Transplant and Root Hospitality: Adding Their Own Spin to the Knoxville Culinary and Hospitality Scene

Photo Courtesy of Transplant and Root
Photo Courtesy of Transplant and Root

Transplant and Root is a new business offering unique private dining experiences in the Knoxville area. Esperanza Castillo, co-creator, co-owner and concierge and her husband, Michelin starred chef Brian Runge, have joined together to bring what they feel is a fresh offering to the Knoxville culinary and hospitality world. I sat down with the couple to learn more about them and what they are doing. It has been quite a journey.

Brian was born in Connecticut, but grew up in the Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Interested in art, Brian could have gone to college and studied art, but computers were taking over and he wanted to draw. He decided to hitchhike across the country and see what he might find. He did so for years, that’s what he did. He took jobs in restaurants because that was what was available. He learned the different kinds of foods and cultures across the continent.

He ended his travels in Athens, Georgia in the early 2000s, where he planned to attend college. He met Hugh Acheson, owner of the 5&10 restaurant and other restaurants there. He later became a celebrity chef, appearing on Top Chef and opening restaurants in Atlanta. He was excited to work for Hugh, knowing he had recently come from San Francisco where he worked as Chef de Cuisine for two Michelin star chef Gary Danko. Brian worked as a line cook and as his skills and interest grew, he moved to sous chef, and then Chef de Cuisine. They got four starts from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and “blew up.” He fell in love with the creativity that he found in the kitchen as a result.

His mother died and he took time off to be near his father. He returned to Tampa and went to work for the people who owned Burns’ Steakhouse and worked at their smaller project, Side Burns. He made a friend who had worked with the mix of the new Avant Garde food movement in New York and learned everything from him that he could.

Photo Courtesy of Transplant and Root
Photo Courtesy of Transplant and Root

After his father died, he knew he wanted to leave Tampa, but couldn’t decide where he wanted to go. During this time, he opened a Food & Wine magazine and the main article said Chicago was the best food city in America. He moved in 2006 and soon learned that Chef Christian Delouvrier was opening Brasserie Ruhlman. He was hired immediately and began managing a 500 seat restaurant as “head of the sous chefs.” He loved it and sees him as a mentor, even though it was very old world style.

In 2007, Graham Elliot had just left The Peninsula Hotel and called to see if Brian would join him for a new concept of elevated food without the pretentiousness of white linen service. Brian joined the team of his self-named restaurant, which was the first In May 2008, he opened his eponymous restaurant, which was the “first French casual fine dining restaurant in Chicago.” There were no titles, and the food was elevated but accessible.

Brian was surprised that what Graham was known for, modern molecular gastronomy, which Brian had absorbed in Tampa, wasn’t present in the new concept. Brian said the process was very creative and great food was generated and, while there was some confusion at first, people began to understand what they were doing, and the restaurant became very popular.

“We had one of the best crews I have ever worked for in my life.” Inevitably some hierarchy was needed, and Brian became Sous Chef and then Chef de Cuisine. “Graham gave me the opportunity to bring back what he was famous for, which was the modern style of creating plates and I went wild with it. I had the most fun I could ever have. People were saying that they were having the best meal of their life.”

Michelin came to town and the scene changed as restaurants began to pursue stars. As Graham’s fame grew, he was often gone, and Brian ran the restaurant. He hired, fired, designed the menus and operationally ran the restaurant for several years. It was during this time that Esperanza joined the staff at Assistant Manager.

Photo Courtesy of Transplant and Root
Photo Courtesy of Transplant and Root

Esperanza was born in Japan where her father was stationed in the Air Force. They moved to Maryville in 1985, when she was three and her father was transferred to McGhee Tyson Airport. Her mother fell in love with East Tennessee and has had a home here since. Esperanza’s mother raised her after her parents divorced. When she graduated from high school, Esperanza attended community college and couldn’t afford the colleges she wanted to attend.

She worked with a Southern Baptist organization, living in a subsidized housing project in Raleigh, North Carolina, setting up community centers and a food pantry. Not being paid, she sought out a job at a casual fine dining restaurant she could walk to. Having been born legally blind, she can’t drive, so accessibility was essential. She was hired as a hostess and began work immediately even though she had never worked in a restaurant. She noted that both her parents and his taught them they could do anything, despite her blindness and his cerebral palsy.

