Our Cast of Chefs
Restaurants: Knox Mason (131 S. Gay St.), Emilia (16 Market Square)
Cuisines: Contemporary Southern and Italian
Sample Dishes: Cornmeal-crusted Mississippi catfish (with creamy Shelton Farm grits, house tasso ham, and Tennessee chow chow remoulade); orecchiette with ragu alla Bolognese (with Mitchell Farm beef, Heritage Farm pork and Strauss veal with San Marzano Tomatoes and Pecorino Romano)
Resume: Blackberry Farm, Tennessee Governor’s Mansion
Education: University of Tennessee (chemical engineering)
Restaurant: Oliver Royale (5 Market Square)
Cuisine: New American
Sample Dishes: Roasted lamb rack (with mixed greens, mossy creek mushrooms, roasted radishes, mountain meadows summer squash, sunflower shoots); grilled halibut (with coconut infused black lentils, rhubarb, fennel, jalapeño, asparagus)
Resume: Chez Liberty, Tellico Village Yacht Club
Education: Le Cordon Bleu
Restaurant: Lonesome Dove Western Bistro (100 N. Central St.)
Cuisine: Urban Western
Sample Dishes: Elk loin (with Chinese kale, hen of the woods, salsify, candied blackberries); roasted garlic-stuffed beef tenderloin (with Western plaid hash, grilled asparagus, Syrah demi-glace)
Resume: Woodshed Smokehouse (Fort Worth, Texas), Queenie’s Steakhouse (Denton, Texas)
Education: University of Tennessee (finance and marketing)
Sample Dishes: Tempura squid (over potato hash and tomato concasse with sambal mayo); oyster sauce-braised pork belly (topped with kimchi, pickled ginger, and fried shallots)
Resume: Northshore Brasserie, Grill 225 (Charleston), Park Place on Maine (Louisville)
Education: Culinary Arts School at Sullivan University, Louisville, Ky.
Knoxville has a lot of places to eat, but it’s not recognized as a foodie town. Yet.
By “foodie,” we mean restaurants that draw people from other cities to visit based on their national reputations, led by chefs who clearly have their own point of view on what makes for gourmet dining. Their menus don’t offer the same items you already had at the last five restaurants you dined at and instead may actually contain unfamiliar dishes, with ingredients that might give you pause. Not just something good to eat—we’re talking bona fide cuisine.
Knoxville has had some chef-driven restaurants over the last few decades, though few have lasted. Now, suddenly, downtown features five either recently opened or soon-to-open restaurants (plus one that led the incursion over three years ago) that deliver higher-end cuisine and service and whose chefs are the star attractions: Emilia, the Italian restaurant recently opened by Knox Mason chef Matt Gallaher; Lonesome Dove in the Old City, a meat-eater’s paradise created by Tim Love, the University of Tennessee grad who became a celebrity chef in Texas; the Oliver Hotel’s posh Oliver Royale, led by Le Cordon Bleu graduate Jon Gatlin; the izakaya-style Asian bistro Kaizen, opened by Jesse Newmister, the young executive chef who left West Knoxville’s Northshore Brasserie; and, finally, the much-anticipated J.C. Holdway from James Beard Award-winner Joseph Lenn, which is about to open in the renovated Daylight Building. (Yes, they’re all white males—that may be partly due to a coincidence of timing, but it also reflects the industry itself: According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2015, over 80 percent of the 415,000 chefs and head cooks in the country are men.)
Will a downtown food scene largely unaccustomed to original dishes, scary ingredients, four-star service, and the sometimes attendant high prices support chefs who are trying to push our culinary envelope?
We decided to gather these chefs for a gut check. In the upstairs dining room at Lonesome Dove, chef Love recently hosted a roundtable meeting of peers for a candid discussion of the restaurant business, their fears and expectations, and why they think Knoxville is on the cusp of becoming a true foodie town.
Note: Chef Lenn couldn’t make the date of our roundtable. The conversation was conducted by Mercury food critic Dennis Perkins.
What made you think now was the time to open your restaurants in downtown Knoxville?
