what life with little kids is like.) By total chance, George walks by, holding a plate, a photo background tucked under his arm. When he spots me, he changes course to set the plate in front of me. “I’m putting it on the menu tonight. I want to know if you would change anything,” he says, before disappearing into the kitchen.
It is the tuna inspired by “9 Crimes”—fully realized and finished with apples, radish, pomegranate, the miso yuzu buttermilk emulsion, and a crazy edible flower called a buzz button. I taste all the delicate contrasts he originally envisioned, a perfect rendering. It is lovely and surprising, every bite. Do I appreciate the tuna more because I know its origin story? Probably so.
But the origin story of this dish and plenty of others is no secret. George plated this dish hours before dinner service so he could photograph it for Instagram. Some restaurants post their photos with a list of ingredients; George posts his to GB&D’s Instagram account with vulnerable mini-essays. He doesn’t treat his brand like a breakable thing. He doesn’t care about convention. He writes what he’s thinking about, be that his fears, his joys, his love for his son, his struggles with depression or anxiety, his inspiration. You can almost watch him play with ideas in real time, as the aesthetics of his plating and photographs shift on social media.
“Openness is my theme right now,” he says. “I had this desire early on to communicate why food mattered to me.”
For a time, George included similar stream-of-consciousness notes on GB&D’s dinner menu each day, a taste of the kitchen’s mood and soundtrack. Like the restaurant’s long captions on social media, the menu notes brought the faces and feelings of the people behind the food into the light. The honesty has inspired mixed reactions. There’s a lot of love for George’s authenticity in GB&D’s comment threads, but George says he faced heavy criticism early on, especially from his peers. Sometimes people don’t want to read a personal reflection; they just want the description of the dish. But the two are so entwined they can’t be separated: George’s vision and GB&D’s food.
Alex George’s dreams for the next phase are audacious. It doesn’t scare him. Or if it does, it doesn’t stop him. All of his dreams have been audacious, and look how he’s realized them. Maybe—unfairly—the impact of his work has been more felt than seen, but the Upstate’s dining scene would be flatter, staler without him. Every race needs a front-runner; every new path has to be cleared by someone. Every meal is a memory, and maybe, the next one he serves you will tap into yours, somehow, in that way that you don’t forget.
Photography by Jivan Davé