Kentucky-Tennessee Rising Stars: Why They Shine

Kentucky-Tennessee Rising Stars: Why They Shine

From the Mississippi Delta and the mountains of Eastern Tennessee to bourbon country in Louisville and the Music City, there’s a shift happening—a culinary momentum that's reshaping the restaurant scene in this Southern region. Whiskey may have been the states’ calling card for decades, but that liquid tradition is now matched by a growing legion of chefs and professionals who are breathing new life into Southern food and drink. 

In the last few months, we devoured everything from hot dogs, hominy, and hams to cakes, ice cream, cocktails (read: lots of bourbon), naturally processed coffees, barrel-aged beers, and wine pairings from more than 100 talented chefs, pastry chefs, bartenders, artisans, and sommeliers—and 20 earned the distinction of Rising Star. So what makes them shine?

The Rising Stars of Kentucky and Tennessee are leading an emerging market. They’re establishing the culinary institutions of tomorrow—all while honoring Southern foodways and adding their distinct voices to the mix of America’s most compelling cuisine. So without further ado, our 2014 Kentucky-Tennessee Rising Stars: who they are, why they shine.

Chef: Matt Gallaher, Knox Mason

Matt Gallaher is Mr. Knoxville, and he’s giving his hometown the kind of unforgettable, chef-driven food it deserves. Trained by his mother’s side and in the trenches of Blackberry Farm, the flavors of Eastern Tennessee run through his veins. Cooking with buttermilk, sorghum, ham, and peas comes so naturally to Gallaher that it makes it (seemingly) easy for him to graft those flavors—his deepest food memories—onto elegant, soulful dishes. That’s how rice grits get cooked up like risotto and showered with Tennessee truffles and pitch-perfect gnocchi go swimming with Sea Island red peas and Cruze Dairy crème fraîche. His 1-year-old Knox Mason is part of a newly vibrant downtown Knoxville, and Gallaher is part of the growing legion of chefs who are passionately bringing world-class food to every pocket of America.

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Potato Gnocchi with Loudon County Mushrooms, Sea Island Red Peas, Young Arugula, and Cruze Farm Crème Fraîche
  • Winter Salad: Kale, Bacon Vinaigrette, Wheat Bread, Shallots, and Egg

Chefs: Michael Hudman and Andrew Ticer, Hog & Hominy

Michael Hudman and Andrew Ticer are brothers-from-another-mother, and they’re building a Memphis restaurant empire with family and fearless cuisine at its heart. Celebrating their shared Italian-American and Southern roots, the dynamic team behind Hog & Hominy, Andrew Michael Kitchen, and a soon-to-open butcher shop/market dare to blend and bend those cultures like few chefs before them. There’s ’nduja in their collards (hell yea!) and tangy, Italian-style cheese curds topping their smoked pork neck gravy poutine (Lord, have mercy!). Mostly, they pump bold flavors into whatever dishes strike their fancy—there’s no hot dog, pizza, pasta, or seasonal veg that’s safe from their sights—and serve them in restaurants that feel a whole lot like home. Hudman and Ticer are daring, wonky, focused, and traditional all in one undeniably inspiring chef-duo package. 

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Collard Greens, ‘Nduja, Pork Belly Ends, Hominy, and Pepper Vinegar

  • Sautéed Beets, Spinach Yogurt, Bacon, Plums, Spicy Black Pepper Peanuts, and Pickled Peppers

Chef: Philip Krajeck , Rolf and Daughters

In a town obsessed with all things Southern, Philip Krajeck blends his European training and uncompromising attention to detail to make plates that are honest and unabashedly full-flavored. He just has that something extra—a knack for pushing ingredients far beyond their average capacity for good. To put a finger on his talents is to schmear decadent chicken liver pâté, sweet-tart green tomato jam, and Olive and Sinclair chocolate onto a slice of bread and take a bite—or realize, mid-plate, that you’re eating the best possible pork chop and apple sauce combo of your life. With Rolf & Daughters exploding onto the Nashville and national scene, Krajeck proves that neighborhood restaurants—with their large communal tables, rock music, and comforting-but-complex bowls of pasta—are a potent force in transforming the dining culture of a city and beyond.

