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Knockouts of Knoxville: A Chef's Roundtable

Story by Gay Lyons || Photography by Britt Cole

When four of Knoxville’s best and favorite chefs were invited to showcase the flavors of Knoxville at the James Beard House in New York City a few months ago, the dinner was titled “The Knockouts of Knoxville.”

If that title evokes scenes of a knock-down drag out iron chef type competition, you’d be wrong.

Chefs Joseph Lenn (JC Holdway), Matt Gallaher (Knox Mason and Emilia), Jesse Newmister (Kaizen and Tako Taco) and Drew McDonald (The Plaid Apron) could not be more supportive of each other and of Knoxville’s food scene.

The James Beard Foundation’s mission is to celebrate, nurture, and honor chefs and other leaders making America’s food culture more delicious, diverse and sustainable. Towards this end, chefs are invited to perform at the Beard House by presenting dinners to Foundation members and the public.

The Knockouts of Knoxville Beard House Dinner was so successful the chefs did a “Do- Over” in Knoxville that sold out in just over two hours.

VIP Knoxville recently invited Joseph, Matt, Jesse and Drew to sit down for a discussion at the round table in the corner at the Corner Lounge led by Holly Hambright, owner of Holly’s Eventful Dining and Holly’s Gourmet’s Market. Here are a few of the things we learned.

Selecting the menu for the Beard Dinner
Drew: We spent a total of four minutes.
Matt: Four chefs, four courses.

Cooking at the Beard House

Matt: There was a good contingent from Knoxville--a couple of dozen guests. I took pasta on the plane in soft-sided cooler bags. I got them off the baggage claim with water trailing underneath. 
Joseph: I took stuff prepared because I’d cooked there before. I knew how tiny the kitchen was.
Drew: I carried sourdough starter and worked on it in a recycle bin. The execution was flawless. Having four borderline egotistical chefs in a small space. It couldn’t have gone any better. It was the first time all four of us worked together.
Matt: We heard it was the smoothest event they’d ever seen.
Joseph: We said, “We’re going to do this in an assembly line.”

The Do-Over Dinner
Matt: We had the dinner at Emilia because it’s the biggest space. If we do it again, we should do it in a neutral location.
Joseph: I’m glad we got to do the “Do-Over.” At the end of the day, I’d rather give my best to the people of Knoxville.
Drew: It’s a lot easier to take food three miles than 750 miles.

Guilty Pleasures
Jesse: I like a peanut butter sandwich and a bowl of chili. There’s a lot of cafeteria food I really miss. Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes, white bread, clear gravy. I used to love a Roast Beef Manhattan. I’m sure if I saw it today, it’d be awful. It’s just a memory from an innocent time.
Matt: There’s a place in the world for [crappy] white bread. My mother never bought cheap white bread, but my grandparents did. White bread, mayo, tomatoes, American cheese.
Drew: My friend’s mother used to make sourdough bread. They toasted it, added peanut butter and jelly and shook some cinnamon on it. It changed my life. I’d take a frozen yeast roll and poke out the center and fill it with chocolate pudding.
Joseph: My guilty pleasure on a fishing trip is bologna and saltines: basically a homemade Lunchable.
Jesse: Smoked Spam tastes like really good smoked sausage.
Matt: As chefs, we like stinky stuff. We like strong flavors. It’s what we crave.

Knockouts of Knoxville Menu

Fritto misto of spring vegetables

Eagle heirloom grits topped with a salad of asparagus, te you, pea shoots and crispy chicken skin with a roasted onion vinaigrette.

Squid ink ditalini with lump crab, uni, smoked San Marzano tomatoes, Serrano chiles and spring onions

Shiritama Dango with herbed Springer Mountain chicken and foie gras torchon, Mossy Creek mushroom gravy and sweet potato confiture

Grilled pork loin with fiddlehead ferns, potatoes, ramps and morels

Herbed olive oil cake with strawberries and coriander ice cream

A Chef’s Life
Joseph: I opened [JC Holdway] with $150 in my bank account. I was in the middle of a divorce. I borrowed money from my parents and my friends. You’re in survival mode.
Drew: If I could go back, I wouldn’t open my own restaurant at 27. I needed more experience. I’m pulling 80 hours a week. It hasn’t always been this way and won’t always be this way. Getting to a place where I can spend more time with my boys (ages four and 18 months) is motivation for me.
Joseph: I fish. If I can get on the lake and go for a boat ride for just a few minutes.
Jesse: I meditate. I go to the gym. Two days off in a row is important. I learned how to disassociate if I’m not there.
Drew: One rule: when I’m not there, if the place catches on fire, get my custom knife.
Matt: The work always gets done. I’m very lucky to have a talented staff. For all the work we put in, what we do makes people happy. All the memories we create for people.
Joseph: I have pretty much free creative control, and I allow my staff the same. I love being able to keep the menu the same and change it up if we want to. You find out what works and stick with that.
Matt: Emilia wasn’t a plan. The motivation was to give opportunities to Sean, my sous chef. I have no desire to have an empire.
Drew: That’s the only way [Knoxville] is going to grow.
Jesse: I’m looking forward to seeing Tako Taco grow. My main focus is getting it going and seeing how the Mill and Mine is going to grow. Food and beverage in Knoxville is on a good progression.
Drew: We’re behind where I think a town our size needs to be.
Joseph: You want [your restaurant] to be a great environment where people love coming to work. I wanted to create the job I wanted to have.
Matt: When I was a personal chef, I realized I’m standing in the kitchen by myself with a radio every day. I missed the camaraderie of the kitchen environment.

