Holly and Peggy Hambright are two of the busiest cooks in Knoxville, and may be the two most talked about. They both have a reputation not just for their exceptional skill in the kitchen, but for things harder to learn: imagination, inspiration, and an unconventional singularity.
Holly runs Holly's Eventful Dining, the intuitive catering business she started about three years ago in one of the little capillaries that make up Bearden's Homberg Place. In her own past in working for a high-end hotel in Baltimore, she has cooked for Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme, and the Queen of Thailand, among others. Even here in Knoxville, she has developed an enviable client list, including Pilot, Scripps Networks Interactive, Knoxville Opera, and perhaps most elusively for a caterer, Gastrointestinal Associates. This year, she expanded her Bearden operation to accommodate a fresh new restaurant, the only one in town that serves something called Blunch. ("It's more lunch than breakfast," Holly says, "but we'll put an egg on anything.")
More than five miles away, facing the sidewalk on North Central, Peggy is in charge of Magpies, an older institution, the cake and pie factory with the big black birds guarding the door. Perpetual winner of Metro Pulse's annual readers poll for Best Bakery, usually by an extremely large margin, Magpies is not the cheapest cake factory in town, but it's the one customers go to when they want to impress. A 2008 New York Times profile of Knoxville recommended a visit to Magpies, for the cupcakes, as among the city's don't-miss attractions.
Few cooks are so personally identified with their products. People swear they can tell a Magpies cake in just one bite. "This has to be Peggy's," they say.
At a reception, people will remark, upon biting into a particularly savory stuffed morsel, "I bet Holly made this."
They're sisters, of course, but that mere biological fact doesn't offer much of the story. They've rarely worked together. They didn't learn cooking together as kids. The last time the two lived in the same house, 30-something years ago, neither aspired to be any sort of chef. They're six years apart, and they both claim that during their time living in the same house, they hardly knew each other, in fact avoided each other.
They've converged at this agreeable peerage almost coincidentally by very different paths. One did some time as a rock 'n' roll instrumentalist, touring the country in a bus. The other lived out of state for 20 years, working for posh hotels in big cities.
But here they both are. They bear only a little resemblance; Peggy is blonde, blue-eyed, and just this side of petite; Holly's more sturdily built, a graying brunette with brown eyes. Holly's the more outgoing of the two ("Hey, Pumpkin!" she answers a phone call from a reporter she's talked to once or twice before); Peggy's much quieter, more circumspect. Peggy likes to plan things carefully in advance; Holly's more spontaneous, and says it's the reason they can never work together. One thing they do have in common is a rare expression, a dancing light in their eyes that suggests they know something funny they're going to keep to themselves, at least for now.
Their story begins with a couple of remarkable parents. On display at Holly's impulsively decorated restaurant is a white cook's smock with the knitted words, "Hazel Hambright / Culinary Legend."
"They owe a lot to their mother," says Frank Hambright, who turns 90 next month. Never retired, the former host of WUOT's long-running "Barbershop Harmony" weekly show still tunes pianos for a small and select clientele.
Originally of Middlesborough, Ky., he spent part of World War II was an enlisted man stationed in New Guinea with the Army Air Corps. He repaired aircraft, mostly. He does remember a short stint as a mess cook, but doesn't claim that had much to do with his remarkable daughters' professions. After V-J Day, his knack at tuning pianos got Hambright work at Rich's, Atlanta's upscale department store. In Atlanta he met a registered nurse from Gainesville, just northeast of Atlanta. They married in 1949, and lived in Atlanta, with a baby son named Harlan until Rich's built a large, strikingly modern edifice on Henley Street in downtown Knoxville. The Hambrights moved here in 1955, settling in South Knoxville's Lake Forest neighborhood. Just before the big store closed in 1960—it became downtown's second Miller's (now the University of Tennessee Conference Center)—Hambright quit to start his own business, and developed a reputation as one of Knoxville's best piano tuners, an "aural" tuner who does his work strictly by ear.
Once in Knoxville, they began producing daughters: Holly, then Kyle, then Peggy. Kyle, the middle sister, is a nurse like her mother, on duty at the neonatal unit at Children's Hospital. "My three siblings are so creative, so talented," Kyle says. "I'm kind of the nerd." Peggy says Kyle may be the family's best cook; Kyle's reputation as a cook is held in high esteem within the Hambright family.
All three of them refer to their mother, who died five years ago, as an inspiration.
"Hazel came out of the chute very different from everybody around her," says Holly of her mother. "She knew there was more to the world than pine trees and choo-choo trains in the night." Hazel Hambright never lived outside the South, but she traveled widely in her kitchen. She read books voraciously, all sorts of books, but especially books on cooking, including the Time-Life series, for which Frank got her a subscription.
