Interview with Kentucky-Tennessee Rising Star Chef Keri Moser of IvyWild – Sewanee, TN

by Meha Desai
February 2014

Meha Desai: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Keri Moser:
I’ve always wanted to be a chef, ever since I was little (along with a ballerina and a veterinarian), but my first restaurant job in college was so terrible I got scared off from the industry. I was a hostess at a steak house. Managers were sleeping with … well, everyone; the kitchen crew was stoned out of their gourd on much more than weed and they treated me like a piece of meat. And I thought, “I don’t want to spend my life working with idiots.” So I went into book editing. After several years I realized I was miserable anyway. I hated sitting at a desk all day, and decided that I might as well give cooking another try. It was terrifying to go from making a professional wage to making $7 an hour as a commis.

MD: Where have you worked professionally as a chef?
KM:
My first kitchen job was at Keswick Hall in Virginia—that’s where I learned about fine dining. I worked with people who came from Marco Pierre White and Alain Ducasse. It blew my mind, I couldn’t wait to do more, but I was married and my husband was offered a job in Sewanee. You can’t exactly say no when you’re contributing $7 an hour to the family income.

In Sewanee I worked as a cook in the dining hall for many years. It would have been much easier if I’d never known what I was missing, but I have to admit it was hard. The money was good, but there was no room for a woman to have autonomy in the kitchen in that corporate culture, not then. And Nashville was not the food scene it is now. I couldn’t run off and do a stage with a family and a household to maintain. So I just tried to be the best damn cafeteria worker there was.

Between dining hall stints, I spent a year as a sous chef at Pearl’s Foggy Mountain Café. It was fun, but again, the restaurant culture was off the deep end. Some people thrive on that chaos, but I don’t. That’s when I started reading about Alice Waters and how she was insisting that restaurants didn’t have to be terrible places to work. She really planted a seed—it was either believe her or get the hell out, so I started incubating an idea for a restaurant with a different set of values.

MD: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with and without a culinary school background?
KM:
I do not recommend culinary school unless you’re wealthy. Not because the education isn’t helpful, it definitely is—but because I think the cost of higher education, not just at culinary schools, is outstripping the income potential of its students. These schools are selling a myth that students will go out and make a ton of money. They won’t. They’ll be slogging in the trenches for $9 an hour like everyone else, but they’ll have crippling student debt to boot.

MD: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
KM:
Most of my mentors have been business mentors. I haven’t really had a kitchen mentor since I left Keswick, and I only spent 8 months there. The chef then at Keswick, Ricky Small, definitely opened my eyes to what was out there and taught me that the difference between a good cook and a bad cook was basically whether you care or not.

MD: What question gives you the most insight to a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen?
KM:
“Tell me about your relationship with food.” That question immediately separates the applicants with serious curiosity and passion from the tourists. I ask everyone, front or back of house, that question. If I’m going to succeed I need people who buy in to the idea that food is something more than just sustenance.

MD: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
KM:
People will teach you a lot, but if you really want to learn how to cook, pay attention to the food—it’s going to tell you how to handle it, what it likes, how to bring out its best.

MD: What ingredient do you feel is underappreciated or under utilized? Why?
KM:
Lard. Lard has been the victim of a malicious smear campaign. If you’re not using it in certain applications, then you aren’t producing the best product possible.

MD: What’s your most indispensable kitchen tool?  
KM:
My staff. I’m nothing without them. If all the equipment blew up, they’d still be making and serving great food, saying, “Look at how awesome the char is from this campfire!”

MD: Where do you like to go for culinary travel?  Why?
KM:
Chicago. I’m just so excited about what’s going on there. Curtis Duffy, Paul Kahan—I can’t get enough of what they do. I’d give anything to get into Schwa, but, so far, no dice.

MD: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
KM: Food is so much more than sustenance—it can be an experience, it’s exciting, it’s art, it’s community (both in and outside the restaurant) and I want to share that. 

MD: Which person in history would you most like to cook for?
KM:
The victims of Katrina. I still regret not going down there when the need was so great.

MD: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
KM:
We have an amazing community of restaurants and food service professionals in Sewanee. We get together once a month to discuss what we can do to support each other and promote dining in the Village. We plan events together. It’s truly a community effort.

I'm on the board of directors for the Cumberland Farmers Market (www.rootedhere.org), which is the umbrella organization over a retail online farmers market (Cumberland Farmers Market, sewanee.locallygrown.net/market) and a wholesale food hub (South Cumberland Food Hub, rootedhere.locallygrown.net/market). Our goal is to foster the conditions necessary to create a strong local food economy. It is extremely important to me to know as much as possible about the ingredients I use to feed my friends, family, and community. Having a personal relationship with farmers and food artisans is critical to that goal. Working to provide optimum conditions for those farmers to succeed is one way I can help make sure my community and I have access to a premium, responsible food supply.

I’m also a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance, because, while I may not believe all precious things are sustainable, I do believe we should try to preserve what knowledge of them we can.

MD: If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
KM:
Anything creative: making movies, designing clothes, renovating houses.

MD: Where will we find you five to 10 years from now?
KM:
I definitely hope that one day I’ll have some measure of professional and peer recognition—it’s hard to work this hard without wanting some outside affirmation of your work. (Thank you, StarChefs!) However, ultimately success means keeping the doors open and drawing a paycheck so I can keep doing this amazing job.