It's a question that gets asked a lot: "What's the one thing I have to eat in Knoxville?"
You've probably been asked it, chances are more than once. Maybe it was by your cousins swinging through town, or by a client in town for business—no matter. Everyone wants to know what's the Knoxville equivalent of Nashville's hot chicken or Memphis' ribs.
That's the thing, though. There isn't one. There is no iconic Knoxville dish, no one meal you insist that everyone visiting try, just to say they had one. But that doesn't mean there couldn't be.
We asked a handful of chefs in Knoxville—male and female, upscale and casual—what dish they thought defined Knoxville to them, in the hopes of discovering some possibilities of a signature dish for our fair city. The responses hew back to our Appalachian heritage and forward into our culinary future. Biscuits are, of course, represented, as is fried chicken. But there's also kale and pecans and Cruze Farm buttermilk.
Should one of these dishes be Knoxville's signature cuisine? We humbly suggest they all might be—our past, our present, and our future make one amazing meal.
Matt Gallaher • Knox Mason
Knox Mason is the rising star of downtown's restaurant scene, which is just the way its chef and owner, Matt Gallaher, wanted it.
"That was my plan from when I was 21 years old," Gallaher says. "I knew that ultimately I'd want to be my own boss."
Gallaher's mother had owned and operated a tea room while he was growing up, so he knew the work that was involved. But he also realized to be successful, he'd have to establish his credentials first.
"I thought downtown was where I wanted to be, but downtown wasn't ready, and I wasn't ready," Gallaher says.
So Gallaher worked his way up, first in catering and then at Blackberry Farm in Walland.
After several years at Blackberry, Gallaher left to become a personal chef for touring musicians, including some of the biggest names in the business. After over a year with the Kings of Leon, Gallaher accepted a position in the governor's mansion, cooking dinner for Gov. Bill and Chrissy Haslam. And then, finally, it was time for his own place.
Since opening in 2013, Knox Mason has drawn acclaim for its modern take on Southern staples. The seasonal menu is constantly changing, but Gallaher's vision for a dish that represents Knoxville is something that could be served any time of the year—a fried chicken biscuit.
"I think fried chicken is a great equalizer, across any race and any culture," Gallaher says.
Gallaher takes tender chicken breasts from North Carolina's Ashley Farms and brines them in Cruze Farm buttermilk and hot sauce overnight.
"I figure if we're talking about a new iconic dish that's trying to capture what Knoxville is in 2014, I wanted it to have a nod to our agricultural heritage, and Cruze Farm is the most notable farm in Knoxville," Gallaher says.
The panko-encrusted chicken is deep-fried and then served on a Cruze Farm buttermilk biscuit, which is topped with a bright orange concoction Gallaher calls "Vol Sauce."
"For the sauce I wanted something smoky in flavor, as a nod to the Smoky Mountains, and the ingredients just happened to yield a deep orange sauce, which ties into UT, so I called it Vol Sauce," Gallaher explains.
Gallaher's sauce is not unlike comeback sauce in taste (for those of you Mississippians out there), but his addition of yellow mustard and barbecue sauce to the mayonnaise, ketchup, and chili sauce creates its own distinctive tang. The chicken, biscuit, and sauce combination is comforting, satisfying, but also not too filling—if a fried chicken biscuit can be in any way healthy, this is it. There's no grease dripping off the chicken or the biscuit, no feeling of lead in your stomach later.
Still, for Gallaher it is the dish's universality that he sees as its best selling point for Knoxville, a town of office workers and college students and service industry employees all.
"I think a chicken biscuit's also something you can eat any time of the day—breakfast or lunch, dinner, or midnight," Gallaher says. "It's just the perfect food." (C.W.G.)
Dustin Busby • Hoof Truck
Joe Bliffen • Hoof Truck
When Dustin Busby left Blackberry Farm to partner with his friend Chris Burger in running Century Harvest Farms out in Loudon County, it was big news in the local culinary scene.
Busby had been at Blackberry for five years, first as executive sous chef and then as the head preservationist, making the resort's world-renowned jams, pickles, and cheeses. But with two young children, the hours were wearing on him. Besides, he had always harbored culinary ambitions of his own.
So Busby joined Burger, who was sustainably raising beef cattle on his farm. They added chickens to the mix last summer, and now have a handful of pigs, with plans for a larger pork production operation soon. Some of the meat and eggs head to subscribers of Century Harvest's CSA, but the rest is destined for Hoof, the food truck the men co-own.
