Saturday, June 5, 2010

I'm Back...Sorta

I'm a terrible blogger. It's been over a year since my last post. I found out over the last year that I just don't have the time time to do this. As many of you know, I've been posting a lot about the new restaurant on Facebook. If you're interested, and not already a FB "friend", "friend" me on there. You can also become a "fan" of ACRE Restaurant on FB as well. Just do a search of ACRE Restaurant and click on the one with the image of morel mushrooms. Thanks for your interest and see you on Facebook.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Cooking with Integrity Pt.2

I don't claim to be a presence in many restaurants around town. I have a few favorites that I like but I just don't get out much. As is the case with most chefs and restaurant owners, I am always working. The rare occasion I do eat out, I admit I will dissect the menu to the last vowell. As I wrote in my last blog post, my menus have always stated the provenance of my foodstuffs. Whether it's lamb or veal from a particular farm or heirloom tomatoes (before they bacame ubiquitous) from a good customer's backyard, my guests always knew exactly where the ingredients came from. I've always believed in truth in dining, so to speak. Can you hear the rant coming? In the past months, I've dined at a few places, and seen the menus of a couple more restaurants that has raised my ire somewhat. PLEASE! Can we call a moratorium on chefs calling their dubious scallops "Diver Scallops"? I am sure that all of you have seen this on menus. A brief history is in order. The late, great, Jean-Louis Palladin was looking for the perfect fresh scallop to serve at his legendary restaurant Jean-Louis at the Watergate in Washington, DC. Rod Mitchell, the owner of Browne Trading Co. came to the chef with these freshly harvested scallops from Maine. They were hand harvested by scuba divers going in the ocean. Hence the name "diver scallops". Chef Charlie Trotter is widely credited with making the term mainstream. "Diver", "diver harvested", and etc. refers to the process of gathering the scallops. Not the size of them. 98% of chefs using this term on the menu is using this term to describe the scallop size. How do you know if what you're ordering is indeed what you're getting? Please allow me to give you some indicators. Price and texture are the top two indicators. Scallops are not cheap by any means. Even for the standard sea scallops that are available from the local seafood guys are going to be about $11.00 per pound. Most restaurants I've seen around Memphis are charging $25-29 for an entree. The scallops that I use are dry-packed sushi grade scallops. That means they have not been pumped up with a solution that preserves them and also adds to the weight and size of the scallop. The texture is very firm and sticky to the touch. It is not wet and milky white. The taste is sweet and of the ocean. The price difference is about $3 more dollars a pound. Diver scallops are very seasonal. The quality is perfect. And the price? Dear readers, you pay handsomely for them. They are around $20.00 per pound. Are they worth it? In my humble opinion, Absolutely! Can I afford to serve them? Sometimes! I cannot put them on my menu regularly because I cannot charge what I need to make a profit. For a regular entree portion with the garnishes of vegetables, starch, and sauce, my price would have to be $40.00. Very few people in this town is willing to pay that price, especially when the price reference point is around the corner for $25.00. Can you honestly tell me that what is on the menus around town are true diver scallops?
While we are at it, there should be a law against calling your fish "Wild Salmon". We all know that wild fish is the buzz word these days. It is far healthier, environmentally friendly, and tastier than farm raised fish. Everyone claims to serve "only the freshest fish flown in daily", yadayadayada.....Again, the difference in price is humongus. Fresh, wild, salmon from the Colombia River in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska is just now coming into season. There is a season boys and girls. Mid May to August is the season for wild salmon. A little price comparison is in order here as well. Farm raised Atlantic Salmon is around $6.00 per pound for fillets. True wild salmon is $15.00 per pound for whole fish! If you get Copper River or Yukon River salmon, expect to pay even more! How can these places serve "fresh, wild salmon" in the dead of winter with a straight face? Most of the dining public will not be able to tell the difference and that's what these guys rely on. I take great pride in my products and as enthusiastic as a little boy at Christmas with the arrival of the new crop of morels in the spring, heirloom tomatoes in the summer, autumn squashes, and winter root vegetables. Everyone should demand better of us. At the very least, we should hold ourselves accountable.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


There has not been a whole lot to report since my last blog post.  Plans are going according to schedule with the restaurant.  I will write about that in near future.  I want to "rant" about something else in this post.