New Chapter for the Corner Lounge

Steven Brandon and John Harbison are honoring the storied past of the Corner Lounge while adding their own twists to the recently re-opened business at 842 N. Central Street.

Among its claims to fame: Mention in “Suttree,” the novel by Cormac McCarthy, and home to local favorite, musician Con Hunley.

Brandon and Harbison’s Corner Lounge will feature live music, local art and simple food and drinks. The original bar has been restored, and art that previously hung at the bar has been returned.

The goal is a friendly, comfortable, neighborly place, one that will appeal to those with fond memories of the old Corner Lounge as well as to people who are stopping by for the first time.

Beard House on Tour

The James Beard Celebrity Chef Tour is coming to Knoxville November 1 to benefit the James Beard Foundation and the local L5 Foundation. The official Beard House on Tour travels to towns around the country to showcase the famous Beard experience to guests, media and fans. The format of the Celebrity Chef Tour is similar to dinners at the Beard House in New York’s Greenwich Village: a one-hour reception with passed appetizers followed by a five-to-seven course dinner paired with wine. The dinner in Knoxville will be held at Jewelry TV. Cost is $175/person.

Meet the Chefs

Chef Joseph Lenn
JC Holdway (501 Union Avenue)

Chef Joseph Lenn, a native of Knoxville, became attuned to food quality while working at Butler & Bailey Market while in high school. He attended culinary school at Johnson and Wales University in Charleston, SC. During and after his schooling, he worked at Charleston’s Peninsula Grill, The Hermitage Hotel’s Capitol Grill in Nashville and Blackberry Farm where he was intern, sous chef and executive chef. He opened his own restaurant, JC Holdway, in 2016. The restaurant, named after his uncle, specializes in southern regional cuisine. The seasonal menu showcases locally and regionally sourced ingredients cooked using traditional wood-fire techniques.





Chef Matt Gallaher
Knox Mason (131 S. Gay Street) and Emilia (16 Market Square)

Knoxville native Matt Gallaher earned a chemical engineering degree from the University of Tennessee but was inspired to focus on food while working with Holly Hambright at Lord Lindsey Catering. He then worked at Blackberry Farm; cooked for touring bands Kings of Leon, Wilco, Eagles, Neil Young and Keith Urban; and served as executive chef for Governor Bill and Crissy Haslam prior to opening Knox Mason, featuring contemporary twists on Appalachian cuisine in 2013. He opened Emilia, which blends Southern hospitality and Italian cuisine, in 2016.




Chef Jesse Newmister
Kaizen (416 Clinch Avenue) and Tako Taco (235 W. Depot Avenue)

Chef Jesse Newmister came to Knoxville from Charleston, SC to help open Northshore Brasserie in 2005. This experience gave him first-hand experience in building a restaurant from the ground up, which served him well when he opened Kaizen, which offers pan-Asian cuisine specializing in small plates, in 2016. He recently opened Tako Taco in the Mill and Mine, the event venue managed by his wife, Margaret Stolfi. Tako Taco’s street food-inspired menu features the flavors and ingredients of different cultures with a Latin American/Asian emphasis.





Chef Drew McDonald
The Plaid Apron (1210 Kenesaw Avenue)

Chef Drew McDonald started out as a pre-med student at Lipscomb University but graduated with a degree in Food Systems Management. After earning a degree in Culinary Arts at Sullivan University, he spent time at Blackberry Farm, Huka Lodge in New Zealand and The Hermitage Hotel and Capitol Grill in Nashville. He and wife Bonni opened the Plaid Apron, where he creates seasonal Southern cuisine, in 2011. They have grown the restaurant from a breakfast/lunch spot to a restaurant serving three meals a day and operating a full service bakery.






Last Meal
Matt: My grandmother’s fried chicken made in an iron skillet. Biscuits and gravy. Soft scrambled eggs. I think I could eat those every day.
Jesse: Fried bluegill crappie from my parents’ lake in Indiana. German potato salad and German chocolate cake.
Drew: My grandmother’s chocolate meringue pie. I’ve made it a dozen times, and it’s still not right. Venison biscuits, especially when we harvested the animal that day.

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