One of my favorite downtown spots, 416 Clinch Avenue, will soon be the site of a new restaurant “drawing inspiration” from Japanese, Thai and Szechuan cuisines. Kaizen takes the spot formerly occupied by a series of restaurants, Le Parigo, iCafe, Coffee and Chocolate II and, most recently, Cafe du Soleil. Interestingly, while each of those restaurants worked some French angle or another, chef Jesse Newmister is leaving French restaurant, Northshore Brasserie, which he helped start and at which he has been a chef for ten years.
Jesse, originally from Terre Haute, Indiana, says he knew he wanted to be a chef from the time he was in his early teens. He attended the Culinary Arts School at Sullivan University in Louisville, Kentucky, but says he was cooking from a very early age. His family was very large and always had a garden, so he was around fresh foods from the beginning. He also grew up with a wide range of local cuisines because of the large international population drawn to Indiana State University. His mother was a Spanish teacher who welcomed exchange students into the home and that also precipitated trips to Spain, exposing him, again, to different foods.
In addition to learning the basics about food, he credits culinary school with helping him network. A professor there connected him with chef Shane Robertson and he moved to Charleston where he worked at the four diamond Grill 225. He stayed in Charleston for about a year-and-a-half and described it as “competitive, but close-knit, saying the chefs congregated in bars after hours to talk about food and culinary developments which excited them.
He returned to Louisville for a time and worked at the four diamond rated Park Place on Main, where he was Garde Manger for chef Anoosh Shariot before re-joining Shane Robertson at the opening of the Brasserie, first as Sous Chef, and then as Executive Chef from the beginning of 2013. He told me it was a “perfect environment to grow up and thrive in.”
He’s chosen the Japanese word “kaizen,” which means “improvement” for a couple of reasons. He plans to continuously improve the cuisine he offers, but there is an aspect to Asian cuisine to which he is very attuned: While French and Italian foods have had hundreds of years of improvement and refinement, Asian cuisine has thousands of years of history and, he feels, that makes it potentially much broader and more complex for a chef to explore.
You’ll find noodle and rice dishes, as well as dumplings, but not all dishes will include those and he hopes to introduce vegetables most of us do not regularly eat. You’ll also find yakitori and gluten-free dishes. Jesse grew up with some of these foods as he had a number of Asian friends into whose homes he would be invited. He remembers helping one friend’s father cook Asian dishes and it left an impression. Later at Pok Pok in Portland he had great Thai food and recognized the possibilities. Jesse feels Knoxville “diners are waking up to the fact that there is a whole culinary universe.”
For dessert, Jesse promises they will be more authentic Asian desserts that you might expect locally. Halo-halo, which is a Filipino mixed-fruit dessert will be available. You’ll also find candied fruits cooked in sugar-water with condensed cream and he’s working on other concepts.
The style of restaurant is known as Izakaya. Typically informal, but serving excellent food, they are known for red lanterns in the front and you’ll see those soon at this location. The evolution of the modern version started with stand-up sake bars to which seating was added (originally on sake barrels) and that gave way to chairs and tatamis. Food was added and the modern version was born. The connection to this restaurant and this style is that the food is often served as small plates, like the Spanish tapas and is intended to be shared at the table. He’ll also offer larger dishes for those with that preference.
At Kaizen you’ll find flexible seating – no tatamis, but a bench along one wall and tables that may be pulled together for larger parties, if you like. You’ll find beer at the beginning, though you’ll encounter Japanese beers not currently served locally. Wine (including sake) will be added later and other alcohol will be added after that.
Also on the beverage list will include teas, sparkling water and something Jessie is excited about: Vietnamese style coffee. My regular readers know how interesting that is to me. Finally, on the beverage front, he told me he wants to build a solid, rotating wine list, but he wants to have an extensive sake list and to stretch Knoxville’s tastes to include some excellent chilled sake. He’s keen to open eyes to possibilities in every culinary experience.
The timeline isn’t set, but a couple of “friends and family” styled events should happen later this month with a full opening in early June. Initially the restaurant will only open for lunch, but within a couple of weeks dinner hours will be offered. Plans are already underway for brunch and, eventually, breakfast.
The plan is to attack the holy grail of food: quick, healthy and inexpensive. He knows he has a small kitchen and restaurant and he has to build a menu that maximizes the use of space, service and kitchen. He’s hoping to have lunch around $10 and to emphasize take-away foods and may add downtown delivery.
A side note: I have detected a culinary-matrimonial trend in Knoxville. Young restaurateurs are opening businesses and getting married in conjunction. Nico Schulz was scheduled to marry Brittany Maynard this past Saturday and to open his Schulz Brau Brewing next week. Thomas Boyd opened Old City Wine Bar in February and married Lindsey Stamey in April. And now Jesse will marry Margaret Stolfi just a few months after opening Kaizen. Gotta love the guts at taking it all on at once!
Watch for a Facebook page and website coming soon. And I’ll see you on the porch – just don’t get my table.