Knoxville Mercury Chefs’ Roundtable: the Outtakes

In Restaurant News, The Daily Dumpster Blog by Coury Turczynleave a COMMENT

Our downtown chefs’ roundtable at Lonesome Dove in the Old City ran for about 90 minutes one sunny afternoon in July. We ended up recording a lot more discussion than we could actually fit in our cover story, “Big City Eats.” So, if you’re interested in reading more from chefs Matt Gallaher, Jon Gatlin, Tim Love, and Jesse Newmister on the Knoxville restaurant business, here are the outtakes. (In a few instances, we repeated some answers from the original story in order to keep the conversational flow intact.)

Do you see Knoxville having more food awareness now—or are there a limited number of foodies here that you reach? Cheddar’s is very popular in Knoxville…

Matt: Maybe we’re only exposed to the people willing to come to the Old City to have a dining experience. There hasn’t been cuisine in the Old City since Lucille’s maybe—Lucille’s was nice. And I hope I’m not offending anybody who’s in the Old City, but I don’t think it’s been a dining destination. I think this [Lonesome Dove] is the first step toward that.

Tim: There’s the Old City Wine Bar.

Matt: I would guess the population center of Knoxville is coming back to the center—I think for decades it’s gone further west. Because we take reservations at Emilia, I think people are more comfortable driving from Farragut, finding a parking place, and coming to our restaurant because they know they have a table. I don’t think we have that same appeal at Knox Mason because we don’t really take reservations. I can’t blame somebody driving 40 minutes, hustling for a parking place, and then walk into a two-hour wait. That is to say, I don’t know if we’ve seen the general population or if for now we’re just getting the people who care enough about what they eat that they’re willing to come downtown from West Knoxville.

Tim: I think Cheddar’s has its place, though, don’t forget that. There’s a long food chain, and people aren’t going to eat at Lonesome Dove or Emilia every single night, as much as we’d love them to eat at our restaurants every single day—sometimes you’ve just got to get fed. Those types of restaurants serve a purpose. While it’s easy for people like myself to downplay something like Cheddar’s or Ruby Tuesday’s or wherever it might be, it’s also a brick in the whole wall of restaurants that built what we do today. I think while we all want to see food move forward, and people use fresher ingredients and all that stuff everyday, there are some people out there that need to be able to eat a $6.99 cheeseburger to get fed.

I think where you see the movement is, a restaurant establishes itself as a leader in cuisine, and then generally if they’re smart, the owner will go, “Let’s create something that has the same mentality for a lower price point and less service.” So they start getting into that business where Cheddar’s is—but that takes time because you have to build loyalty to the guests to let them understand that they can come and have the same high quality of food, yet it can be cheaper with a less service experience, be outside, for instance, instead of a well air conditioned space. That’s where I’d like to see the food movements go—people establish themselves as a chef or restaurateur, something great, and then they start developing other spin-off concepts that will allow people to dine there more often, or a wider range of people.

We talked to everybody in our restaurant, but they’re already there so of course they want to come in. But an average joe walking down the street, what do they think? You’ve got to expand that horizon to allow them to have a taste of the “great stuff.” The donut shop that we do, my burger joint that we do, it allows them to have high-quality ingredients for a lower price point, with a lot less service and pomp and circumstance around it. Hopefully, that guest as they go down the road will have more money or have a special occasion, and they come in and experience the full event. So, quite frankly, things like Cheddar’s are what make all of us look good, so we hope they eat there, because then when they come into our joints, we look like we’re heroes. Everybody needs a comparison. I think that whole chain of chains, if you will, does nothing but help our cause.

Are you able to find sufficiently trained service workers? Are your kitchens difficult places to work?

COVER_0901_ChefRoundTable7Tricia Bateman

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.

Especially in a town where there’s not a whole lot of talent to go around, as we all know, we have to figure out a way to get people who at least have the drive and teach them. And I think when you teach people things, people get loyal. I don’t need some guy who thinks he’s a badass, or a girl who thinks she’s a badass, come into my kitchen who doesn’t help anybody out. Think about an athletic team—I’m a big sports guy, so you don’t need a badass to come in to make your team better. You need four really good people who want to get better. That’s what’s going to make an awesome restaurant: people who believe in the culture. You can feel it when you come in—the way they talk to the guests, the way they treat you, the way they pay attention to the little details and the finer things around the table that you never notice are going on.

Like, I never really want my server to talk to me. I just want my food to come perfectly and have the right silverware, because I’m having dinner with these people—if I want to have dinner with the server, then when I get done I’ll ask the server if they want to go have dinner. The server needs to take care of the table, that’s the whole point. And not only the server, but the whole team of servers around them—it’s not just one person that takes care of the culture, it’s the person at the front door, it’s the person who answers the phone, it’s the person running the food, it’s the person cooking the food. All those are part of a chain of events that, if you don’t breed that culture, if you don’t teach people, you’re never going hire anybody first of all, and you’re going to lose people just constantly. The revolving door of staff is the death of a restaurant, because then you’re doing things you’re not supposed to be doing, especially as the chef—you’re actually in there personally making all the pasta when you really should have somebody making the pasta while you’re making sure they’re doing it right. As a chef, if you’re having to make the pasta, you’re not going to make the dish great, it’s not going to get to the end result. If I’m downstairs as the chef and I’m the guy who has to butcher the meat every day, then I can’t watch the person who’s making the plates or the person who’s back here stoking the fire to bake the bread. Kitchens don’t rely on one person—it takes lots and lots of people.

Jon: That’s where people get lost in the sauce as far chefs who can’t let go of anything—they have to have it all and end up kicking everyone out.

