Chef Terri Roberts has made quite an impact in her short time back in Knoxville. Knoxville Uncorked has been re-branded and a new lunch and dinner menu was introduced last week. From the previous vaguely Italian menu, she characterizes the new menu as “Rustic Italian.” Uncorked will now cater parties in Scruffy City Hall (where a larger kitchen will be constructed).
She has her eye on the pub food offered by Preservation Pub and Scruffy City Hall and – on the side – is developing the menu for the new Market House Cafe. That menu is currently in flux, though the original idea is to offer a European-style deli. She’s developing two menus just in case.
She actually likes the fact that four potential dinning spots are connected, saying it gives her a chance to try dishes in one that she may ultimately decide belongs in the other. She mentioned the crawfish dip which, while previously popular at Uncorked, she removed from the menu feeling it wasn’t consistent with the other food. She indicated it may make an appearance at the Market House Cafe. She said the arrangement “allows fluidity and creativity I would not otherwise have.” A new dessert menu is coming in a couple of weeks, with Jeremy Henderson training as a pastry chef set to take over those duties.
The city is reaping the benefit from the long, circuitous journey that brought her back home. I sat down with her to learn where she’s been, what she’s done since she’s come home and what we might expect next. It’s a complicated story that has her working with top chefs at high-end restaurants in tough, big-city markets.
Never working anywhere but restaurants, Terri got her start at Tomato Head, but left Knoxville to study English literature and French at Middle Tennessee State. She left the south to attend the culinary school at Kendall College in Chicago. She attained her degree there and began work in Chicago.
Our conversation was placed on pause for sous chef Earl Whitney who asked a question about the sauce he was prepping. Earl’s father was a chef for Copper Cellar and other restaurants and he’s grown into the business. The conversation quickly moved past my understanding with discussions of taste nuances, lactic acid, thin basil and heirloom tomato gazpacho.
Terri quickly rattles off the names of the restaurants and award winning chefs with whom she collaborated after college: North Pond in Chicago with chef Bruce Sherman, a six-time Beard Award nominee; Avec in Chicago with chef Paul Kahan, Beard Award Winner; Table in Ashville where she was sous chef for chef Jacob Sessoms when he received the first Beard nomination for an Asheville chef in 2009; Excutive chef at The Southern in Asheville for three years; Fish in Charleston sous chef with chef Nico Romo (the youngest chef ever recognized as a Master Chef of France). It’s as dizzying as it is impressive.
So, how did she come to run the various West family kitchens? She moved back to Knoxville, where her family is located. On her Facebook feed she saw a mention of the Market House Cafe and she messaged Scott to tell him she was his chef. She invited Scott and Bernadette to a private dinner at her parent’s home and served them a five-course dinner. The invitation, which she sent on her parent’s computer was accidentally sent as a tow ticket bill (her parents own Cedar Bluff Towing). Fortunately, he thought that was funny.
Two days after the meal they met and talked about their vision of the new restaurant and introduced the possibility that she take over the kitchens at all four establishments. She proposed the European Deli style for the Market House Cafe and mentioned the Publican in Chicago as another reference point. She started with Uncorked where she has revamped the kitchen and improved the quality of the foods they purchase. In her words, “You won’t see a Sysco truck. I’ve worked hard to improve what comes through the door.”
I shared with her my observation about the staff: they seem happy to be there and they give the impression of really liking each other and what they do. It starts with the hosts/hostesses who are always very friendly. Cameron, who is often the host, will be the barista at the new restaurant. Darby made the fine negroni you see pictured during Negroni Week and is always ready with a smile. Erica Casey is an acting manager and chief mixologist (or “spirits specialist” as Terri dubbed her) and has enough personality to supply several people. Sous chefs Sean Demarist and Earl Whitney round out the kitchen staff. Terri said, “Everyone is really getting excited and buying into the concept.
I haven’t had a chance to eat dinner from the new menu, but the berry salad with grilled chicken you see pictured here was at least as good as it looked, and I thought it was beautiful. New wines are being added, the decor – which has been upgraded greatly, thanks to Bernadette – may evolve even more. It’s definitely one of downtown’s most improved restaurants – and I really liked it before.
As for what to expect at the Market House, you will find a combination of very cool parts. The decision was made to install a heavy duty oven, so the menu may evolve and any type of cuisine will be possible. A juice bar and barista bar along with taps of local and craft beers will be offered, and the initial emphasis will be on food to grab and go. Terri pointed out that after all the great experiences she has had, “this is my first opportunity to bring my own vision and it means a lot to me.”
I spoke with Scott West to get more detail about the overall concept of the Market House and he supplied me with the design for the sign that will hang out front and with the new logo, both of which are designed by Mark Cort. Scott promises Knoxville’s best gourmet sandwiches and Scruffy Dogs – which come with a cart you’ll see in all sorts of places, but weekends you’ll find it offering late night food and coffee on the square.
The Market House Cafe will have sections, with a market in the front half featuring a new line of “See Scruffy City” merchandise. The middle will be the cafe with the foods, juices, coffee and beer and the back hallway will feature “Visit Scruffy City” brochures. Bernadette is developinng the ambiance in her inimitable style. The walls will be distressed wood with the “See Scruffy City” logo prominently displayed. Steampunk taps will also add to the look. The Sunsphere bar is pictured above. Beer will be available from the tap or for takeaway in growlers and cans. They plan to use as many local vendors as possible, including local roasters for the coffee.
You can expect a mid-August opening, according to Scott, though that may be pushing it, given his description of what has to be accomplished in that time frame. The initial hours are likely to be 7AM to 11PM, though the hours may be stretched a bit on Friday and Saturday.