The Kepner Melt

Knoxville Eats: While we may lack an official cuisine, local original dishes like the Kepner Melt taste like our hometown

MAIN INGREDIENTS: baked tofu, pesto, pineapple, walnuts, Monterey Jack cheese, spinach, onion, tomato

ESTABLISHED: late, late '90s

FUN FACT: Originator Brian Sherry also created the Roger Roger sandwich at Tomato Head. "To answer similar questions about that sandwich, which I think is underrated, I was wearing an aeroplane flyer's cap (with earflaps) as my kitchen headpiece at the time," he says.

The year was 1998. Or 1999. Well, definitely before the turn of the century, anyway, and Brian Sherry was hungry. As a line cook at Market Square's Tomato Head (not to mention a music booker for its evening shows), Sherry was in dire need of sustenance to maintain the Herculean effort required to dish out the Head's usual menu fare. But one day, he decided to concoct his own shift meal, something as nutritious and filling as possible using the ingredients he had on hand: pesto, pineapple, baked tofu... walnuts?

Thus, the proto-Kepner Melt was born.

It is an unlikely confluence of flavors and textures that, when examined on paper, you would not expect to hold together in real life. In addition to the items mentioned above, the Kepner Melt also embraces roasted onion, herbed tomato, fresh spinach, Monterey Jack cheese, and mustard—all contained with the tidy confines of a Tomato Head bun. Perhaps baking the assemblage triggers the alchemy required to meld these disparate ingredients together into a unified super-sandwich whole.

Now living in Chapel Hill, N.C., where his partner Jessica Wilkerson is attending the University of North Carolina and he works with behaviorally aggressive teenagers with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Sherry recalls that his co-workers said it "looked good" at the time. But it wasn't until Tomato Head co-owner Mahasti Vafaie tried it that a new sandwich star was born. "It was my standard break sandwich during a particular spell where she worked the same shifts as me, and she eventually asked if I would make her one for her shift meal," Sherry says. "Afterwards, she asked if we could run it as a special on a Monday and see how it did. She's particular about what is presented under her domain, so I took that into consideration."

The Kepner Melt—named after an alias used by Sherry in his music dealings in case he had to reject a band—lived up to Vafaie's regard with more than 20 purchases that first Monday; it was placed on the specials board the following week, and people actually re-ordered it. The Kepner soon found a home on the permanent menu, and has been a hit ever since. This does not surprise its creator.

"The more surprising (thing) is that people seem to like it even when I'm not making it, and I truly wish I could be responsible for each one because there is a certain bit of original intent that is no doubt left out in its recreations," he says. "It still causes quite a bit of anxiety to know that too much mustard might get on someone's sandwich, or not enough pesto, or too much pineapple, or—I'm stressing out over all these Kepner Melts not being made by me, and I'm 300 miles away. I am certain we get a great majority of them as intended."

Despite Sherry's anxiety, the Kepner has continued to develop a cult following, even outside of Knoxville. Last September, Nashville food blogger Jennifer Justus declared in A Nasty Bite, "It's like Jackson Pollock or Kandinsky. Naysayers call it ugly, jarring, or just a big mess. But it's brilliant!" Austin, Texas, band Octopus Project has said in an online interview that it's their favorite food on the road: "...the Kepner Melt... will explode your brain. I can't go into details now or I'll start weeping. It's a beautiful thing."