Interview with Kentucky-Tennessee Rising Star Chef Matt Gallaher of Knox Mason – Knoxville, TN

by Meha Desai
February 2014

Meha Desai: How did you get your start in cooking?
Matt Gallaher:
[My] mom had a journalism degree, but when I was 9, she started a catering business and had two restaurants. I loved it. She encouraged me to [pursue] academic stuff. I got degree in chemical engineering, but worked in restaurants through college. I finished school knowing I would never work as a [chemical engineer].

MD: How was your experience of culinary school? Would you recommend it to aspiring cooks?
MG: I did not go to culinary school. I read every book I could, worked in every kitchen I could, and it squared me away.

MD: Where have you worked professionally as a chef?
MG: I spent four years at Blackberry Farm. It taught me a lot. [At the time], their property was expanding but not the staff. My parents rented property on Blackberry land before it was the resort. I loved it there. I cooked all over the world—across four continents and 14 countries. I also worked in Nashville, cooking for the governor. It was my public service.

MD: What is your favorite tool?
MG: I'm a big spoon guy. I collect antique spoons for use in plating. The bowls are always deeper and wider than anything you can readily find today.

MD: What tool do you wish you had?
MG:
Probably a CVAP oven. When I worked for the Governor of Tenessee, I had one and though I didn't cook in it often, it was indispensable as a fermenting chamber for charcuterie. 

MD: When hiring new cooks, what is your favorite interview question?
MG: I've learned that people looking for work will say anything they think you want to hear in order to get a job. I've been burned by a couple of employees who changed their tune after we hired them. So maybe the most important question is “Will you work for $8.50/hr?” Sacrifice paved the way for my success and I expect that from my team.  

MD: What is your favorite cookbook?
MG: I'm in love with Susanne Goin's books right now. I hope to cook like her someday.

MD: What is your most important kitchen rule?
MG: No excuses. There's always a way to ensure quality. Make it happen.

MD: What’s your favorite restaurant off the beaten path in your region? What are your favorite dishes?
MG: There's a Japanese place called Anaba in Knoxville. It's in a barn shaped building that I think used to be a liquor store but to find monkfish liver and takoyaki in East Tennessee is pretty special. I could eat there every day I think.

MD: What is your favorite dish you have ever made?
MG:
We get about a month of truffle season in East Tennessee so I'm ALWAYS really excited to be able to feature them in my dishes. I did a 142ºF Farm Egg with Roasted Local Mushrooms, Tennessee Truffles, Chive Beurre Blanc, and Potato Chips a couple of years ago. It's hard to beat eggs and truffles.

MD: Where do you most want to go for culinary travel? Why?
MG: Southeast Asia or Japan. Ingredients and techniques are SO different from the American South. I'm always studying, always learning and I think a week in the East would teach me volumes.