The Atlanta institution’s Executive Chef draws on family tradition – after breaking with it
Cooking was only meant to be a side gig for Michael Bertozzi, just a means to pay his way through college. Medicine is the family business, after all: the Jacksonville, Florida native is the youngest of six children born to a heart surgeon and a scrub nurse, and his older siblings’ career paths range from radiology to veterinary medicine.
But after graduating from Auburn University with a Biomedical Science degree, Bertozzi realized his hands were meant to wield a butcher knife, not a scalpel. “As I was cooking my way through college I just fell in love with it,” he shrugs. “I still cook every day. It’s something I’m passionate about.”
That passion is seared into every dish that Bertozzi serves at TWO Urban Licks, the Atlanta institution where he was named Executive Chef in 2015. A harbinger of the now-thriving Atlanta restaurant scene, TWO opened its doors in 2004 in a former BellSouth telephone warehouse in what was then an underdeveloped area of the city. With its focus on wood-fired cuisine and its awe-inspiring design, TWO quickly became a favorite haunt for locals and a must-visit spot for tourists.
“Fourteen years later it’s still one of the most talked about and buzzed about restaurants in Atlanta,” Bertozzi says. “It’s embedded in Atlanta’s culture… We’ve become one of the go-to restaurants in the city that people send their friends or families to [when they visit the city].”
Executive Chef Michael Bertozzi from Atlanta's TWO Urban Licks.
The first thing that catches visitors’ attention when they enter the restaurant is the innovative 26-foot glass and steel tower of stainless steel wine barrels. Committed to making wine accessible to all its visitors, TWO Urban Licks worked with wineries up and down the west coast to offer wine in kegs – an unprecedented approach that has since caught on around the country. The gravity-fed system allows all of TWO’s wines to be served by the glass or by the magnum, and anything in between.
The centerpiece of the restaurant, though, is the eight-foot rotisserie burning hickory and oak for TWO’s trademark wood-fired meats, fish and veggies. While wood-roasted chicken turns in the rotisserie, anything from whole hogs or fish to sides of beef or salmon and a host of fresh vegetables can roast on the steel deck above. To keep that massive fire burning delicious food, Bertozzi and TWO work closely with like-minded purveyors to supply the freshest ingredients possible.
“Most people would say it’s really tough in a restaurant of this size to work with smaller purveyors and keep a consistent menu, but we’ve really tried to buck that trend,” Bertozzi says. “We change our menus daily. We definitely have staples that stay on our menu, but we work with local farmers and purveyors to get what’s fresh and available right now. One of the greatest relationships we’ve formed is with Revere Meat Co. We wanted a company that was going to look out for us and wanted to be on the cutting edge with the restaurant – to find that ingredient that no one else was using, that cut of beef that nobody had thought to use in a long time.”
Each of the four Executive Chefs that have presided over TWO’s kitchen has put their own spin on the restaurant’s core menu, with influences from New Orleans to the Mediterranean. Bertozzi credits his unique Latin-inspired approach to his family, combining his mother’s Texas roots and his father’s South American heritage.
“My mom always used to say, ‘There’s people that eat to live and people that live to eat, and unfortunately we’re the latter’,” Bertozzi recalls. “Food was always embedded in our family. My mom spent a lot of time and put a lot of love into what she fed our family… She grew up on a farm in Texas, so she always had a garden and we cooked with fresh ingredients. My dad loved seafood and grilled dishes. Nothing was ever out of a can; everything was fresh, cooked to order, cooked that day. So I developed a passion for it and I don’t think anybody was surprised when I said I was going to be a chef.”
Bertozzi began working in restaurants at age 15, thrilled by the gruff, tattooed bonhomie he saw in the kitchen. It wasn’t until he began cooking himself, though, that he fell under the business’ heated spell. “There’s a camaraderie in the kitchen that you can’t find anywhere else,” he says. “There’s so much pressure that the team you have around you become like your extended family. It’s one of the things I still love about the kitchen.”
Taking the reins of an established restaurant like TWO Urban Licks can be daunting, as Bertozzi readily admits. But his approach, grounded in his food-loving family, ahs always been to trust his instincts. Working closely with Chef de Cuisine Markie McCullough, he often shapes the week’s menu by their own personal tastes.
“Our menu changes based on what the two of us are hungry for,” he says. “That's maybe not always the smartest idea, but at the end of the day you do have to cook what you love. If there’s something you’re craving, you’re going to put more behind it.”