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Chicken Liver Paté, Green Tomato Marmalade, and Olive and Sinclair 100 Percent Dominican Chocolate
  • Squid Ink Canestri, Squid and Shrimp Sauce, House-cured Pancetta, Toasted Garlic, and Calabrian Chiles
Chef: Keri Moser, IvyWild

We’ll go out on a limb. IvyWild is the best little restaurant you’ve never heard of. It’s hidden well enough in the 2,000-ish-person mountain town of Sewanee, Tennessee, but we guarantee it’s worth pulling off exit 134 for a chance to eat Chef Keri Moser’s playful, offbeat cuisine. Moser sees compositions in colors and landscapes, and she works backward to edit in ingredients and techniques, building her plates with improbably good and often wild flavor combinations. Moser nods occasionally to the region’s Southern foodways—and supports them wholeheartedly as a champion of local farmers—but her food reflects a deep curiosity, an artistic bent, and a creative streak that’s unencumbered by the culinary establishment or her small-town status. She’s defining her own path, one that more chefs should dare to follow.

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Smoked Salmon, Cracked Wheat and Black Barley, Elberton Blue Cheese, Tomatillos, Romanesco, and Chamomile-Lemon Aïoli
  • Pork Shoulder, Pickled Peaches, Cornbread, Foie Gras Butter, and Sorghum Vinaigrette
Chef: Annie Pettry, Decca

In Annie Pettry’s crudo of scallop, apple, sunchoke, and lime, it’s the precisely placed fennel fronds that bring the dish down to earth. The same turn of phrase may be applied to Pettry. She’s the kind of chef in whose dining room you feel both safe and exhilarated, assured that she has thought of everything, down to the celery leaf. Pettry even works with an arborist to procure the exact right wood for Decca’s grill. When she was called to open Decca, Pettry was on the West Coast, and thought it too big a challenge to pass up. Just opened two years, Decca  is winning over Derby City diners with precision, the art of restraint, and strikingly composed dishes. And Pettry is giving Louisville a seat at the national table.

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Grilled Carrots, Carrot Purée, Pickled Carrots, Carrot Top Oil, Buttermilk Ricotta, Brown Butter Egg Yolk, and Kale Furikake
  • Linguini Nero, Sea Urchin, Calabrian Chiles, Meyer Lemon, and Chives
Chef: Levon Wallace, Proof on Main

Dining at Proof on Main is like taking a bite out of Levon Wallace. The self-proclaimed wannabilly has been smitten with the South ever since he first visited over a decade ago. Today, he’s a “Southern-food-freak-o-phile” who likes his bison with a side of ranch. He rejoices in the magnificence of Kentucky’s Mulefoot hogs—rooter to tooter—and though he’s serious about the huge responsibility of being a chef below the Mason Dixon , his food remains fun, funky, and personal. He’s able to brilliantly reconceive familiar foods like tacos, and deftly uses newfangled Louisville products like bourbon-barrel smoked soy lees—the new umami bomb. His cuisine is sincere, but never precious. While his heritage is Mexican and his roots are in L.A., Wallace’s heart and soul are on each of his plates in Louisville. 

