Forget the milk and cookies – Santa wants chicken wings

1:00 p.m Monday, Dec. 11, 2017 Food
Santa Phil eats a chicken wing. LIGAYA FIGUERAS/LFIGUERAS@AJC.COM

A few years ago, when I stood on the rooftop of Anheuser-Busch’s flagship brewery in St. Louis for a magazine photo shoot with its then mayor Francis Slay — both of us holding a beer — I was struck by the singularity of the moment.

But, dear reader, that pales in comparison to a recent dining adventure.

I got to eat with Santa. Not just the big guy, but his wife, too. It was the three of us all cozy in a little booth at a restaurant in Johns Creek.

How did this one come about? I could say it’s because I’ve been a very good girl this year. We’ll, I’ve tried, but the truth — and the more interesting tale — dates to this past September, when an older lady approached me while I was on the culinary stage at the AJC Decatur Book Festival. She introduced herself as Stephanie Ludtke and kindly wondered if I ever dined with readers. If so, she said, she and her husband would be interested in eating out with me.

She handed me a calling card and mentioned that the busy season would be coming soon, which would make scheduling dinner a bit tricky. Then she walked away.

Busy season?

I looked at the card. It held a picture of a bearded man in a red suit. The MAN, as in the jolly guy who operates a sleigh, who ho, ho, hos all the way, who hangs out with elves and is besties with reindeer.

It was early December when Santa and Mrs. Claus — aka Phil and Stephanie Ludtke — met up with me at Stack Kitchen, a new gastropub at 11890 Douglas Road in Johns Creek that I wanted to check out. (Santa Phil was not picky about where we ate, but, in the course of dinner, I learned that he’s not such a fan of sushi. Otherwise, he likes everything.)

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Stephanie and Phil Ludtke pose near the train that took them to the Gwinnett Historic Courthouse for the annual tree lighting ceremony, held Thanksgiving Day. CONTRIBUTED BY STEPHANIE LUDTKE

It was a Sunday night, the only evening he had free in his packed schedule of visiting kids who want to sit on his lap and share their wish list, of lighting Christmas trees in town squares, of riding atop choo-choo trains decked out for the holidays and all the other festivities that lead up to his biggest night of the year — the one where the old guy pulls an all-nighter as if he were still a young buck. Where does he get the energy?

Now that I’ve watched him dig into warm crab dip with pita (a highly recommendable Stack Kitchen offering), chicken wings, a burger and more, I’d say that he definitely knows that he’s got to eat to keep his stamina.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When I arrived at the restaurant, Santa Phil and the missus were waiting for me just outside the front door. I had asked him whether he would wear his suit for the occasion, but his wife would have none of it. “I don’t think the restaurant would be happy if we came in costume, and we would not have an uninterrupted meal,” she wrote me via email. However, Santa Phil did appease me by wearing a solid red sweater. That and his flowing silver beard would have helped me pick him out from the dinner crowd, had there been one.

The server came by to take our drink order. Would his be hot cocoa? A glass of milk? Nope. People, it was a pint of Guinness! It was his night off, after all.

Being that I was the one on the clock, Santa Phil let me pick the food. Besides the wings, crab dip and burger, we opted for cauliflower bites — lightly battered and fried flowerettes served with a blue cheese fondue. Santa and I both agreed it was not worth a repeat order.

The wings, though? Let’s just say that he was as giddy as a kid on Christmas chomping on those wings and licking the sweet Thai chili glaze off his fingers.

Now, a restaurant critic has to pay attention to the food, the service, what’s going on around the room and such, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be substantive conversation at the table. And, boy, did I get some intel on his job.

He has a lot of helpers. Not just those elves up there in the North Pole, but people like his beautician, who keeps his beard looking white as snow. He needed to get to the salon for a touch-up soon, Stephanie interrupted, pointing to a few darker whips on his mustachio.

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Six-year-old Abbie Winger plays “Silent Night” on the violin for Santa Phil during the Santa at the Studio event Dec. 3 at DayC Photography in Atlanta. CONTRIBUTED BY DAYC PHOTOGRAPHY 2017 WWW.DAYCPHOTOGRAPY.COM

His wife is probably Santa Phil’s biggest helper of all. She’s the one who fusses with his hair — even curls some of the long strands of his beard, before all his big appearances. She’s the one who packs him food — and not just any old food, it turns out. It has to be “non-messy stuff,” she said — such as granola bars and dried fruit — that won’t get him dirty. Yeah, a keepsake photo of little Johnny or Jane with a crumb-laden, berry-stained Santa would never do. Santa’s other half also makes sure he stays hydrated. She sends him off to work with plenty of water bottles. And, she pays attention to his weight.

Santa Phil was the one who ate the last of the wings and nearly finished off Stack’s house burger (a decent enough offering, but one that would have been better if the Holeman & Finch bun had been swiped with butter or oil before being given a toast treatment). And he thoroughly enjoyed the catch of the day — flaky, grilled red fish atop a bed of roasted potatoes and herbed root veggies. I asked if he needed to put on more weight. No, she said firmly. He was at his max.

The server came by and we put in an order for Lava Balls, a dessert of round beignets with crème filling, sprinkled with powdered sugar and accompanied by caramel and chocolate dipping sauces.

When that dulcet treat arrived, Santa Phil was in full storytelling mode, gushing about how much he loves his job. He adores all the artwork and letters and cookies that children bring him.

He was especially touched by a little girl named Abbie Winger. Last year, Abbie had only recently begun taking violin lessons when she attended the Santa in the Studio event at DayC Photography in Atlanta. She brought along her instrument and asked to play a song for him. Santa said yes, and when Abbie finished, she asked Santa what he wanted her to play for him next year. “Silent Night,” he said. Sure enough, this year, the 6-year-old budding musician showed up after having practiced the last two months with her teacher. She played beautifully, he said. Santa’s request for next year: “Away in a Manger.”

He finished the story and reached for the last of the Lava Balls. When he bit into it, a splotch of cream filling landed on his beard. He grinned as his wife took her napkin and wiped it off.

As I paid the bill, I asked Stephanie what was on her Christmas wish list. A new toaster oven and a steel frying pan she’d read about in “Cook’s Illustrated,” she said. Santa Phil nodded. I have a feeling this Mrs. Claus is going to get her wish.