Jon: People who are in the circle of chefs in this area have been watching this for years, thinking that it’s ready, it’s time. You [Matt Gallaher] made a move years ago with Knox Mason, and you guys pushed the envelope a little bit here and there. So little by little everybody’s been getting out of their scare factor and trying to branch more toward downtown.
Matt: I think the last five to 10 years have had tons of energy. Bill Haslam, as the mayor of Knoxville, had a lot to do with that—let’s make it a downtown that people want to work in and live in. So I think it’s been a long time coming to have an environment where we can have chef-owned restaurants and chef-driven restaurants. There’s been a vacuum that took a little bit longer than I would have liked to be filled. I remember being in college and going out to the only real chef-owned restaurant in Knoxville, and it was too expensive for a college kid to go to. I remember thinking at 20 years old that I wished there were more options. A 20-year-old at UT today has a lot of options and can go out for a special event at a chef-owned restaurant for a beer and a snack. It’s a cultural change that’s been a long time coming. There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit, as they say, in Knoxville, so it’s exciting.
Tim: When we did research to open here, I ate at every single restaurant within about a three-mile radius that I could walk to. I ate five times at each place, and I would just see the people—where they’re eating, who they’re eating with, what time they’re eating, are they eating with drink or eating with water, all these different things. What we started noticing is the patterns in the way people eat. And what happens is, downtown is such a saturated market—but it’s really saturated with the same food. So, to me, that’s not a saturated market, it’s a dead market.
You’ve got all these people and they’re all moving, yet they’re eating the same food in different places. So, as Matt said, that’s an equation for opportunity. Then you have to analyze, okay, can the market support what you want to do? And food, if it’s very good, the market will support it.
What’s happening with the people we have at this table is that they are creating better quality. When you create better quality, people show up. The population is getting more and more dense in this city—it’s happening quickly, and they can’t build apartments fast enough, so that tells you that the market is flooded with people who want to do something. And what we do, generally, as Americans, is eat, drink, and celebrate. So we have to provide places to make that happen, and the more quality at a place that you provide, the more of a market share will want to go there.
When I was at school here 22 years ago, there was a restaurant called Merlot’s—it was a chef-driven restaurant. It was very good, I was great friends with the chef. But there was no Food Network, there weren’t any of these things to educate people on food ahead of time to where they’re more adventurous to make the step to try a chef-driven restaurant, as opposed to going to Chili’s. Now people know what a rutabaga is—22 years ago in Knoxville, they probably thought it was some sort of weird fucking car. It’s the truth! Now you have opportunity, right? Education is the biggest opportunity in the world. The more great restaurants that we have, and the more people get educated, that’s where you start making money by doing it the right way. People will embrace it as opposed to being afraid of it.
Jesse: When I moved here in 2005 there was no place to go out to eat. I was working at the Brasserie six days a week, and my one day off I was like, “I’m not going to the Brasserie and eat there.” So I’d cook. It kind of grinded my gears for a little while because I don’t want to cook seven days a week—any chef won’t want to cook seven days a week. You want to go out and have somebody else cook for you. So for a couple years, I was like, “Where are we going to eat?”
You start noticing trends and whatnot, and one thing I learned when I first moved here to Knoxville was that it’s a big test market for chain restaurants. It’s very entrepreneurial, with the Calhoun’s guys and the Ruby Tuesday’s guys—they built these massive restaurant chains and all that trickled down, and the food just stayed the same, the service stayed the same. When we opened the Brasserie, people didn’t know what the hell snails were doing there—why would you serve snails? We got bitched at for serving foie gras—everybody thought it was pate, but no, it’s liver. You make pate out of liver. We were explaining things all the time. You have to stick to your guns. The people seeking it out will find it—there’s a large international community here. They’re going to hear about it eventually, and you just have to stick with your original concept.
Going into 2015, I was 90 percent sure I was going to leave the Brasserie anyway. I’d been there 10 years, so it was time. I was working on a separate space, but the reason why I started looking at downtown is because some of the regulars at the Brasserie—very well off, affluent people—started putting their money into downtown. Then it starts to click: If their money’s coming back downtown, that’s where we need to be going. And plus, it’s just charming—the buildings have so much character.