Thinking she wanted to be a missionary, she struggled seeing the large patriarchal, affluent church she attended, the restaurant where the wealthy dined, and living with the poor in a roach-infested apartment. She learned the business from the owners of the restaurant, but decided to attend a bilingual and theology program in Argentina. She began to lose her faith and didn’t know what to do next.

In 2004 she returned to the states without a plan. Her brother invited her to live with him and his wife in Denver and take care of their baby. She worked at Cheesecake Factory as a hostess, but after four months decided to move to Chicago, feeling there were school options for her there and it was pedestrian-friendly. Her manager, Rusty Hogan, gave her his card and suggested she use it to get a job at the Cheesecake Factory there.

She moved to Chicago, applied to a community college and, after giving them the card, got plucked out of a large group, and hired as a hostess and she started the next week. It was a large operation, grossing $14 million annually at that single location. She eventually declined the offer to become a manager and she declined because of her vision, but was trained in everything, anyway, and she became a trainer.

After two years she felt she need a change and went to work for Grand Lux Cafe, their sister restaurant, but really wanted to move into hotel Concierge service. A friend from Cheesecake factory helped her move into the concierge service at Hyatt and she loved it. The hotel had two huge towers and could host 2,000 guests at once.

Photo Courtesy of Transplant and Root
Photo Courtesy of Transplant and Root
Photo Courtesy of Transplant and Root

After six months she wanted a better position, and moved to the James Hotel, which was new and was catering to a similar crowd as GE where Brian was working. The GM told her he wanted the best team in the city. She loved it and worked with him for 3 1/2 years, but when the recession began to take effect, she felt she should make a move. She had made numerous connections with restaurants in the city, including GE, through tourists coming in from the coasts to do food tours.

She was invited to the first anniversary of Graham Eliot because of her referrals. She approached Graham about the possibility of joining his team and she was hired as an Assistant Manager. She helped reshape the staff and form the team. “We all learned a lot and it changed the trajectory of our lives. It opened up the possibility for people without jackets, without black AMEX card, to enjoy a fine meal.”

The pressure was on to constantly maintain and expand the Michelin, Forbes and other stars. The restaurant began catering Lollapalooza. Celebrities like Jay-Z would drop in. Barack Obama enjoyed his 49th birthday there in the company of Oprah and others. He was there through the first Michelin star and into the second before he decided to open his own restaurant.

Esperanza, feeling she needed a change, had left the restaurant. Brian realized he was abusing himself, working 80-hour weeks, drinking too much, and not spending enough time at home. He and Esperanza were a couple by then and had their first child on the way. By the time their first child, Oliver, was born, he opened Premise as chef with a group of investors. It did well, but the investors had lied about their financial situation and after about a year, they locked the doors the doors suddenly after about a year.

“I was broken. I felt robbed. I left at a peak of possibilities. When it closed I was bitter and jaded.” His peers began getting their own restaurants. Devastated, Brian began consulting with a range of restaurants for the next several years, developing menus, helping them open, stepping in temporarily for Michelin starred restaurants. The Art Institute of Chicago asked him to “revamp the entire modern wing’s functioning catering system for galas and other events.” He enjoyed that but saw the seedier side of the corporate structure and after a year, he walked away.

Still, things were not well. “I was drinking too much. I was going out. I was deeply disturbed that I was at this point after twenty years of work and gave it away.” He worked with The Wit, but from his position, he supervised chefs, but didn’t get into the kitchen. Brian’s physical health deteriorated, which they initially attributed solely to overworking and alcohol, but eventually learned he had Myasthenia Gravis. With steroids, he was able to recover some of his stamina. He had to leave his job and his drinking took over as their second child was on the way.

In 2017, her mother visited, and he told her they were considering moving to Tennessee. He had not discussed it with Esperanza, who never intended to return, but he knew a crash was coming and she would need family. Esperanza said, “Throughout our whole careers, we never rooted.” She said they loved that about the hospitality scene because you could learn and then move to the next thing. It was time to find roots.

They moved six months later. Lived briefly in Townsend, then moved to south Knoxville. When their second child, Edwin, was eight months old, Brian entered an alcohol treatment facility. Brian said, “I had made an emotional, personal, and relationship decision for all of us.” Esperanza wanted a divorce and she assumed this would be then end. “How many chefs do we know who give up alcohol for their families?”

Photo Courtesy of Transplant and Root
Photo Courtesy of Transplant and Root

Esperanza says they were both in an unhealthy place, struggling financially, and had limited employment options because of their disabilities. He began working in his inpatient program at the state-funded rehab and held out hope they could recover as a family. He returned home after sixty days but signed up for another ninety days in an out-patient treatment. “I wasn’t scared for a minute to stick my thumb out and hitchhike the country, but to live without alcohol was the scariest thing I’d ever thought of.”