Since Hoof premiered last spring, it has drawn raves from carnivores and vegetarians alike—the burgers are great, but so are the fries. (And the homemade ketchup and aioli.) Busby quickly turned over on-the-truck preparations to Joe Bliffen, who had recently moved back to Knoxville after a stint as a chef in Brooklyn. And both men have big plans for the future of Knoxville's food scene.
"I think it's going to come," Busby says of Knoxville having restaurants that draw attention (and Beard Award nominations) like Asheville and Chattanooga. "I hope Joe and I are a part of it."
Busby says the inspiration for his dish, a spring pea and ricotta tortellini with braised short ribs, is what he wants "Knoxville to become and embrace"—both simple and complicated, seasonal and local, comforting and innovative.
"For me, this is kind of a collection of the things I'm excited about eating as spring comes," Busby says. "I think it shows what we have in the area and what we will have."
Busby's perfectly crescent-shaped tortellini are made with flour from Shelton Farm and eggs from his own chickens.
"Fresh pasta is near and dear to me," he says. "It's not always the most convenient thing to make, but there's such a world of difference."
The beef—tender and falling apart—is also from Century Harvest. The peas aren't from this season—not yet—but rows are going in so the CSA can offer vegetables this summer. Both are placed on a carrot puree, topped with long slivers of radishes, snap peas, and more carrots, and garnished with a fresh pea pesto. It tastes like spring.
Bliffen's dish, roast chicken with white beans and black kale, is more hearty fare. (Both chefs made their own recipes instead of collaborating.)
"For me, it's just kind of a comfort food. We raised this chicken, we slaughtered this chicken, so we have a connection to this chicken," Bliffen says.
Indeed, the chicken, cooked skin-on with a slab of slate on top of it, is flawless—crisp, juicy, tender. The white bean puree and crispy kale, though, adds something new to the course.
Bliffen says he was partially inspired by the upscale Italian restaurant at which he used to cook in New York.
"White beans and kale are very Italian, but they're also standard Southern fare," Bliffen says. "There's not good Italian food here. It's kind of a joke—that's what I'd like Knoxville to become, a city that can have a good Italian restaurant." (C.W.G.)
Holly Hambright • Holly's Corner
If you ask Holly Hambright to describe her school of cooking, she's likely to laugh at you and shrug off the question. It's not really a matter of false modesty—Holly isn't prone to putting on airs or taking herself too seriously, she'd just rather talk about food or art or music. And any conversation with this chef moves quickly as she freely associates between subjects; nearly every moment is punctuated with humor—frequently self-deprecating, often absurd, and sometimes a little risqué.
But if you persist, you'll learn that she doesn't define her cooking by any one school of thought. Instead, sometimes she thinks of her work in the kitchen as bricolage.
"It's an art term that means, well, basically it means creating something out of nothing. I get my best inspiration from just opening the refrigerator door," Holly says.
The sense of making do with what's available is part of what inspired Holly's contribution. The dish unites two important elements of the city's heritage with a modern (if familiar) sensibility.
"When I thought about it, I thought, well, a lot of the settlers for this area were Scotch-Irish, and there were the Cherokees, of course," she says. "Pork was important in this part of the world, and there it was!"
On the plate, Holly starts with a version of the Scotch egg, yet she's careful to note, "The egg is baked. So technically, it isn't a Scotch egg, so I guess we could call it a Hillbilly Truffle. Or, since this is a Knoxville dish, maybe we could call it an Eggsphere?"
She garnishes the egg with a bit of her own Knock-Out Sauce, which is a savory mayonnaise-based concoction with a list of ingredients that reads like a spice rack. You can almost imagine her creating the recipe: "I've got a little bit of this, which tastes good with that and even better with a pinch of …"
The egg is served with a medley of beans and butternut squash—a nod to the Cherokee diet's reliance on squash and legumes.
"You know the Cherokee were a different nation than other natives—they were the first to adopt the settlers' style of clothing, and they were pretty friendly. Of course, that was to their detriment," Holly says. "Their lifestyle seems foreign to us, but now it's back in a way: It's a farm-to-table thing."
All of the elements of the dish have a relationship to the history of the area, and there's a very practical sense of taking what's on hand from earth and farm and elevating it into something tasty and memorable. Still, it's worth noting that each element is close to Holly's heart (or stomach, perhaps).
"I love the earthy food—beans, beets, celery root. And the Scotch egg was always a favorite bar snack—I could sit down with a beer and an egg and be content—until it was time for another round," Holly laughs. (D.P.)
Jennifer Braxton • Chandler's Deli
For over a decade, Chandler's Deli has the go-to place in Knoxville for soul food, thanks to the husband-and-wife team of Charles and Gwen Chandler. But Chandler's has always been a family affair, and waiting in the wings to take over the restaurant when her parents retire is their daughter, Jennifer Braxton.
