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Posted at 5:05 PM ET, 05/11/2009

Eatonville Set to Sail

By Tom Sietsema

Get ready for fish and grits, po' boys, gumbo and fried green tomatoes at a new place on 14th Street: Eatonville, the restaurant named for author Zora Neale Hurston's Florida hometown, opens its doors tomorrow night at 5 p.m. This is the public's first chance to see how Rusty Holman, the former chef for a Georgetown private club, does Southern fare, after a drawn-out, $25,000 audition process dreamed up by restaurateur Andy Shallal.

Some background: Back in January, 220 people responded to Shallal's call on Craigslist for a chef. The restaurateur eventually narrowed that field to nine candidates and had them cook against one another for the top job, first using one of Hurston's novels, "Their Eyes Were Watching God," for inspiration. In true reality TV fashion, the contest involved several other challenges, a panel of judges and prize money after each performance.

Why Holman? "I'm not looking for a star chef," says the restaurateur, who also owns Busboys and Poets across the street from Eatonville. What impressed him most about the chef's resume was a three-month stint in Spain, cooking three meals a day, six days a week for a family whose numbers ranged from four to nearly a dozen. Holman, now 35, was responsible for everything from food shopping to cleaning up.

Holman's North Carolina roots probably didn't hurt, either.

The dish that earned the chef some of the most praise from the judges: hush puppies stuffed with Creole-spiced rock shrimp and a creamy leek fondue. (It, too, makes its debut on the menu tomorrow night.)

The interior of the 250-seat Eatonville has both bare columns and crystal chandeliers, and Shallal describes it as "loud and gregarious and colorful" -- words he says also sum up the outsized personality of Hurston.

-- Tom Sietsema

By Tom Sietsema  | May 11, 2009; 5:05 PM ET
Categories:  Restaurants  | Tags:  Tom Sietsema  
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