Tim: You’ve got to be a good coach. That’s the hardest thing to learn. When you start, you’re the guy who does everything, then you slowly try to peel stuff off and teach people and make them better than you so you can do the next task. For people like us with huge egos—that’s what chefs are: we’re coaches with huge egos—you have to learn to make people better than you and therefore you can sit back and make great food. Putting the components together and really thinking through your day, that’s tough to do as an independent, very tough. It takes time and investing in people. None of us could be sitting at this table, obviously, if we didn’t have great people. And that’s what it really comes down to.

Matt GallaherTricia Bateman

Matt Gallaher

MattI don’t think Knoxville has had a big culture for service that I’ve seen. There are some great servers in this town, and some restaurants that do it well, but as a town with a large university, the service staff is typically a transient, someone with a part-time college job. My dad lived in Chicago when I was growing up, so I used to go to Chicago all the time—he would take us out to Lawry’s and the Berghoff, one of my favorite restaurants ever, and these guys are career servers. And you don’t see much of that in Knoxville, and I don’t think that’s unique to Knoxville—it’s just the size of our market and the culture here. But I think there’s something very noble about serving people. As we chefs kind of raise the bar with the restaurant experience, hopefully more people will buy into seeing service as something that can be a career.

I gave up on a chemical engineering degree to become a chef. I was a little nervous because, growing up, chefs were like—is that a real job, or is that somebody who failed out of school? It wasn’t ever an option—no guidance counselor ever said, “You know, how about culinary school?” There has been a stigma. Give a lot of credit to the Food Network—it’s a double-edged sword, but the celebrity chef has given some credence to becoming a chef. You’re feeding people, you’re fulfilling somebody’s basic needs on a daily basis.

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.

That’s the job that led me eventually to Knoxville. The executive sous chef in Charleston was the first executive chef at the Brasserie. The general manager of the restaurant I worked at was Brian, owner of the Brasserie. So I did something right because I left there and moved back to Louisville to finish school and they called me to come down here. So you push people in that direction, hoping that they come back after they also see it’s really expensive to live in those places—so come back to Knoxville and you can get a spot for really cheap compared to larger markets, and realize what your dream is. I’d rather be part of building something big than just hopping into something big. There’s more of a challenge behind that.

Jon Gatlin of Oliver RoyaleTricia Bateman

Jon Gatlin of Oliver Royale (left) and Jesse Newmister of Kaizen

Jon: That’s where we are, too. It’s interesting—from your perspective, seeing Knoxville’s food scene growing. We [chefs] have a more internal view—it’s not just the food scene, it’s the quality of cook, the quality of the chef, the quality of the restaurant in general, the way the products are being utilized. The general public sees it as just the restaurants: “Oh these restaurants are getting good.” But we see it as like—we are training all these cooks to be better, whereas before it was everyone fighting for the job at Aubrey’s or the grill cook job at Fleming’s because you’re making $16 an hour handling badass cuts of meat. People work there for years and years because the money’s good but they just get locked into working a montague. And once they leave, they come out and that’s really all they kind of know. Our kitchens are more multi-versed—you know how to smoke a whole animal or butcher it, braise, sous-vide, whatever. So there’s a lot more educational training for a big group of people that’s going to go out and spread their fingers over Knoxville as well. It’s going to create something different as far as the level of cook and the level of food.

On how to start out as a young chef-turned-restaurateur: 

Tim: There are so many markets in this town that are untapped. There’s cheap rent everywhere. You’ve got to have the guts to go to the cheap rent, but that’s what you do as a young chef. You start out by working for someone who’s great, they support you in the city, and you go out and open a space in some old historic building with nothing around you but maybe some old mechanic’s shop. But you’ve got that support of the place where you used to work and the people you used to work for. It gets back to that culture thing—if you work through a system somewhere, work with people and always work hard, when you go off to do your own thing, you’re going to have all those people supporting you and telling people about your restaurant. It allows you to go out and get a space that’s 1,500 square feet at $1,500 per month, where it makes it plausible to open. That doesn’t mean you’re going to be successful, but it makes you at least be able to roll the dice.

This business eats people up. Truly, only the strongest survive—the ones that hustle and are constantly marketing themselves and telling people about it. There’s no shame in telling people to come eat at your restaurant. Not where I come from. When I opened my first restaurant, I used every bit of money I had—it was $76,000 I had saved up over three years. I redid a 1,500-square-foot space and sat in a fetal position underneath my desk, praying that people would fucking show up, every day. I still have that feeling. I don’t know about you, but I have 10 restaurants and it freaks me out when I read the reports.

If you have that kind of gut feeling where you’re constantly scared just a little bit, then you have a good chance in the restaurant business. But if you think you’re good, you’ve got zero chance. You’ve got to have that fear. Fear is what drives every restaurateur and every chef to be better, whether it’s fear that somebody else is doing cooler food than you or some sort of fear that nobody’s going to show up. All those types of things are what drive you to get better. That’s why if you don’t have good competition and good camaraderie, nobody’s going to better at it and the city suffers. People like us four always need to be great friends. We need to be able to take criticism well because if I can’t count on these people at this table to tell me whether something’s great or not, who can I count on? If you can build a relationship like that among chefs in the city, the city will just soar.

Austin is probably the best place that does that, out of all the places I’m at. We have a group of guys and girls that we hang out with, everybody eats at everybody’s restaurants, and they’ll give a straight-up honest opinion about it. And nobody gets hurt. The only person who get hurt are the people who don’t get that criticism. That scene is so awesome. This city has the opportunity to do that, where the young people who are coming up and the people who are established start hanging out and have that camaraderie. Little things like this to shoot the shit and not try to be serious, let people know what you’re hearing: “Oh, I got some fish at this guy’s place, it’s awesome, you should try it out.” That’s how the city grows, that’s how you build a community of people who want good food.

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.

Share this Post