Braxton decided the restaurant's fried chicken is her ideal representation of Knoxville, and we photographed her making it. She served it with collards, fried okra, macaroni and cheese, and cornbread—the quintessential Southern meal, yet made by a younger generation intent on preserving our heritage.
But before Braxton could explain exactly why her chicken signifies Knoxville, she landed in the hospital for emergency surgery. Her father Charles says Braxton is doing better, but still unable to talk, so he explained on her behalf just why their fried chicken is so dang good.
"One thing that's different is we use the jumbo chickens, so you're getting more chicken," Chandler explains. "When we bread it, we try to keep it as close to normal and natural as possible. And we use good cooking oils—we eat this all the time, too, so we're not going to spare the expense of a good oil for frying."
Of course, the real secret to Chandler's and Braxton's fried perfection is the seasoning. Chandler won't say exactly what's in it, only that they've tested and tried other seasonings over the years, but "they just didn't have the kick we wanted."
"We've tweaked it up and down to come up with what we like," Chandler says.
And now that they've found the magic formula?
"I don't see any tweaking in sight," Chandler laughs. "No one's said, ‘It's too salty,' or ‘It's too spicy,' lately. I haven't heard it in a long time."
But Chandler and Braxton aren't content to rest on their laurels. The family tries to eat out at least four times a week.
"We're constantly checking on other restaurants and trying what they're doing," Chandler says. "I feel like I can say our [fried chicken] is as good or better than any one else's in town. I mean, I try to be humble, but it's true."
Fried chicken is tied with barbecue as the two top-selling items at the restaurant, but Chandler says a number of customers will always order their ribs with a piece of chicken on the side. It's a food that everyone loves—one that always puts a smile on people's faces. (Even if you're a vegetarian, you can bask in the smell.)
Once Braxton gets out of the hospital, she hopes to move forward selling her family's seasonings to the world—not the chicken seasoning just yet, but the special collection of herbs and spices the family uses on its cabbage.
"It's hard to make cabbage flavorful," Chandler says. "But we've cultivated a following. Even people who say they don't like cabbage—they'll taste ours and change their mind."
Chandler says no one out there is really selling cabbage seasoning at all, so there's a niche in the market for it. And if it takes off, who knows? Knoxville might become known for cabbage instead of delicious, crisp, juicy fried chicken. (C.W.G.)
Byron and Kiki Sambat • Savory and Sweet Truck
When Byron and Kiki Sambat opened the first gourmet food truck in Knoxville in 2012, they hoped a culinary revolution was on the horizon for Knoxville. Although it's been slow going, the couple senses things are finally starting to change for the better.
Whatever changes are happening, the Sambats are at the forefront of them. Their Savory and Sweet Truck was one of two local food trucks to be featured on the Cooking Channel's Eat St., and the duo has parlayed their mobile restaurant success into an occasional prix fixe supper club called Moveable Feast.
Yet when it came to figuring our a signature dish for Knoxville, the Sambats decided upscale wasn't the way to go.
"We put a lot of thought into what would be uniquely Knoxville," Kiki says. "We wanted to pick something almost any Knoxvillian would want to eat—something appealing to any race or age—appealing to anyone, that is, except a vegetarian."
After testing a few different recipes, the couple decided that their favorite option was a "GBO Biscuit" (for "Go Big Orange," of course). Buttermilk biscuits (made with Cruze Farm buttermilk and White Lily flour) are topped with UT-orange pimiento cheese (made with Sweetwater Valley Farm cheddar) and strips of oven-cooked bacon (Benton's).
"We wanted to put the focus on ingredients that are local," Byron says. "I mean, Benton's is used by all these famous chefs, and they ship all over the world, but we think it's very Knoxville. We're so lucky we can just go down to the smokehouse and pick it up."
"We try not to take those ingredients for granted, though," Kiki says.
The biscuits are large, fluffy cathead ones, sliced in half and smothered with a just-spicy-enough pimiento cheese. Topped with bacon and heated up until just melting in the oven, the result is everything you could ever want in a biscuit sandwich. The cheese keeps the Benton's from overwhelming the dish the way its smokiness sometimes can, and the biscuit is the epitome of what a biscuit should be—light, but not crumbly; sturdy, but not dense. It's hard to eat just one.
"We grew up with biscuits," Byron says. "I think they're such a staple around here, plus now with Biscuitfest, Knoxville's becoming known for them."
The Sambats aren't 100 percent sure if they'll be serving the GBO Biscuit at Biscuitfest, or entering it into the festival competition, but they do know they'll have it on the truck sometime in the future—especially when it's time for Game Day.