How have diners been responding to your more exotic menu items and your pricing?
Jon: They’ll burn you if you try to slide something in that’s overpriced and under-quality. You’ll get crucified every time on that. What some may consider price-gouging, it needs to be honest to what it actually is and be the right product. You can’t just try to slide something in just to get over, because then you get caught and you get a bad name for being sneaky. So being honest with the food in this area is one of the biggest things for us.
Matt: I don’t think Knoxville is any different from a cost standpoint. You have people who don’t even look at the price on the menu and just order what they want; if some people are going to scrutinize it and order the cheapest thing on the menu, I think it all has to be quality. I don’t see there being a special sensitivity to price in Knoxville necessarily.
But from an ingredient standpoint, I lived away from Knoxville for about five years—I was touring, cooking for bands, and then cooked for the governor for two years—and when I came back to open Knox Mason I was nervous about putting pork belly on the menu. I had been in touch with Knoxville but not living here, and I wasn’t sure if Knoxville was ready for an ingredient that’s a little esoteric. Now it’s not at all esoteric and people really love pork belly. When we put it on our opening menu, and it was well received, it was immediate validation that Knoxville has a foodie culture.
Tim: He’s not worried about price sensitivity because he’s selling flour and water—let’s be honest!
Matt: Yeah, right! We’re only 10 weeks old, so the jury is out on that. Call me in a couple years. Not everybody who comes through Jesse’s door might order the octopus, but hopefully nobody is intimidated that it’s on the menu. City House in Nashville is one of my favorite restaurants ever, and when I was living in Nashville I talked to somebody about going there, and they went “Oh, we went there once and they had octopus on the menu.” They didn’t even order it, but it was just so terrifying to them that it kind of ruined their experience. And I haven’t seen that here—I don’t think people are as intimidated by new things.
Tim: We’ve had people walk out. Walked in, sat down, then walked out.
Jon: “I just wanted to cool off. I feel a lot better now.”
Jesse: We get people who are terrified of the whole fish. They would order it, and it says “whole fish”—and they’re like, “I didn’t realize it had a head.” Well, how many headless fish are swimming around? They get terrified and they leave.
Matt: It’s knowing where your food comes from. It doesn’t start from a package in cling wrap. I’m not a hunter; I would love to fish, but I don’t have the opportunity. But food does come from somewhere and it does have a history. Your animals come with heads.
Tim: All of them! Not just mine.
Matt: I don’t think anybody at this table is interested in shock value or anything like that, but it’s good exposure just to remind people that, yeah, fish have heads. Some people love eating the heads.
Tim: I have a restaurant where we roast a whole animal every day. The pig is the only one that has the head on it. With the lamb, the head is off; the deer, the head’s off; the goat, the head’s off. But everybody’s fine with the pig having the head on. But by gosh if you roast that goat with its head on, they’re like, “What the heck is going on?!” It’s weird what America accepts and doesn’t accept. And by the way, it isn’t just people in Knoxville or East Tennessee—it’s everywhere. Everybody has the same fears if they don’t go out a lot.
Exposure and repetition is the whole reason why people go out to chain restaurants—because they know what it is. That whole familiarity is very safe, and they’re not going to be offended. They know the chicken is going to taste like it’s been injected with a bunch of shit—they know that and are good with it. So consistency and familiarity are why people eat at chain restaurants, it’s why they get popular—because they play on the fears of what people eat. They know that Americans don’t like to see the feet on their chicken when it comes to the plate. That’s just the way we were brought up.
Jon: Beaks are off-putting in general.
Tim: When it comes to price sensitivity and stuff like that, I think there are restaurants where people go and they are not hungry anymore, and then there are restaurants where people go and have experiences. They’re two different dining situations. You get up one day and you want lunch so you grab a sandwich—I mean, it’s a bonus if the sandwich is spectacular, but you’re starving and just want a frickin’ sandwich. And then there are times you wake up and say, “I’m going to call some friends and we’re going to have lunch.” And it’s a completely different dining situation.