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Seared Bison Carpaccio, Horseradish, Oyster Mushrooms, Squash Pickles and Seeds, and Nasturtium with House Ranch
  • Masa Harina Gnocchi, Duck Confit, Green Tomato, Lime, Chiles, Buttermilk Curd, and Fortified Duck Stock
Pastry Chef: Kayla Swartout, Capitol Grille at The Hermitage Hotel

Whether she knows it or not, Kayla Swartout is on a mission to save Southern desserts. While many a pastry chef sets out to modernize classic recipes for nostalgia’s sake or in stylistic pursuit, Swartout is more interested in the crystal clear translation of Southern flavors. Her coconut cake isn’t deconstructed; it’s just the best version you can imagine. Her root beer chocolate cake tastes like you’re sitting at a soda fountain. That’s not saying Swartout’s desserts are homey—she’s plating at the grand Capitol Grille, after all, and spent time in New York to refine her skills. Her desserts are just real. They’re true to their humbler cousins without sacrificing elegance. Lucky for Nashville, it has an adopted daughter who can sing its flavors; lucky for the country, it has one talented pastry chef.

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Tennessee Corn Cake, Cruze Dairy Buttermilk Ice Cream, Meringue, Blood Orange Curd, and Citrus
  • Chocolate Root Beer Cake, Boylan's Red Birch Beer Sorbet, Ginger Marshmallow, Cherry Sphere, and Cherry Pearls
Concept: David Mitchell, Mitchell Deli

David Mitchell had a hunch that the edge of East Nashville needed a market, a community spot where locals could pick up cheese, vegetables, and an affordable lunch. But he didn’t expect just how much Nashville would fall in love with his home-grown concept—part breakfast bar/ market/deli—or his improbably good sandwiches. Mitchell knows when to leave a classic alone (Benton’s bacon, juicy tomato, lettuce, and mayo) and when to chef-ify (sous vide pastrami, house-fermented kraut, and Russian dressing on rye). And he knows there’s never too much of a good thing: in 2014, he opened a bigger, more beautiful Mitchell Deli, complete with a commissary kitchen designed to fuel a new Mitchell concept. He’s doubling down on feeding Nashville and setting the sandwich standard along the way.

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Reuben: Corned Beef, Sauerkraut, 1000 Island Dressing, Swiss, and Silkes Light Rye
  • Banh Mi: Pork Butt Confit in Benton’s Bacon Grease, Jicama-Carrot Slaw, Cucumber, Cilantro, Lime Mayonnaise, and Silkes Hoagie
Sustainability: Matt Lackey, Flyte World Dining

Matt Lackey is connected to the land, and he’s tackling projects, one at a time, to make sure that the land beneath his feet—and around Nashville—is as pristine as possible for years to come. His vision includes a fresh-water prawn farm, hops grown for a microbrewery, and a paperless kitchen—to name a few. Cuisine isn’t the end goal for Lackey; it’s the lightly, cleverly manipulated end product of so many creative hours devoted to growing and sourcing for his kitchen at Flyte World Dining. Lackey defines a new kind of chef, one whose time is devoted to animal husbandry, cultivation, technology, and even retrofitting tractors. And when there aren’t enough hours in the day to be a chef and a farmer, Lackey pushes through, leading his team and bringing sustainability full circle in his kitchen and life. 

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Trio of Beets: Cured, Forgotten, and Pickled Beets with House Ham and Dill Sauce
  • Bear Creek Beef Cheek; Coulotte; Bone Marrow Stuffed with Mushrooms, Herbs, and Cornmeal Crumble; Beet Purée; and Anson Mills Farro
Artisan: Jay Denham, The Curehouse

Fat is your friend, especially when its fat so lovingly developed and coaxed into full-flavored life by Ham Maker Jay Denham. Oh there’s the muscle, too: sweet, salty, nutty, aged for a year or more in the style of traditional Italian hams. But Denham puts his faith in the fat made by mountain-ranging hogs who gorge themselves on nuts and fruits, essentially the terroir of his and his business partner’s West Virginia farm. With ham that rivals any import, Denham is proving that Old World animal husbandry and time-honored curing techniques translate on this side of the Atlantic. In 2014, he’s taking his ham-making success and turning it into a larger charcuterie operation that will make and sell sausages and a range of cured meats—and ultimately spread the influence of Denham’s curing talent and his singular way with pigs, flavor, and fat. 

