Happy Hollis

Vegetarian chef Hollis Church flies best when she's winging it

By taking a hike and telling a lie, Hollis Church set in motion 22 years of career choices, a slow-motion chain reaction that's not nearly at an end. This was 1986. The tall, willowy Church, who moved here with her parents at age 3, says she had already taken a spin through New York University's theater program, gone broke, returned to Knoxville to collect a retroactive art scholarship, and graduated with a degree in graphic design from the University of Tennessee. "But I totally didn't want to work in that field," she remembers. Then she heard they were hiring cooks on Mount LeConte in the Smoky Mountains, elevation 6,593 feet.

"I lied to get the job," she says. "I totally winged it, and somehow it worked out. They hired me because I told them this lie and because I actually hiked up the mountain and all the other applicants just went to the main office at the base.

"I was like, ‘Shit, I better get some cookbooks.' I would lie in my cabin at night and memorize recipes from The Moosewood Cookbook and The Enchanted Broccoli Forest so I would look like I knew what I was doing."

Church is relaying all this from the heart of her latest venture, The Glowing Body, a combination yoga studio, apparel shop, and high-energy foods cafe in Downtown North. She's animated, dressed head to toe in shades of purple, hair in two tiny pigtails, purple butterfly earrings swinging as she goes into the part where she became the winter caretaker, enthralled with the cold and the beauty, the physical work, radioing the weather down to the hiking guides. "If I hadn't gotten pregnant, I probably would have been a lifer on Mt. LeConte," she says. A craving for beefsteak alerted the "sincere vegan" to her changing hormones, and back down the mountain she did hike.

"I started cooking for families in town because I could put my daughter Kira on the floor or in a backpack," she says. "Then one thing led to another."

Knoxville's first coffee house, Java, opened and Church offered to make its muffins. "Then I started making lunch stuff... "

During a stint as a sous chef she hit it off with local raw and vegetarian food maven Yawah Awolowo and they went into vegetarian catering. "We ended up splitting the company when the backstage catering got going," says Church. "I really enjoyed that and Yawah was doing more weddings and parties. We're still great friends."

The LeConte experience held her in good stead, says Church. "When you know how to order groceries that are coming up on llamas, you're born for rock 'n' roll catering," she says with a big grin. "It's all by the seat of your pants."

For about seven years, much of Church's schedule was taken up touring with bands, including celebrities like Bob Dylan.

"Funny thing is, on the road, you get way closer with the crews than you do with the artists. Bob used to come in the kitchen in the real early days, but I don't ever really talk to Bob. I can't pretend I'm close to him."

Church still owns the company, Dega Catering, but others now go on tour, not her. Cutting back on travel six years ago let her begin her love affair with yoga. "That's when I started, but I'd known since my twenties that I was going to get into it," she says. "When I got into it, I got into it hard. Yoga centers me. It puts me at the fulcrum instead of on the pendulum end of things."

The raw foods offered at the Glowing Bowl cafe are also personally inspired. "I've long experienced stomach problems—this is the first experience I've really had, the first way of eating, that made me feel good."

Still, says Church, she's never been evangelical. "I can't preach because I'm not strict about anything," she says. "Yoga and raw foods people can get radical and real precious. But I want to make it something kind of normal--just a little something you can add into your life."

This morning, Church is sitting gracefully on a cafe stool, ready to dip into a bowl of the raw "easy fruit" mix that's her specialty ("We're thinking of converting the name to berry soup," she admits with a smile), surrounded by vases of sunflowers and lucky bamboos and natural wood. It could have been much different—originally Scott Carpenter and Peggy Hambright purchased the building and Church was slated for a full-scale vegetarian restaurant up front. "And then I had a major freakout over just doing food service for my whole next career. So I just changed plans. Luckily Peggy and Scott are so flexible."

And it seems right, says Church. "We're turning the neighborhood on to all sorts of weird stuff—the people here have been very open. It's pretty awesome with all the teachers and all the yoga energy going on. It's where I want to be."