So is there a price sensitivity to that sandwich that makes me not hungry anymore? One-hundred percent. Is there a price sensitivity for something that gives me a real experience? I think not, because I’m out for the experience—it’s more than just the food, it’s more than just saying, “How much did that fish cost me on the plate?” It’s more about, did I have the proper silverware, did I not have a napkin, was my cocktail always full? Those are all parts of what the food is, right? So something may be $50 for the actual entrée, but a large portion of that is the service and the experience around you—the type of music, the way the place looks.
So what does it mean to be a “chef-driven” restaurant?
Tim: Restaurants have to have a point of view or they’ll never succeed—I don’t care how good the food is. You have to want to go there to get X. “I’m going to go to this restaurant because _____.” If you don’t have that statement from the guests or the general public, the restaurant may do great for a year, but it will never survive if it doesn’t have its own point of view to make it happen. And that’s what’s starting to happen in this city, which makes it exciting. [Matt] has a point of view on Italian food, which is spectacular—there isn’t another real Italian restaurant in the city that I know of that has a point of view. So how great is that? Same with Oliver Royale—it’s got a beautiful atmosphere and they entertain guests with their point of view of how this type of food should be done. Hopefully they’ll like it and come back and pay for it again.
Matt: We’re starting to see a true point of view, but maybe also a focus. I think there’s been some good chefs in town who’ve done good food, but you don’t know from one visit to the next what the food is going to be. Everybody at this table—and Joseph, who’s sitting here [gestures to empty chair]—has a focus. They have a perspective, they’ve dialed it in, and they’re sticking to it and not trying to be all over the place.
How do you do your menu planning when the market may be an unknown quantity? How do you push the envelope?
Matt: I got to travel for about five years, so just exposure to other cities, other countries, and seeing what other people are eating and how it’s received was an invaluable education. Before we opened Emilia, I kind of let the market tell me what we needed. Honestly, I was considering opening an Asian restaurant before—Asian and Italian were the two things I thought downtown could do better. Then I dove headfirst into the research and studying Italian food at workshops and things like that. If you live in Knoxville and eat out enough, you start to think, “I would like to have this food, but it’s just not available.” So that’s kind of how I made the decision to do an Italian restaurant. In some ways, what we’re doing at Emilia is not personality driven at all—it’s actually backing up and doing simpler food. A Bolognese is now a heavy meat sauce, while ours tends to be a little lighter, a little more traditional. I think this conversation all goes back to quality—doing simple food well executed.
Jesse: You present it in a way that the guests are going to have some sort of recognition of it to—like, if you’re serving some sweetbreads, just say it’s a veal ravioli. People are going to go, “Wow, why is this veal ravioli so good?” Well, it’s sweetbreads. You’ve already hooked them, they already said they like it, so now they can’t say, “Oooh, that’s sweetbreads.” If you are presenting something that’s different or strange to somebody who isn’t familiar with those ingredients, frame it with something that is familiar to them. Who hasn’t had General Tso’s chicken? So take octopus and cook it in chicken fat—octopus is meaty anyway—and just do a more vinegary, more spicy General Tso’s sauce. If somebody is on the fence about trying octopus, and you frame it in something super-familiar to them, they’re going to be more apt to try it.
Jon: It’s about building a relationship and a trust factor in the community—knowing your restaurant, knowing your establishment, knowing who you are and what you want, trusting that you want to do the right thing as far as food goes. We usually use wine dinners or New Year’s to test things, usually in a prix fixe with three choices for each [course], and then you see if anybody’s going to bite on the rabbit loins or the foie gras.
Obviously, when you put out a new menu—we do a seasonal rotation of menus—you watch the first two months and if anything is completely off-putting and they can’t sell it to save their life, then you make a quick adjustment and change it up. You don’t want to have product in there that’s not being sold and going to waste. So you play it smart, and you have a couple that you play closer to the envelope. If we found that it was not going to sell and Knoxville was not ready for it, we’d simply do a reprint and take that off the menu and put something else on there that’s actually going to make you money.
Have any exotic dishes become surprise successes?