Meats that clinched it:

  • Mountain Hams
  • Lardo
Artisan: Scott Witherow, Olive and Sinclair

If Scott Witherow makes chocolate like a chef—seasoning it with salt and pepper, tinkering with flavors—it’s because he is one, in training at least. After working in the kitchens at The Fat Duck and Alinea, Witherow met a pound of artisan chocolate, along with his true professional calling. And with the founding of Olive & Sinclair in 2007, the Nashville native set out to give a Southern voice to the world of bean-to-bar chocolate. Witherow uses brown sugar in all his bars. There’s buttermilk in his white chocolate, too. Hell, the ham god Allan Benton smokes his cacao nibs (the ones that aren’t aged in whiskey barrels). If the Aztecs, Mark Twain, and Jacques Torres had to come to a consensus on chocolate, Olive & Sinclair would make it—and sell it with as much success as Witherow is achieving with his passion, talent, and distinctly Southern chocolates.

Chocolates that clinched it:

  • Mexican-style Chili Chocolate
  • Smoked Nib Brittle
Roaster: James Tooill, Argo Sons Coffee

On the outskirts of Louisville, off a parkway, in a strip mall, inside a music store is a small roastery where some of the best dang coffee in the country is being made. The roaster there, Argo Sons’s James Tooill, drips coffee from his pores. A Louisville native, he got hooked on joe young (he still uses the French press he got for Christmas at 14). Today, Tooill is not only concerned with the perfect sourcing, roasting, and brewing of every cup, he’s interested in the people on the other side of the counter—their tastes and their insights—wherever that counter may be. Tooill believes wholesale-heartedly that the future of coffee and Argo Sons is in producing singular single origin roasts and house blends for shops and restaurants all over the country. The Tooill takeover has only just begun to brew. 

Cups that clinched it:

  • Ethiopia Yirgacheffe, Gelana Abaya, Natural Process
  • Costa Rica, Leon Cortez de Tarrazu, Washed
Brewers: Sam Cruz and Jerry Gnagy, Against the Grain Brewery

Sam Cruz and Jerry Gnagy’s process: come up with a beer, make it, get drunk, and eat. As sexy as this brew method sounds, it took years of toil—cleaning tanks, endless travel, beer tastings—to get to it. Just over 2 years old, 2,000-barrel-a-year Against the Grain brewpub is distributing across America and Europe, with plans to build another production facility. Cruz and Gnagy make the kind of brews that beer nerds lose their shit over, but they never brew a beer more than once. Instead they make beers in six categories: Session, Hop, Whim, Malt, Dark, and Smoke. And their beers are as witty as they’re crisp, complex, and numerous—Chamomile Toe, Golden Sower, Banal Bees, and Thundercoot, among them. The tap to their wry imaginations never runs dry.  

Beers that clinched it:

  • MacFannybaw: Bourbon Barrel-aged and Salted Rauchbier
  • Scorched Monk: Bourbon Barrel-aged Sour Mash Beer 
Sommelier: Julie DeFriend, Oakroom at the Seelbach Hilton

Just like the more than 10,000-bottle wine cellar she manages at the historic Seelbach Hotel, Julie DeFriend has a lot to offer—beyond interesting and unexpected pairings. She’s the consummate professional, an Advanced Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers, forger of tasting groups, center of the young wine community in Louisville, and overall wine star for the region. DeFriend helms a super-fine dining wine program with high expectations, but still makes room in her heart and pairing arsenal for a good, dirty Syrah. She isn’t afraid to pair big New World wines with traditional Old World dishes and vice versa. Both DeFriend and the city she calls home are served well by her eminent versatility, latent curiosity, and natural ability to nurture a community of wine professionals.             