"She used to read cookbooks when I was sitting there reading the newspaper," he says. "She was quite a self-taught cook. Very innovative. She made a great corned-beef hash for me. Much better than in the Army."
Hazel didn't like to do anything the way other people did them. Everyone in the family remembers her Thanksgivings. The Hambrights never smelled roast turkey in the kitchen. On Thanksgiving Hazel favored lobster-stuffed tenderloin, or a 5-pound grilled salmon.
"As I grew up, I realized it was not what our friends were having," Peggy says.
Hazel created a memorable frog-leg night, a fried-rabbit night. "There was a fig salad she made," recalls Holly. "Fig and Belgian endive, with sour-cream dressing."
A few remember her rare potato salad, with hand-cut ingredients. Holly thinks Kyle has come closest to cracking the code. "There's a sharpness to it," she says.
"Even meatloaf," Peggy recalls. "Her meatloaf was phenomenal. It was not a budget meal, because she didn't use bread crumbs. It was all meat. No ketchup, and bacon on top. And macaroni and cheese. Layered, with butter in between, real cheddar cheese. It was just good stuff."
But Hazel didn't teach her daughters to cook. She preferred to work on her own. "We never worked side by side," Holly says. "She was kind of a door opener—an opportunity presenter." Holly does remember being inspired, at age 9 or 10, to try her hand at Toad in the Hole, a custard and sausage dish.
Peggy recalls watching Julia Child with her mother, on a black-and-white 12-inch TV.
But the Hambrights thought of themselves, first and foremost, as a musical family. "They forced us to do fairly little," Peggy says, "but we were all required to take piano until we graduated high school." Holly also studied voice, and when she first went to UT, aspired to be an opera singer. Peggy, who Frank Hambright thinks is the most naturally musical of his daughters, took violin, and became pretty handy with it.
The surprise about their backgrounds is maybe that Holly and Peggy weren't close, as kids. "I didn't know Peggy very well at all as a person until I came back to Knoxville," in 2000, Holly says. "She was my little-squirt sister. I didn't want to have anything to do with her. Now I just adore her."
Peggy remembers their relationship the same way. "She was a snotty teenager when I was starting to have memories," Peggy says. "I remember being forced to stay out of her room."
Kyle Hambright Cook, the middle sister, doesn't remember any of them cooking much when they were young. "It was not like we all knew what we were going to do," she says.
While studying voice at UT, Holly admits, "I was floundering.... I always wanted to be really good at what I did. I'd studied music from age 8. But I realized a lot of other people out there are much better than me."
She came upon her career almost accidentally, via a serendipitous short-term job as a cook at Camp John Knox, the Presbyterian camp on Watts Bar Lake where, still a teenager, she found herself working as head cook. She enjoyed the directed hubbub of the experience. "That was a little volume cooking under my belt," she says, recalling one kid's compliment that may have changed her life. "Your spaghetti's better than my mom's," he said.
The executive hotel chef, who has since cooked for royalty and celebrity, recalls that moment vividly. "That always stuck with me."
In her late teens, she found herself "asking what I'd be in 10 years." Having worked at the grocery "White Store #5" and discouraged about her prospects in opera, she thought, "The picture wasn't pretty. And I thought, I'll be a chef."
"I went to Lawson McGhee Library, pulled out every Yellow Pages to every city I could find," and began applying to culinary schools. She was accepted at the Culinary Arts Institute in Baltimore, a year-long course, and graduated at the top of her class. Working in top-flight hotels in the Chesapeake area, Bermuda, Boston, and, for a while, Dallas, Holly married, and had children. She wouldn't live in her hometown for two decades.
We tried to catch both sisters, separately, in a lull, but the fact is that even on a slow day, good chefs can never really take a break. Abruptly, while sharing an intimate memory of her mother, Holly suddenly cranks her head around and barks into the kitchen, "Pull those figs!" Then she turns back and smiles. Where were we?
Her sister on North Central is always on call, too. We're in her office talking about her mother's preference for real ingredients, when Peggy gets an emergency phone call from downstairs. "Are they still real jiggly?" she says. "Set it for 20."
"We had very different experiences," Peggy says of Holly, though they grew up in the same house on Caywood Drive with the same parents. Peggy says she and her older sister knew different sides of their mother. Hazel had been bright and optimistic when Holly was young, began to suffer mood disorders in middle age.
"We were closer," Peggy says. "She was 40 when I was born. It was funny having an older mom. I just clung to her." She says her mother's manic depression defined much of their relationship. "I remember her spending a lot of time in bed, and then when she was manic, getting a lot done. It was kind of a roller-coaster in my life."