For anyone who has dined at my restaurants or followed my career for the past 20 years know that I have always credited the farm or stated the provenance of my menu items.  Since my first trip to the wine country of Northern California, I was inspired to cook with only the freshest and best foodstuffs available on the market.  I recently came across an old menu circa 1989 of the original pre-fire KC's.  Our old friend Kelly Grimmett gave it to my brother Don as a gift/memento. Her note read that it was a much treasured item, but knew that it would mean much more to us.  We lost everything in the fire that completely destroyed the original restaurant.  But back to the menu.  I was amazed and amused at some of my early creations. Even then, in 1988, I realized the importance of using the very best products, most of them straight from the source.  Some examples were free-range natural veal from Summerfield Farm, black buck antelope from Broken Arrow Ranch, Jamison Farm lamb, Chinese Long Beans, okra, peas, and other ultra fresh vegetables from my mother's garden, soft shell crawfish from a lady outside Jackson, MS, shiitake mushrooms from Ms. Odom in Merigold, Ms. and so on.  

I've been preaching the message of organic and natural products here in the Mid-South for the last 20 years.  When it wasn't cool or trendy, I was using those products.  I find it heartening that young chefs of this generation are finally catching on to cooking with natural and sustainable foodstuffs.  What I find disheartening though are chefs that claim to cook in this fashion, but pay only lip service.  There are guys out there that that claim to use only farmer's market produce or other products but actually using stuff straight from Sysco.  I spent a fortune buying products from the best producers, fishermongers, and farmers.  Would most people notice the difference? Arguably no.  And that is what many chefs count on.  They hope that you won't notice the difference between a dry-aged prime beef strip or a cryovac wet-aged choice beef from US Foods or Sysco.  The difference in price is double.  What does that mean?  It means they are probably charging you $40.00 for a steak that should only cost you $25.00.  I've noticed stuff like this on a lot of menus.  You may ask how would I know what they are using in their kitchens.  Well, the honest truth of the matter is that purveyors do talk.  They won't admit it, but they like to gossip more than a teenage girl.  A common sales tactic with sales rep is to say that Chef X or Y Restaurant uses this very cheap item but charging "$30" for it.  Is that supposed to entice me to buy it too?  Quite the opposite!  My only goal is to offer the best to my guests.  Now I don't claim to use everything of the highest caliber.  It wouldn't make economical sense to make a stock or sauce with expensive organic onions and carrots.  My point is when you are claiming to serve prime beef or wild salmon, you damn well better be serving that!  

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Urban Oasis

I just had a great meeting with our architect Reb Haizslip today and it was very productive.  We are on track for a fall opening.  Reb presented us with a set of floor plans of the dining room, bar, and the outdoor deck area.  He also presented a clear time schedule of the process so we know exactly what the next step will be.  I can't fill you in on all the details yet, but here are a few highlights.

There will be a bar.  I was a slightly concerned that we might not have one for lack of space.  It will be a small, cozy, yet elegant bar.  The size of the bar is not a major concern with me since it will open up the the patio and and deck in nice weather.  The patio will also be covered so even if it is raining, we can seat for cocktails out there.  As I mentioned before, I am most excited about the back yard area.  The beautiful mature oak trees is the biggest asset of property. The first time we were back there, it was about 95 degrees mid-day and it was very comfortable under the shade.  I've heard from so many people how there is a lack of outdoor dining in Memphis.  Well, if I say so myself, this will be as perfect an outdoor dining spot as there can be in the city.  It is secluded and not on a sidewalk of a busy street or shopping center.  We will have lush landscaping to complete the serene surroundings.  This area will be the perfect spot for small outdoor weddings, receptions, corporate events, or just an evening out with friends. A cool cocktail, chilled glass of Gruner Vetliner, or maybe just a cold beer with a couple of appetizers under the trees sounds good to me just about now.  

Sunday, January 18, 2009

FIrst Impressions

It is extremely important to me that the opening of my new restaurant starts out on the right foot and have a smooth start.  I am going to be completely honest, we had a rough opening at Wally Joe Restaurant in 2002.  The front of house management team was inexperienced to say the least and overwhelmed most nights. Because we started out of the gate at "warp speed", I was not able to keep as close an eye on things as I should have.  My focus was on the food.   Developing a great menu and training the large staff of cooks to execute my food was more or less a priority.  There were a million other things that demanded my attention though.  My brother Don assembled the wine list and helped train the front of house staff, but his time was limited to 1-2 days a week.   That left all the other housekeeping details to me.  

As our mothers taught us, first impressions are important.  Whether you are interviewing for that first job or meeting a girlfriend/boyfriend's parents for the first time, you have one shot to impress.  The same goes for any retail business.  First impressions are lasting impressions.   From the first greeting at the door through the server's attention during the meal to the last goodnight, the guest should always feel welcome.  It will be my duty to insure that happens.   My host/hostesses will be friendly and cheerful.  My servers will be properly trained to know their menus, proper service details, and most important, to be warm, hospitable, and accomodating to our guests.  Most chefs and managers do not realize that no matter how good the food is, if our guests are not treated well, that is the lasting impression.

