When news circulates that Matt Gallaher is making a move, people pay attention. When Knox Mason opened on the 100 block of Gay Street a buzz started that never really subsided for people who care about fresh food made from scratch. Almost precisely three years after that successful launch, Matt has announced his next effort: an Italian restaurant at 16 Market Square, the former home of Lattitude 35 – or World Grotto if you are a little more old school. It’s been vacant for just over a year since Lattitude closed and it’s generated steady questions from my readers.
Matt’s journey to this moment has been interesting and extremely varied. Originally from Knoxville, he grew up near Kodak and attended Carter schools. Majoring in Chemical Engineering (because he was told it offered a good career) and minoring in business at UT, he never felt a passion for his studies like he did for food preparation.
His mother operated a catering business for fifteen years and he was nine-years-old when he started helping her. He says his mother was very resourceful and used organic and natural foods before they became a thing. She was part of the “back to the earth” movement of the early seventies, but most of what she did was also very traditional Appalachian food preparation. The family lived on 170 acres and kept a range of animals over the years.
By his junior year of college he knew engineering wasn’t for him, though he was so close to the end he finished the degree. By then he’d worked with Holly Hambright with Lord Lindsey Catering for two years. He wanted to attend culinary school, but didn’t feel he could afford it. Holly offered to teach him all she could and became one of the mentors he credits with his success. He worked with her for two years after graduation and gained skills which helped him move forward. He also pored over every cook book he could buy from McKays and that would later prove to be very helpful.
At this point he’d had only a little exposure to fine dining. He’d visited his father in Chicago for two weeks each year since age five and his father had taken him to fine steak houses as well as to Greek, Chinese and other restaurants. Wanting more exposure to fine dining, he applied to Blackberry Farm to do food prep. He got the job with plans to start at the bottom doing food prep at age 26 and with an Engineering diploma which he’d never used. John Fleer was the executive chef and the two hit it off, talking mostly about the books Matt had read from McKays.
He put Matt in as line cook rather than food prep as Matt had pursued. It pushed him to the point he wasn’t sure he could do the work. He learned fast and eventually enjoyed the position, though he confesses he may not have been quite ready. He credits John as being another mentor along his journey. In the first of several interesting parallels, John promoted both Matt and Joseph Lenn to Sous Chef on the same day. The two will soon have signature restaurants two blocks apart in downtown Knoxville.
After four years at Blackberry, Matt wanted to learn new skills in a completely different environment. He found that working for Dega Catering, touring with recording artists and preparing their food. He planned to do one tour (Martina McBride) and then join a friend who was opening a restaurant in Asheville. The restaurant fell through and he stayed took on a second tour (Sugarland). He enjoyed himself and went on to do tours with Neil Young and the Eagles as well as others. He was promoted to lead chef.
After a tour with the Kings of Leon in which he really hit it off with management, as well as the band, he accepted the position of personal chef for the band. From 2010 to 2011 he toured the world with the band and particularly enjoyed shopping in markets in different cultural locations.
Then he got a phone call that changed his trajectory once again. The call came from HR at Blackberry Farm suggesting he may want to apply to be the chef for the executive mansion for Bill and Crissy Haslam. He learned Mrs. Haslam wanted to plant a garden and have the cuisine at the mansion highlight what’s best about Tennessee. Longing to get back to that very kind of cooking, he applied for the job. Two interviews went well, but he insisted on cooking for them before agreeing to take the job, wanting to make sure they liked his style. They did.
During his first few months with them, he split his time between the executive mansion in Nashville and touring with the Kings of Leon until his contractual obligations with them ended. After a couple of years working for the Haslams, he began searching for a place in downtown Knoxville to launch a restaurant. Ironically, he looked at the space Joseph Lenn, his old colleague, will soon occupy in the Daylight Building on Union. It was committed, but David Dewhirst showed him a space owned by Tim Hill and he took a lease at 131 S. Gay to start Knox Mason.
The space came with constraints: It is small and the kitchen is commensurately undersized. Nonetheless, it has worked, and a large portion of its success Matt credits to the staff, most of which have been with him for a large part of the restaurant’s history. Sean Richards, trained at the very respected New England Culinary Institute, has been the sous chef from the beginning and will become chef de cuisine.
The restaurant has exceeded expectations from the beginning, but Matt felt it was time he allowed his excellent staff to operate that restaurant while he expanded to a new location and concept. He wants to continue working in the kitchen and he’ll do that in both restaurants, with a larger focus on the new location.
When the various businesses closed on Market Square last December into January, he saw an opportunity and first looked at the old Latitude space in February a year ago. A number of issues needed to be resolved: The stairwell into the basement needed to be closed and a grease interceptor had to be installed (a 1500 gallon beauty is now secured in place).
The concept will include a rustic Italian menu. Five fresh Pastas made daily will be the foundation to the fare which will include risottos, soups, salads and fresh-baked breads. Everything will be made with a nod toward traditional Italian preparation. The decor will be simple with exposed brick remaining and added natural light. He wants the space to reflect the energy found on Market Square. It will be casual and he wants families with children to feel welcome.
Accessible and affordable, they will be open for both lunch and dinner. While he loves what has been accomplished at Knox Mason and plans to continue that, he said the new restaurant will have its own identity, while maintaining the same quality and dedication to local, seasonal produce. Significant construction is yet to be completed, so no opening date has been set and, for now, he’s remaining quiet about the name. Stay tuned and congratulations to Matt on opening his second downtown restaurant.