While her older sister was earning her big-city reputation as a chef, Peggy was more interested in art. That's another strain in the Hambright family; older brother Harlan, who graduated in architecture from UT, left town long ago, and runs a graphic-arts firm in St. Simons, Ga. But even he occasionally wins cooking competitions, recently for a shrimp-and-grits contest.
As the youngest kid, Peggy sometimes found herself alone at home when her parents were out to bridge club, and she would try things in the kitchen. She remembers a Betty Crocker three-ring binder. "The baking pages in the cookbook were all torn to hell," she says, "especially the pumpkin-pie recipe."
Peggy contrasts her approach to Holly's. "Holly was different. Holly just wanted to bang out good food. I like to follow a recipe. I like things to be controlled." Peggy tried things, working a recipe to kill time almost like other kids might work a jigsaw puzzle. "At 10 or 12, I always wanted to make it look just like the picture. I was visually oriented. I wanted to make pretty things."
That impulse led her to study graphic arts at UT.
She liked her art courses, but took an unexpected diversion when she met offbeat performer Jeff Heiskell and some other musicians, and formed a sort of post-New Wave band called the Judybats. Their sound stood out for its urbane modernity in a city where punk, heavy metal, and country-rock were the opposing standards. In a short time the six-piece band earned a national cult following. Peggy performed keyboards and violin, and backup vocals on the band's first two albums, Native Son and Down in the Shacks Where the Satellite Dishes Grow.
The band had fans from coast to coast who could sing along with their favorites. For a while, they looked like they might be very big.
"I took a sabbatical to go on tour with the Judybats," she recalls. As most rock 'n' rollers eventually do, she decided to quit rock 'n' roll. She says she felt "guilty" that she was living a struggling musicians' dream, considering she was pretty sure it wasn't for her.
"It wasn't anything I wanted to do," Peggy admits. "Just having no control over it, not knowing what my future would be. I just tumbled into it. I felt like an interloper." She wanted to work from a recipe. She dropped out of a trendy rock band and returned to school to get her art degree.
But when she did return, something had changed. "It was right when Macs were coming out," she says. "When I'd first studied, it was all still by hand." Working by hand was what she enjoyed about art. "I had only 15 hours left to graduate. But I didn't want to sit at a computer. I couldn't."
Her dilemma was comparable to her sister's, several years earlier. Plan A was disappointing, Plan B was obscure.
Starting with the premise that she wanted to make a living with her hands, there were three things that appealed to her. One was to open a burrito stand. Another was to be a furniture maker. And another, harking back to her childhood kitchen play, was to bake.
"I experimented with some burrito recipes. I took a wood-joining class. I just wanted to do things. I wanted to make something," Peggy says. "But wood-joining didn't bring the immediate gratification I needed. Baking did."
She studied a 1988 book called The Cake Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum and tried a few recipes, working first out of her mom's kitchen. She got a job baking biscuits, scones, and muffins at the short-lived Uptown Cafe on Market Square. By the mid-'90s, she was kitchen manager at the Tomato Head, adding a few tricks, making bagels and biscuits. Always more interested in baking, she talked Tomato Head owner Mahasti Vafaie into using the back part of the kitchen for her own business.
Then she settled for about five years in a spare room her architecture-student brother had built. Her mom, then in her 70s, helped her as shopper, dishwasher, lunch maker, and delivery service. "She found raspberries when there were no raspberries to be found," Peggy says, still in awe. "I called her my Enabler. By all accounts, my business should not have succeeded."
She married attorney Scott Carpenter, a sometime alt-rock musician, and later moved Magpies to a stronger public profile in the middle of the Old City, handy for its proximity to a legendary bakery supplier. She describes a scene that sounds like one from the 1890s. "We were right over the railroad tracks from the White Lily plant. We'd buy a barrel, and wheel it over the tracks back to the shop." White Lily has since closed its original Knoxville plant and moved its operations to the Midwest. "We still use White Lily, but now we order it."
She doesn't make much bread for the same reason she doesn't make furniture. "There's not enough immediate gratification in a yeast product," she says.
She takes a hard line on baking, much of it reflecting her mother's strictly from-scratch practices. Ask Peggy Hambright if she's ever made cake from a mix in her whole life, and she'll tell you about one peculiar wedding party. "I was asked to do a sculpted Duncan Hines box for a wedding party, and deliver it to KMA, because the groom loved Duncan Hines. And it killed me. I opened the package. It smelled like Play-Doh."
Today, Magpies motto is "All butter, all the time."
"I think baking took a turn for the worse when margarine was invented," Peggy says. "It got worse when Crisco was invented. Then the low-fat trend didn't help."
Parking was an issue in the Old City, especially with customers picking up large or fragile creations. The city was barely starting to turn its attention to once-iffy North Central, not yet known as Downtown North, when she and her husband bought a vacant two-story, a former religious radio-station, well outside the familiar grid of downtown.
