Is Knoxville Forming A Culinary Ecosystem?

Market Square Farmers' Market, Knoxville, July 2017
A & B Distributers Food Mural, McCalla, Knoxville, October 2017

I think a lot about food. I suspect I’m not alone. I think about food issues; nutrition, malnutrition, food deserts, my own poor food choices and how to make them better. Of course, I also think a great deal about food in and around downtown.

Several years ago I scratched my head a bit when people who had traveled and eaten around the world implied that Knoxville’s cuisine wasn’t up to par. I felt like we had good restaurants. They certainly got a big chunk of my money on a regular basis. I couldn’t figure it out.

Fast forward to a couple of recent trips to the gulf coast where we ate at some of our traditionally favorite restaurants. We confessed later that they just didn’t seem as good and wondered whether it was them or us: Had they changed or had we? We didn’t have to wait long for an answer. Arriving home into the evening after the 500 mile trip, we had a great meal at Kaizen, one of our favorite restaurants, and realized that it was us: We have been taught how to recognize better food when we taste it.

International Food Festival, World’s Fair Park, Knoxville, October 2016

In the wake of that recent epiphany, comes an article from the Tasting Table declaring Knoxville to have world-class cuisine. They extol the virtues of some of our well known restaurants and chefs, including Matt Gallaher’s Knox Mason and Emilia’s, Joseph Lenn’s JC Holdway, Brian Strutz’ A Dopo Pizza and Jeffrey Dealejandro at Oli Bea. Add to that a conversation I had with a friend this weekend who told me to track down a video (below) that showed the relationship between Matt Gallaher and Springer Mountain Farms and I started thinking about the big picture.

Our culinary scene isn’t just about well-known and accomplished chefs, however. It starts, of course, with the people who grow the food and we’re very fortunate to live in a temperate climate that accommodates many excellent farmers who do good work. Some are well known for what they do: Cruze Farm for their milk, Sweetwater Valley Farms for their cheese and can anyone say Benton’s without saying “bacon?” Others aren’t as well known to most people, but they are great, nonetheless. Springer Mountain Farm is known for their chicken. Scientific studies have shown that half the okra grown by John Ledbetter at Hines Valley Farm is consumed by a certain Urban Guy. And there are many others.

Beardsley Farm Long Table Dinner, Central Street in the Old City, Knoxville, September 2017

Even within our city limits we have a growing (take the pun or leave it) number of urban farms. The good work done at Beardsley Farm to get fresh food onto the tables of those who might not otherwise have ready access to quality food is well known. Do you know that they have small gardens all over Knoxville? The Botanical gardens has become a source of food for a number of people and it’s hard to overstate the contribution to local restaurants and tables made by Brenna Wright and both Abbey Fields and Old City Gardens.

Market Square Farmers’ Market
Market Square Farmers’ Market, Knoxville, July 2017

Large amounts of the food grown on these farms and many others, finds its way to the Market Square Farmers’ Market. Not enough can be said for the impact that market has on the food many of us consume. Thousands come to the market and leave with locally grown, often organic, lovingly grown produce. Charlotte Tolley and Nourish Knoxville work hard to make sure that farmers and people who love their food can connect. Through their Local Food Guide, they provide information to help consumers know what products they are consuming in restaurants.

And food isn’t just about the edibles, it’s about the beverages. The Knoxville Area Brewer’s Association counts fourteen craft breweries among its members. More are on the way and Knoxville is becoming a destination for beer lovers. Then, there are the distilleries – Post Modern Spirits and Knox Whiskey Works, both located on Jackson Avenue. Local coffee roasters are also increasingly becoming a necessary part of any local restaurant’s menu. Add to that the increased interest in craft cocktails as exemplified by the Peter Kern Library and pioneered locally by Sapphire and you have a mass of local beverage makers focused on producing serious products.

Savory and Sweet Food Truck, Gay Street, Knoxville, May 2012

Food trucks are another example of how the local culinary scene has changed dramatically. It was just a few years ago that food trucks were something that other cities had. Personally, I had little concept of the work that can be done in a truck. In about six years we’ve gone from having no food trucks to having at least dozens. Knoxville Weekend lists forty-nine and that is probably not a complete list. We now have a full-time food truck park in Central Filling Station.

Then there are the festivals. The International Biscuit Festival is centered around food, as is the growing International Food Festival. Then there’s the annual Chili Cookoff, the Big Kahuna Wing Festival and the Beer, Bourbon and BBQ Festival. Most of the ethnic festivals, such as the Asian Festival and the Hola Festival also focus in a major way on serving up food indigenous to their specific area.

Pop up dinners have also become a routine event in the city. Ranging from fancy to funky, they offer emerging chefs a chance to highlight their skills and perhaps us the dinners as a spring-board for a brick and mortar project. Others offer a chance to raise money for a good cause – often food issues – and still others offer local chefs a chance to collaborate in a way they might not ordinarily.

Hola Festival, Knoxville, October 2016
International Biscuit Festival, Knoxville, May 2017

Brunch is also a measure of how things have changed. When we moved downtown in 2009 I couldn’t find a brunch. Maybe Tomato Head or Bistro at the Bijou had one, but it evaded me. Now there are four different jazz brunches downtown and a host of others. We struggle to choose between the options and now they’ve spread to Saturday and Sunday and they are packed.

And there are other connecting points that expose the ecosystem to a wider audience: Knoxville Food Tours has been operated since 2010 by Paula Johnson who has also recently published Lost Restaurants of KnoxvilleKnox Brew Tours, a look at our culinary past. Zack Roskop started his in 2014 and it’s booming as he introduces customers to our craft breweries.

The Brew Bus, Knox Brew Tours, Knoxville, December 2014

So, it’s on top of all that base that we have excellent chefs and restaurants doing their magic. Whether making chocolate, gelato, crepes, tacos, tamales, burgers, doughnuts, baked goods, falafels, deli foods or offering a larger menu, there are numerous, serious restaurants sprinkled all around the downtown area. Ever larger numbers of people understand what it means to have an excellent culinary experience, whether formal or informal, and they’re looking for just that.

Does all this mean we have it all? No. There is definitely room downtown for more ethnic food – great versions of which are scattered around in the extended city – as well as a vegan or vegetarian restaurant and other possibilities. I’m not saying we’re perfect or we’ve arrived, but rather that we’ve formed an ecosystem that is producing a culture that values good food and drink. We’ve changed.

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