Matt: Pork rinds.
Tim: The stuff on our menu is pretty unusual for the diners that have been in so far, but they’re all willing to take the leap. We do a pheasant enchilada that’s straight-up comfort food. You can get steak and mashed potatoes if you want to. But in general, everything else you try will probably have something in there you’ve never tried before. When I go out and I spend a little bit of money, I’m celebrating—that’s the experience I want. I want something that sparks my interest, gives me something to talk about, creates a conversation. All of those are part of the dining experience—the food has to taste great, it’s got to be prepared well—but for a fine-dining experience you have to have other things around it. You need to have stories, you need to have tremendous service.
Are you able to find sufficiently trained service workers? Are your kitchens difficult places to work?
Tim: Staffing is always a difficulty, right? In my world, and the way I do it, we breed a culture more than we do just the restaurant or just a style of food. We want people who want to grow and get better. That’s my whole goal—to get people who want that, who want to get better and eventually run their own place. If they don’t have those types of goals, I don’t really want them on the team. I have financed many young cooks who’ve worked for me. I’ve recommended many young cooks to go on and do their things. I think you’ve got to have that culture in order to get a staff that wants to stay with you. I tell people all the time, “You’re either going to work for me for a year, or work for me nine or 10 years. But you’re not going to work for two to three years. That’s just not going to happen.” We develop people over long periods of time and give them opportunities to grow, and we do that in the front and the back of the house. It’s very important that we grow on both sides. Our training for this restaurant was three weeks long. It was like school—four hours in the morning, four hours at night. They didn’t taste any food for three weeks—just right on the edge, when they’re all ready to go to hell with this, I’m out, and then I give them some food. You see who’s kind of buying into the culture or not. If you don’t want to buy into the culture, that’s perfectly fine, no offense, it’s just not the right fit for you.
Matt: People are the most important thing in the restaurant, easily. Thomas Keller could be making the best food anybody’s ever tasted but if he doesn’t have a team around him, he’s not successful.
Tim: He makes one plate instead of 200.
Matt: The service is what really separates Blackberry Farm from the rest of the pack. Their mantra when I was there was, “Yes is the answer. What is the question?” It’s evolved in a very thoughtful way to, “Yes is the attitude. What is the question?” Because sometimes great service is not just saying yes; sometimes great service is listening to what your guests are saying and steering them toward an experience. I think as more chef-driven restaurants spring up in Knoxville, the level of service will rise to match the level of thought that’s going into the food. I think it will become a culture.
Jesse: At the Brasserie, we had some really stud servers and cooks there. And I’d tell them, you’re ready for something else. They were on the fence—they wanted to move to Charleston or California—and I was like, yeah, go to a big food city, go to Louisville, go to New Orleans. Even if it’s just for six months, just disappear into that culture. It’s competitive, but also everybody’s got each other’s backs. That’s a huge thing I learned in Charleston: I’m a dime a dozen. I was so lucky I got the job that I got, being 21 when I started. The next youngest cook was almost 30 years old, and the rest of the staff was in their mid-30s to 40s—all the servers were career servers. So I was like, better shape up or ship out because they’re going to eat me alive. Either you learn or you don’t.
Could the idea of career service be a generational thing—are younger people returning to the idea of learning trades now?
Matt: Absolutely. In the same way that people our age who are farmers. Well, not my age—I’m a little older, 39.
Tim: Now that makes me feel really old. That’s fucked up.
Matt: So, maybe not kids I went to high school with, but maybe 10 years behind me.
Tim: It’s the age of the craftsman is what it is. Back in the day, what we called wood shop and mechanics class, now it’s the craftsmen—that’s the new word for it, but it’s the same shit, right? Now people are excited about designing things, like doing cool furniture, and it’s really being embraced by people using local products. We had a local lady make all of our plates here, and our glassware was made by the guy down the street [Pretentious Beer Glass Co.].
