The last few days have been a flurry for Chef Joesph Lenn and Kathryn Powell-Lenn. She is a medical professional from Maryville and Joseph, a Knoxville native, just happens to be the only James Beard Award winner in the state of Tennessee. Anyone with even a vague interest in the local culinary scene has been anticipating the announcement of details about his new restaurant since news broke last spring that he would be leaving Blackberry Farm to open his own place. This past weekend the place was announced and it is in downtown Knoxville.
I wrote at the beginning of July about the departure of John Black Photography from the Daylight Building, at 501 Union Avenue, for another location in the city. That left a large, very well-lighted space available in the Daylight Building just a block from Market Square. The space was just what Chef Lenn had been searching for. He said he’d had downtown Knoxville in mind from the beginning and that building actually caught his eye five years ago when he cooked on the sidewalk for the second annual Bacon Fest. He’d commented at the time to Kathryn that it would be a great place for a restaurant.
Leaving Knoxville in 1999, Joseph attended the culinary arts program at Johnson and Wales University at the time it had a campus in Charleston. He later worked as a chef at The Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, before returning to his home town in 2005. He accepted a job at Blackberry Farm, but began driving to downtown Knoxville weekly to eat at Nama with his friend, and now chef at Knox Mason, Matt Gallaher. The two worked together at Blackberry Farms.
Joeseph and Kathryn met at Blackberry Farms ten years ago and have been married since 2010. She confessed she’s been prodding him to take this leap and particularly felt this would be the year. She knew it was his dream and wanted to see him pursue it. Joseph interjected that she has been very supportive of his long hours and often unpredictable travel schedule. The two detailed the stress between the demands of being a high-level chef and maintaining family time.
They are grateful for the recent months they’ve been able to enjoy together at a slower pace before the coming onslaught of demands of a new business. She tries to be as involved in his ventures as possible so they can have more time together. He said that the restaurants he enjoys the most are the ones in which the chef’s family feels welcome to join the chef at his or her work.
Living in Maryville, he began to attend their Farmers’ Market, though working at Blackberry Farm, it was sometimes difficult to get away on Saturdays when it convened. He also discovered the Farmers’ Market in downtown Knoxville and cites it as one of the reasons he wanted his restaurant to be in the city. He’s already worked with many of the same farmers through his position at Blackberry. He’ll source as much food as possible for his new restaurant from there.
He wryly noted that his hoped-for opening date in January 2016 won’t provide him with access to the range of vegetables available later in the year. He reasons that if he can sell people on the new menu in the winter months, they will love it come spring when the vegetables appear and he has more choices for ingredients. It’s actually a challenge which he admits appeals to him. He says it’s a pleasure working with local farmers and spotlighting their food.
While noting the high costs of opening a restaurant with the permitting, build-out, equipment – and the ever-present grease interceptors – and the costs of operations in terms of personnel, utilities and fresh foods – he says he intends to keep the price-point as modest as possible. He does not want it to become a special occasion restaurant with families only frequenting it once or twice a year. He mentioned that he and his family did that with Regas when he was growing up.
Stating that, “I’m a very price conscious shopper and eater, myself,” he wants the restaurant to appeal to people such as himself. He noted that in New York City, for example, there are restaurants which offer high-quality foods without the high-end price tag. He thinks he can do that here. Part of the strategy for containing costs might be offering portion sizes that are filling, but not as large as some to which we’ve become accustomed.
When asked about the menu, he says it isn’t possible to be very specific, because it will depend on availability. While some products he’ll use, such as Cruze Farm Dairy and Benton’s Bacon are routinely available, the availability of others will vary with the season. He hopes people will find some new twists on familiar foods, as well as some pleasant surprises. He mentions a laundry list of various world foods which can be adapted to be made from east Tennessee or nearby products. It’s as if he’s been thinking about this for a while.
Family and children are also topics that both Kathryn and Joseph mentioned. They want families to feel comfortable coming to the restaurant and bringing the children. They’ll have food for them and want them to have a good experience, as well. Joseph pointed out that it will not be a chef-driven restaurant – as in “Like my food or go away,” but rather a customer-driven enterprise.
The capacity should be about 80-85. While architects told him he could seat as many as 100, he felt that the lower number would make for a better customer experience and a better kitchen experience for the staff. He wants both groups to enjoy being there. Anticipating between twenty and thirty employees, he wants them to work hard, but have a life outside work – which is one reason he’ll likely only open five days a week to begin. For customers, he doesn’t want waits to be long and he doesn’t want them to feel rushed to leave. These issues are important, he said, “in order to provide the experience I want to deliver.”
While much has to be determined in the next months – like a name for the restaurant – he’s fairly certain he’ll accept reservations, but have some seating for walk-in customers. The hours will be late afternoon – around 5:00 PM to probably 9:30 PM on weeknights and 10:30 PM on weekends, though he says demand will dictate that going forward. Welcome them to downtown when you see them on the block. They want to be a part of the neighborhood.
Other Business: I have a giveaway. This Saturday will find, among the numerous other events, a rappelling adventure down the Langley Building. Over the Edge Knoxville offers participants the chance to rappel the down the twelve story building and Restoration House and Attack Monkey Productions along with Inside of Knoxville are offering you a free slot. Want a crazy weekend adventure you can tell your grandchildren about? Send me an email at Knoxvilleurbanguy@gmail.com with subject line “I Want to Rappel!” The absolute deadline is midnight tonight and the winner will be notified Friday and given an approximate time-slot. So who’s crazy enough to take up the offer?