"Obviously, we're Vols fans," laughs Byron. (C.W.G.)
Scott & Meredith Layton • Buttermilk Sky Pie Shop
Although neither Scott nor Meredith Layton were born or raised in Knoxville, they have an acute sense of the city as a welcoming place. They moved to the city from Memphis after Scott accepted a position in commercial construction and, says Meredith, "we had heard great things about Knoxville being a family town."
Since landing here, the Laytons have enjoyed a neighborly reception from all quarters. Their first business in the sweets trade, the Cupcakery, received a warm and enthusiastic welcome, and the opening of Buttermilk Sky Pie shop in Bearden was practically a community event.
Their choice to make pie as a part of their living was an educated business decision made to satisfy an entrepreneurial craving, but it was also a natural one—both Scott and Meredith grew up in the midst of great pie-makers.
"My Nanny and Scott's Granny both loved to make pie. Both of our grandmothers made great pecan pies, but Nanny kind of specialized in cream pies like coconut and chocolate," says Meredith. Scott remembers that his Granny was known for her fruit pies, including a memorable apple pie.
As a food emblem for Knoxville, the Laytons selected their version of pecan pie, which is based on a tweaked version of Nanny's recipe that utilizes a secret-recipe crust.
"Nanny used a butter crust, but we went through a lot of trial and error with all of our pies," Meredith says. "With the pecan pie, we decided to revise Nanny's recipe a little. It's made with a homemade shortbread crust. It just tastes better because the toastiness of the nuts goes really well with shortbread."
But as much as pie is a part of their family histories, their idea for making this their Knoxville dish owes its origin to the hospitality that they associate with the city. It's not just the welcome they felt when they moved here, but the very personal welcome to Bearden they received from one of the city's most legendary hosts: Bill Regas.
"Mr. Regas was one of the first people to visit the Bearden store," Meredith says. "Of course, we knew who he was, because when we first moved to Knoxville, everybody told us we had to eat at Regas. And we did."
Regas has since become a regular visitor to the Bearden shop, stopping in for coffee and conversation.
"He's given us a nice bit of encouragement," Meredith says. "He was so friendly, and he loved the pecan pie. He likes the buttermilk pie, too, but pecan's his favorite." (D.P.)
Peggy Hambright • Magpies Bakery
Magpies Bakery owner Peggy Hambright has been in tune with Knoxville's sweet tooth long enough to have seen it all, but the reaction to a story about her stack cakes was still a surprise. She was making a special-order cake one day when WBIR's Ken Schwall, of Schwall's World fame, walked in with a camera. He aired a story about it. Then the phone calls began.
The "old-fashioned stack cake," or "Tennessee mountain stack cake," as one cookbook dubbed it, is a cake that comes with a long tradition in the mountains of Appalachia.
"Everybody's grandmother made one. Everybody who buys one has a story to tell," Peggy says.
The cake isn't an easy recipe to accomplish—not because of any technical skill, per se, but because the time and labor requirement is considerable. The cake consists of about eight layers—though some recipes call for as many as 13 or more—and each layer is baked separately. "You roll out the dough into eight thin layers that you bake individually. It's almost like a cracker when it's done," Peggy says.
Each of the lower layers is spread with a mixture of cooked, dried apples. It's essential to use dried apples because they impart a unique and strong flavor—and, of course, because that's just the way it's done.
Peggy says that everyone who calls about a stack cake asks about dried apples.
"It's the way they remember the cake," Peggy says. "And the layers are important. I mean, they have to be cooked separately, or it's not right. You can find something called stack cake in some grocery bakeries, but they've just cut a regular layer cake into smaller layers and filled it with apple sauce. It's not the same thing at all."
One of the essential qualities of the traditional stack cake is that the thin, nearly crisp layers absorb moisture from the apple puree. This not only changes the layers' texture, it also fills them with flavor.
Since the first surprising wave of demand for these cakes, Magpies has changed the recipe. The cakes are now made from a recipe based on one from Mark Sohn's classic Appalachian Home Cooking: History, Culture, and Recipes. (Sohn is also the father of Public House proprietress Laura Sohn.)
The "New Knoxville Stack Cake" is made with butter instead of shortening, and it's a little spicier than Sohn's original recipe, with extra cinnamon in the apple mixture itself. And just like Knoxville, this incarnation of the Appalachian favorite has a hint of cosmopolitan flavor—cardamom.
"I love apples and cardamom together—they make a beautiful duo," Peggy says. "I don't want to make a big deal of it, because a lot of people think they don't like cardamom, but that's because they use too much of it. If you use the right amount, it adds something different and good, but it won't knock you over the head." (D.P.)