The real vocational or service jobs are people like servers and cooks—people who really do serve people, and are accepted for it and get paid for it. And those who are great rise to the top, just like anything else in the world. If you’re good and you work hard, you get paid more money. It’s the epitome of America, really. If you make tables, you need to make the best table there is. And then you tell people about it. If you make clothes, you need to make the coolest clothes there are. You see a lot of this popping up. More and more people are becoming craftsmen or they’re some sort of blogger on Instagram. Like, that’s the only two jobs out there. How many fashion bloggers are on Instagram—654 million?
Matt: I gave up chemical engineering after 15 months of working in a factory as a student, but that paycheck wasn’t worth it. And it was good money. I was making more money at 20 years old than I was for most of the time I was at Blackberry Farm, but I wasn’t happy. It wasn’t fulfilling. You work on a project for six months, and then the six months are over and it’s, “Oh, yeah, we’re not doing that.” There is instant gratification and camaraderie here, a lot of attractive things. At any restaurant, there are a lot of romantic notions that people have—but blink and you’ll miss the glamor. It’s hard work, every day. But if you love it, it’s what you do.
So what do you want to see in Knoxville’s food scene five years from now?
Tim: I want to see people demand more. If everybody at this table does what they’re supposed to do, then people will demand more—and then that creates more opportunities, just like we talked about in the very first question. If there’s great support for these new restaurants, and people are dining and they get excited about it, just like us as cooks, then people will want more. That’s when you know it’s really taking a leap. Then you’ll start seeing the burger restaurant or the barbecue restaurant get even better. The places that people perceive as middle-class restaurants, not high-end, are putting out a badass brisket with killer pickles, as opposed to ones out of a jar. That’s how you start seeing this—when the burger place, the fried-chicken place, the barbecue place are doing approachable foods that are really high quality. That’s when you know you’ve done the right thing.
Matt: Absolutely. I think if you go to a city and their taco is amazing, then you know their cuisine is going to be great. In Knoxville, I’ve seen more growth in the last five years—we opened Knox Mason three-and-a-half years ago, and I can’t tell you how many restaurants have opened since. Having recently lived in Middle Tennessee and seeing Nashville, that scares me a little bit. But I do feel like it’s still sustainable growth. I heard a stat on the radio the other day about a million new people coming to Nashville over the next 10 years, and that type of growth scares me, because I love Knoxville and it’s very special to me. I want us to keep the charm that we have here. So I would like to see continued growth, but sustainable growth—not a big faceless, nameless corporate thing. I know when we were looking for our space for Emilia, I started to get a little worried that the little guy might be squeezed out if we continue to grow so much or too quickly. I just hope that we don’t get to a point where the little guy can’t strike out on his own.
Jon: I think my only hope in the long term is that we continue as a city to grow—the way we’re growing now where we’re building the small communities around Knoxville, like in the Happy Holler area and across the river. It’s small pieces of growth where property values are increasing. I would say, last year, there wouldn’t have been a need for any kind of restaurant right across the river over there with the new apartment complexes. But now with that coming up and the area growing, that could be something we need. Alliance [Brewing] is a great building piece of that community and that neighborhood, like Central Flats & Taps and the [Schulz Brau Brewing Company] brewhouse in the Happy Holler area. Microbreweries have bought or rented places where they’re achievable, and what they’re doing is putting a little stake in that area and then from there the communities slowly grow.
Jesse: I can’t even fathom what Knoxville’s going to look like in five years. I’m trying to realize how many more people we’ll have downtown, because it seems like everything’s filling up. People are actually living there—it’s not like five or six years ago, when everything sold to people who were flipping it. Now there are actual thriving neighborhoods. There is an entrepreneurial spirit here. It’s tangible and real. I feel like the longer we keep trending in the right direction—you keep doing what you do, and I keep doing what I do, just keep it going—you don’t need to swing for the fence every time. We need a couple of sacrifice flies here and there—as long as you’re getting home and trying to win, and do it in the right way, then I think we’ll be fine.
Editor Coury Turczyn guided Knoxville's alt weekly, Metro Pulse, through two eras, first as managing editor (and later executive editor) from 1992 to 2000, then as editor-in-chief from 2007 to 2014. He's also worked as a Web editor at CNET, the erstwhile G4 cable network, and HGTV.
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