Editor’s Note: In our new series “Food for Thought,” we talk with chefs, restaurateurs and other foodies who are helping the culinary and dining scene boom in Reporter Newspapers communities.

Chef Linda Harrell runs Cibo e Beve, an Italian restaurant at 4696 Roswell Road in Sandy Springs. She has more than 25 years of professional cooking experience, including at the James Beard House in New York City, and has competed on such TV shows as “Kitchen Inferno” and “Beat Bobby Flay.”

Chef Linda Harrell of Cibo e Beve. (Special)

On Sept. 21, Harrell is teaming up with James Beard award-winning Chef Virginia Willis at Food 101, a neighboring sister restaurant of Cibo e Beve, on a special four-course “It’s Grits” dinner. Tickets can be purchased at culinarylocal.com. For more about the restaurant, see ciboatlanta.com.

Q: When did you begin cooking? Do you remember the first meal you cooked?

A: Some of my earliest memories are of me helping my mom in the kitchen. Most of the food prepared with my mom was for my immediate family, as well as all of my delicious Easy-Bake Oven cakes. When my paternal grandmother passed away, I inherited her cookbooks and that is when I started to experiment with recipes on my own.

The first thing I did was ask my dad what I could make him, and he asked for Hungarian goulash. I made it, but decided the recipe needed to be tweaked (never having made this dish before, mind you) and the result was a plate of beef in a paprika sludge. A few years ago, before my dad passed, I joked with him and told him how sweet he was for acting like he liked it. I’m sure it was terrible.

Q: What was your first restaurant job?

A: I worked at Chiapparelli’s Restaurant in Little Italy, Baltimore. I was 13 and it was my first real job. I did a little bit of everything. I remember I couldn’t even reach into the sink [so] they gave me a dish rack that I stood on and I would clean sinks full of garlic [and] lettuce. Sometimes I would bus tables. The most exciting night of working there was when President Jimmy Carter came in to eat. He was president at the time and it was crazy when he came in. I remember I was warned not to go near his table for any reason.

Q: How was cooking on “Beat Bobby Flay”?

A: It was an amazing experience. Bobby was great and my competitor is an awesome guy. It’s funny, I was on a show before that and I had tried to do too much, and I decided to keep it simple when I was on Bobby’s show.

Q: Did you prepare for it?

A: Not really. All you’re doing is cooking and I do that every day. It’s the timing that is the tricky part and it’s kind of hard to prepare for that part of it.

Q: What’s the hardest thing about cooking on TV?

A: You have to appeal to the judge’s palate. For example, on “Chopped,” if you have Scott Conant, he doesn’t like raw onion. If you use it, he’s probably not going to like your dish, which leaves you at an unfair disadvantage. On “Beat Bobby Flay,” the featured ingredient was fennel. You have to make that ingredient the star, so I did. One of the judges said I should have used pasta. Well, it’s a pasta dish then, not a fennel dish.

Q: What do you think of the era of competitive cooking we seem to be in right now – good or bad for the industry?

A: I think it is good for exposure, but unfortunately I think some people go to culinary school now because they have an unrealistic impression of what their career will be when they graduate. It’s a big surprise because it’s not like the Food Network.

Q: Why did you choose the restaurant name Cibo e Beve, which means “Food and Drink” in Italian?

A: Well, I wanted to name it Cibo, but someone already owned the rights to that name, so one of my partners came up with Cibo e Beve.

Q: Meatballs are a specialty of yours.How many can you eat in one meal?

A: Max of two of mine at the restaurant. If they’re smaller, I can eat maybe four.

Q: What is your guilty pleasure to eat when you are nowhere near other foodies and professionals?

A: Wow, I don’t even know where to start. I really eat whatever I want. I love cereal. Cap’n Crunch or Honey Nut Cheerios. Mmmm.

Q: What do you dislike most about being a chef?

A: Sometimes having to work on holidays is difficult. But I really do love what I do, so it’s a small price to pay.

Q: What do you love most about being a chef?

A: The instant gratification of cooking your heart out and having someone smile when you watch them enjoying whatever it is that you just made. I love that. And creating. There are so many things I love about what I do.

Chef Harrell’s Gluten-Free Chicken Meatballs

• 1 lb. ground chicken
• 2 oz. grated Parmigiano
• 1 1/2 tsp. dry leaf oregano
• 1/2 tsp. onion powder
• 1 tsp. minced fresh garlic
• 1 egg
• 1/2 cup instant
potatoes (unseasoned)
• 3/4 tsp. salt
• Freshly ground black
pepper (about 6 good turns)

Mix all ingredients well. When meat mixture is blended, form into 2-ounce balls and place into a pan with 1 cup of chicken stock and 2 ounces olive oil or coconut oil. Cook balls, turning to cook evenly. Keep cooking until chicken stock has evaporated and balls begin to brown. Turn meatballs to brown evenly. When cooked and nicely browned remove from pan. Serve with your favorite sauce.

Dyana Bagby

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.