Pairings that cliched it:

  • Duo of Foie Gras: Foie Gras Torchon, Smoked Pheasant Confit, Pheasant Consommé, Brioche Crouton, Cherry-Bourbon Relish, Pan-roasted Foie Gras, Beluga Lentil-Stuffed Savoy Cabbage, Confit of Pheasant Leg, Smoked Shallots, and Bourbon-Cherry Demi Glace paired with Pinot Noir, La Paulee, Scott Paul, Dundee Hills, Oregon, 2010
  • Burgoo of Kentucky Fried Rabbit, Venison, Wild Board, Salsify, Rutabaga, and Huckleberries paired with Syrah, Lagier Meredith, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley, California, 2003
Mixologist: Susie Hoyt, The Silver Dollar

Since her days slinging car bombs and Long Island iced teas for college kids, Mixologist Susie Hoyt has become a formidable presence on the national cocktail scene. Fresh off a year at Chicago’s Violet Hour, Hoyt wasted no time plunging into the Louisville beverage arena with gusto. At The Silver Dollar, Hoyt uses the 100-bourbon strong list and classically rooted cocktails to reintroduce the drinking public to their native spirit—simultaneously reacquainting them with awe and pride. At new Mexican hotspot El Camino, she draws guests in with eye-catching and approachable tiki drinks that conceal the precision behind the mixing. Plus, she earns badass points when she steps behind her ice cutting table brandishing a chainsaw. No doubt the cubes will be pristine, adhering to Hoyt’s simple motto: make sure everything is perfect, all the time. 

Drinks that clinched it:

  • Autumn Leaves: Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon, Ramazzotti, Antica Formula 1786, and Lime Juice
  • Navy Grog: Lemon Hart 151 Rum, Appleton Gold Rum, Duquesne Rhum Blanc Agricole, Bacardi Superior Rum, Honey, Lime, and Grapefruit Juice
Mixologist: Doug Monroe, Patterson House

Doug Monroe is a liquid translator, sharing with Nashville drinks steeped in history and cocktails crafted with an adventurous, oddball spirit. Case in point: his Ramos Gin Fizz sports an enviable meringue high top, and he champions the herbal Hungarian liquor, Zwack, on all of his menus (as with his Cinnamon Toast Crunch-esque Lazy Maisie). It’s this old/new, serious/whimsical dichotomy that defines the cocktail program at Patterson House. From his post there, Monroe relishes his role as teacher, shaker, mixer, and showman, molding Nashville’s collective cocktail palate with none of the pretensions you’d expect in a dimly lit, seating-room-only cocktail den set below the city’s highest-of-high-end restaurants. Just sit at his bar. Sip cocktails old and new, and relish the future of American bartending.

Drinks that clinched it:

  • Lazy Maisie: Louisianne-infused Gordon's Gin, Zwack, Crème de Cacao, Cinnamon Syrup, Lillet Rouge, Lemon Bitters, and Fee's Old Fashioned Bitters
  • Rest in Pieces of Eight: Cynar, Smith and Cross Rum, Ginger Syrup, Licor 43, Demerara, Egg White, and Black Strap Rum Rinse
Restaurateurs: Benjamin Goldberg and Max Goldberg, Strategic Hospitality, LLC

Good taste, the pursuit of fun, and a healthy appetite for risk: this magic combination defines the work of Restaurateurs Ben and Max Goldberg and their Strategic Hospitality restaurant group. The Goldbergs are Nashville’s biggest champions, and they’ve played an outsized role in bringing their adopted hometown into the culinary spotlight. Patterson House changed the way Nashvillians drink cocktails. Catbird Seat altered fine-dining in America. And the Goldberg brothers’ newest venture, Pinewood Social, is an all-inclusive meeting space, complete with bocce courts, a restaurant and cocktail bar, a vintage bowling alley, a swimming pool, karaoke, and a coffee shop. There’s nothing too low-brow or elaborate for them to tackle. From music venues to a corndog-vending “trailer resort,” the Goldbergs open concepts that they want to visit. And, in turn, they’re defining a new Nashville, where good fun, food, and drink are a given.