Another lesson I learned from my parents at a young age is that no will care about a business more than the owner.  That means if I want something to be done right, I will have to do it myself.  

Friday, January 16, 2009

Hail To The Chef

So who is going to be in the kitchen in the new restaurant?  You've seen all the recent press announcements and I'm sure the one line that got your attention was that Andrew Adams is the Executive Chef.  Why not me?   I will explain why I am assuming another role in a future post. For those of you that don't know him, allow me to introduce you.  Andrew has been my longtime Chef de Cuisine at both Wally Joe and The Brushmark.  He was 16 years old when he started working with me at KC's in Cleveland.  After a couple of years, Andrew took off to culinary school at the famed Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York.  In my opinion, Andrew is the best young chef in Memphis today.  Of course you say I am biased, yes I may be, but that is besides the point.  In the 10+ years that we've worked together, I've seen him learn and mature in his talents.  I grew up in the business and did not have the opportunity to attend culinary school.  Nor was I lucky enough to have worked with a great chef.  My education was self taught.  Julia Child used to say that one should not say that one is self taught.  You always learn from someone else.  A matter of opinion,  but no one taught me how to make a great sauce or to properly braise a piece of meat.  I learned how to do that on my own by experimentation and trial and error.  Yes, I read a ton of cookbooks and dined at some of the best restaurants in the world, but I most definitely taught myself to cook.  While I cook by instinct and with my senses, Andrew is more technically sound than I ever was.  

We've been together a long time and I guess it's true we do think and cook alike because of that reason. His food is thoughtful, well conceived, and most important, taste good.  He has a firm grasp on classic cooking yet approaches modern techniques with sensibility.  Andrew has a great cooking pedigree.  In addition to working with me,  he also worked with two of my very good chef friends.  He worked with the late Jamie Shannon at Commander's Palace in New Orleans.  No explanation needed there.  I also set him up with Chef Craig Shelton of The Ryland Inn in Whitehouse, NJ where he cooked for a year.  The Ryland Inn is a Relais & Chateaux property and Chef Shelton was a past winner of the James Beard Best Chef Mid-Atlantic award. Andrew has been around some of this nation's greatest chefs  by cooking with me at the many food and wine events around the country as well as KC's annual James Beard/St.Jude benefit dinners so by osmosis, he's absorbed much knowledge from that. How many young chefs in town can claim that?  

Behind every successful chef, there is a strong No.2.  I personally know many chefs that wouldn't think of sharing the spotlight with their lieutenants.  It is time for him to step out from under my shadow.  My ego is not so great that I need all the attention.  I've always believed that a chef's responsibility is to teach and pass the mantle to the next generation.  He deserves the limelight now. I have great faith in him and I know you will love his food too.  As I said earlier, there is no doubt he is the best young chef in Memphis.  

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Brooks Museum

Now that the word is out, the big question is "Are you staying at the Brooks?". The answer is definitely YES. As many of you know, I assumed the foodservice operations at The Memphis Brooks Museum of Arts in late 2006. My intention was to operate both Wally Joe Restaurant and The Brushmark, but sadly, circumstances prevented that and I left my eponymous restaurant shortly afterwards. I have been the Executive Chef at the museum for the past two years and I have to say that it has been a great experience. I hope and I believe that it has been a mutually beneficial relationship between the two of us. I cannot say enough good things about everyone at the museum. From the day I started there, I've never felt so welcome. Let me give a few shout outs beginning with the folks in Development. Diane Jalfon is the current Director of Development. She was the PR Director when I first came on board. Diane and her staff does a tremendous job with building relationships with the community to raise awareness about the needs of the museum. The marketing department with Claudia Towell, Heather Klein, and current PR director Elizabeth Callihan does an amazing job of promoting the many events at the museum and restaurant. Rick Bartemus is the glue that keeps the engine running. Maybe because I work with her so closely on a daily basis, I reserve the highest praise for Stacy Wright, the Director of Catering and Special Events. She is so incredible with her vision and passion. She never ceases to amaze me with her special touch at all the special events such as Avant Garde, Patron's Dinner, and Moss Society Dinner. I've witnessed first hand her patience and boundless energy with weddings, corporate dinners, and other events. Without a doubt, if it was not for Stacy, there would not be so many satisfied brides, guests, customers, and on and on. I've not worked so much with the other departments in the museum, but I know they are very dedicated at what they do. I would be totally remiss if if didn't mention my staff in The Brushmark led by Ashley Phipps. These guys work daily to make happy guests. Why would I want to leave all these great people? I hope to remain there as long as they want me.