"I love this neighborhood. We're close to Old North, Fourth and Gill, and downtown. With the Baxter Avenue exit nearby, even our far-west customers find it easy to get here. And there's the Three Rivers Market, which is awesome." It's hardly two blocks down Central. "We get our eggs there now. And we sell cupcakes at Three Rivers." Thus, Three Rivers products return to be sold in a different form.
Peggy has 10 full-time employees, and you can't help but notice that, despite the daily proximity to all those famously all-butter cupcakes, they aren't obese. Everybody who works at Magpies looks pretty healthy, in fact. The hard work of baking helps. "It doesn't hurt being attached to a yoga studio," Peggy says. Her building is now divided between Magpies and the Glowing Body—with Central Street Books in the old Corner Lounge space. Magpies' employees get a discount on yoga sessions. "We take advantage of that quite a bit," Peggy says. "It's encouraged, highly."
Meanwhile, Holly Hambright had been blazing a trail of memorable cuisine in bigger markets, working for Omni Hotels from Boston to Bermuda—for a time she cooked at Boston's Parker House, of Rolls fame—but settling longest at the Harbor Court in Baltimore, where she'd gone to culinary school. She earned the rank of executive chef. It was at Harbor Court that she served her highest-profile diners. She remembers one celebrity best. There was a little nook few customers knew about. "I'd go there to cry or fire people," she says. One day she sought refuge there and found, by himself, legendary singer Mel Torme, the Velvet Fog himself. They had a long talk. "He was just lovely, a sweet little guy," she says.
Holly sought culinary enlightenment from several global gurus. Patient with a reporter's blank expression when she mentions Madeline Kamen, she explains, "She's the professional's Julia Child. What I got from her, which is so helpful, the last component of what I need to be a really good chef, is make sure the wine goes with the food." Pairing's not just picking an ideal wine, but sometimes adding something to the dish that enhances the wine choice.
When she returned to town in 2000, Holly Hambright was better known in several big cities than she was in her home town and found that her "little-squirt sister," the one everybody thought was mainly an artist and musician, had established a reputation as a baker. Holly knew something about that reputation; one of the few times the sisters ever worked together was in 1998, when Holly was living in Dallas, catering an especially challenging wedding, and flew in her little-squirt baking-genius sister to help.
She came home for family reasons; she had a couple of small children, and her then-husband was at loose ends. "I thought we should calm the family life down a little bit," so she moved back to Knoxville, though her hometown had no hotels of quite the reputation of her former employers.
She worked for the old Lord Lindsey venue on Hill Avenue; then for a Bearden establishment she respected, Gourmet's Market; and then a while for Gregg White, the restless restaurant entrepreneur who started Nama Sushi Bar and had a catering business on the side. Holly finally branched out on her own for the first time in 2009. She now employs seven at her catering business, which has now branched out to offer breakfast and lunch—"blunch." She hints there may be a dinner restaurant in her future.
"It all boils down to boredom, not wanting to be bored," Holly says. "I like a challenge. It's what I know," she says, responding to different groups of different sizes, sometimes on short notice. "That's what I've been doing for 30 years."
Asked to name a dish of hers that she's especially proud of, she seems at a loss. "So many of our dishes are one-offs," she says. "Sometimes it's hard to re-create a dish." It sounds as if even trying might be tiresome.
Peggy says the most competitive siblings in her family are her two older sisters, Holly and Kyle, who battled at Thanksgiving over which created the superior gravy, with their dad, Frank, as the perplexed judge. But there's a little sisterly tension between Peggy and Holly, too.
Of Peg, Holly says, "I think we learned early on that a working relationship was not in the cards." She pauses, for a moment, looking at Peggy, and says, "She has a Plan." She says it with a tone suggesting planning is not something she wants to deal with in her kitchen.
"Well, generally," Peggy says.
"Do you know the art term bricolage?" asks Holly. It refers to the approach of making something interesting and new of whatever is at hand. "That's my approach."
Peggy doesn't argue. That works for her big sister. Peggy has perfected her recipes, and offers no apologies. Recipes, perfected with practice, are the secret of her bakery's popularity.
The two sisters' approaches are incompatible. And in the right hands, they both work perfectly.
That relationship hides a paradox, though. With her culinary-school training and impressive big-city resume, Holly followed a sort of recipe with her cooking career. Peggy, the erstwhile art student and rock 'n' roll star, found hers intuitively, bricolage fashion.
There's that glint in their eyes, the one thing that might make a stranger suspect they're sisters. "Both of us get a lot of joy out of making people happy," says Peggy. Not many professionals get to this point, but somehow, here they are.
And you start to guess what that is in their eyes, the thing they have in common. It's a quiet glee.