He moved back home and began work at Maryville College toward a degree in psychology. She was still bitter. She had panic attacks and entered a a voluntary 15-day outpatient program in January 2019. In the summer of 2019, she began to miss the kind of service niche she had filled. They felt there were foods and styles of cooking that were missing. In the summer of 2019, she saw a call for chefs for a charity dinner and suggested he apply. She wanted him to have a creative outlet.

The dinner was a “trust fall” dinner for Knox Heritage at the Eugenia Williams House. He was excited to “sharpen my knives,” and do something creative. People applauded the dishes. Guests were asking what it would take to have him open a brick-and-mortar restaurant. She was invited as a guest and was nervous about how he would handle this event with alcohol present.

Brian said it was an informal setting and others were already drinking when he got there. He said he grabbed a water and said, “Let’s do this!” He had developed a menu that he felt was ordinary for his background. “All the sudden service began, and it was real for me, again.” He began working with the crew and he was overwhelmed with the response.

Esperanza said Polly Tullock talked to her through the meal about the possibilities for the couple. “It was a summer night at this big mansion in west Knoxville. He’s sober and I’m elated from his food, because that what happens — it’s very seductive, his food.” Later she told him that Polly was right, that he is sober, and they could do this.

The marriage had recovered, and they were both healthy for the first time in a long time. By October she had arranged for them to do a series of dinners at Central Collective. She said it was a matter of taking everything she had learned inside the walls of the restaurant and setting it up outside the restaurant. “It wasn’t intended to be a business. It wasn’t intended to change our lives . . . it was a creative outlet.” The dinners went very well, and she began working on a business plan.

Photo Courtesy of Transplant and Root

Just as the two were getting close to a launch, the pandemic hit, and they put it on pause for the rest of the year. After the spring semester ended this spring for Brian (he will finish his undergraduate degree in psychology next year), Esperanza sharpened the business plan and the two are offering dinners starting next week, with an eye toward making 2022 their break-out year. “It has become part of our rooting system.”

She said they also have a long-term plan. They will begin with the table service. He will graduate and she plans to immerse in a yoga program, hopefully in India or South America for six weeks. He will apply to graduate schools in counseling. They hope to eventually open a modern wellness bed and breakfast offering a retreat space with therapy and yoga, with an eye toward targeting members of the service industry. They envision it including a restaurant at night.

They feel they have found their best working relationship and they are excited about getting started with the dinners. They want to demonstrate that the work can be done without consuming those who do it. “People are loving the food and loving the hospitality. It’s exciting,” Brian said.

There are three private ticketed events next week on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night, October 21-23. Tickets remain available for each night. Once those tickets sell, they will open up tickets for the November dinners. They have a requested COVID-19 policy for now, asking for proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test. With the beginning of the year, this will become a hard and fast requirement. They mask during service.

Tickets for the current event are $80 and guests are allowed to bring their own alcohol. For an additional $30 to $45 per guest DL at Downtown Wine and Spirits will provide wines specially paired for the dishes. Every month features a different menu and special needs, such as allergies can be adapted for given 48 hours’ notice. October and November’s dinners will be served in 221, the bottom floor of Cook Loft, just off the 700 block of Gay Street. Future dinners may be there or elsewhere. All food is prepared in a commercial kitchen at Real Good Kitchen. The business is also offering in-home dinners.

The couple stresses that they use only the best foods. “When we order ingredients, we order them through the same private vendors that Michelin chefs have access to because of established relationships. If we have fish on the menu, it has come in whole, and he has butchered it and portioned it properly.” Brian adds, “I’m very integrity driven.” The meals are organic, and they source locally if possible.

Brian Runge and Esperanza Castillo of Transplant and Root Hospitality, Knoxville, October 2021

They have been visiting local farms and are planning to purchase directly. She gave an example of a recent trip to Turner Farms where they learned about the farm and operations. She knows what the chickens eat. “That’s what we represent on a plate. We believe that we take something from the earth, make it into an art form that you take into your body, which returns to the earth.”

“Our desire is to bring an approachable experience. You are coming for three hours . . . You are going to experience art on a plate. I will give you service without pretention. This has become our expression here, and a way for us to root here.” They said this feels like the right place and time for them.

Follow them on Instagram and pick up your tickets here to a great culinary adventure.