“Oui Chef” is going to be a regularly occuring installment from our project Sleeping With The Chef. We will be featuring chefs, restaurateurs, those in the beverage industry, farmers and more… you know, all the amazing people that create the backbone of the hospitably industry. We are fortunate to have met so many interesting people over the years that have become close friends. We won’t be telling the typical food related stories instead we hope to focus more on the human side of the industry and do so as genuinely as possible. Not that we don’t want to talk strictly about food, but we know there is a side of the industry that isn’t always shared as often as it should be. We don’t want to expose the dark underbelly but instead choose to share the positive stories of the men and women who work hard, play hard and give back to their communities. Both Bryan and myself are very excited about this segment of SWTC.
Chef Kelly English
Bryan met Kelly, restaurateur and chef, when they were both part of Food and Wine Magazine’s Best New Chef class of 2009. Kelly was awarded for his work with Restaurant Iris, since then he has gone on to develop several other concepts like The Second Line and Magnolia House. I wasn’t around then but when I finally met Kelly in 2013 at the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival, I thought he was genuine, down to earth and everything Bryan had described.
Along with garnering many career accolades (there’s a ton, y’all), Kelly is also an avid supporter of his community and believes in fighting for those without voices strong enough to be heard. We were recently in Memphis Tennessee to participate in Le Bon Appetit along with several other chefs both local and from across the country. This charity dinner helps to support Memphis’ children’s hospital, Le Bonheur. The event is very near and dear to Kelly’s heart, being the founding chef as well as having had spent a portion of his own childhood recovering from an injury in a hospital himself.
We are beyond thrilled that Kelly was brave enough to be our first “Oui, Chef” participant! It’s a hard thing to sign on for something when you don’t have a solid understanding of what we’re creating. He took the time last weekend, even though he was incredibly busy hosting Le Bon Appetit, to sit and chat about his career, life and of course the industry….
Jennifer: If you were speaking to a large audience and you had one piece of advice that you could share with them, either personal or professional, what would it be? I know that you have a huge audience of people here in Memphis that love you and listen to what you have to say, so what you tell a mixed audience like that?
Kelly: When I first opened the restaurant, I tried so hard to be what I thought everyone wanted the restaurant to be or for me to be. I’ve found that it’s so much easier to be successful or just exist if you are… just you. If something pisses me off, I chirp about it. I’ve found in the last few years I’ve gotten myself into trouble with taking a stand on things that I believe are not fair. We’ve gone through this genesis as chefs of being people that no one cares about their opinions to, for some reason, people now care about what we think. I don’t know why, but it gives us a voice and I think that it’s our responsibility to use it when it’s necessary. People talk about the blow back to business… I remember even 10 years ago, when it was believed that chefs just should not get involved in that stuff. I’ve seen no difference in business, no matter what I talk about or what I believe in.
Jennifer: I completely understand, we are friends on facebook and you are constantly posting about helping out the minority or the “little guy”. You very much seem to have a passion for that. To fight for them.
Kelly: You know, I came up in this business and our business is filled with the “little guy”. As we gain success or whatever you want to call it, notoriety, I think it is our responsibility to stick up for the people who helped to put you in the position you are in.
Jennifer: You are a great humanitarian, especially with this event that you work so hard at, you are raising money for these kids and their families need it desperately. How did you become such a philanthropist?
Kelly: As far as the children’s hospital is concerned, I needed a place like Le Bonheur when I was a kid. I screwed up half my body after falling out of a window at my grandmother’s house and ended up in a hospital that was meant for adults. If you checked off all the boxes that are what a hospital should be, it had those and it wasn’t a bad place. Kids see things differently and they don’t understand that these scary machines are there for them to feel better. La Bonheur (and all children hospitals) go through a lot of steps to soothe that. I don’t know that I ever made the decision that I was going to do this now… things pop up that you want to support or you do it to make sure that the people you love are not taken advantage or discriminated against.
Jennifer: Were your parents like that when you were growing up? They are so very sweet.
Kelly: They are very sweet. They were extremely giving, but I don’t know that I would say they were politically active. But they are great people.
Jennifer: They are great people, last night your dad was so proud of you, and both of your parents were crying as you were given an Iris garden in front of the hospial in your name.
Kelly: Yeah, dad is such a softie!
Jennifer: Are you a big softie like your dad?
Kelly: Well… I cried last night. I didn’t expect that… I guess I am a softie, but don’t tell anyone in my kitchen. (side note, Kelly was presented a gift the night before the charity dinner from La Bonheur for his dedication and hard work. A garden in front of the children’s hospital will be planted with Iris’ and named after him. There was not a dry eye in the room, including the other chefs.)
Jennifer: Oh, I won’t. It’s so funny because as I get to know some of you at all the events we attend where we all spend a good deal of time together – I’ve noticed that most of the chefs are actually softies. Bryan totally is. But it’s such a switch when you are in the kitchen. I’ve heard him on the phone or talking to someone when they were in trouble and I’m usually a little taken aback, it’s not that he’s mean, but there’s a sternness that I don’t usually see from him. So I’m usually like, who are you? Where did you come from? Speaking of… do you ever find it hard to transition from daily life into kitchen culture? For example, the chaos that is always associated with the restaurant business.
Kelly: Cooking was always the one thing I could focus on. I am a poster child for ADD so I like shiny objects
Jennifer: Yes, I can totally relate…
Kelly: I would get in the kitchen when I was coming up in the world of food and cooking was the one thing where nothing would bother me. Nothing broke my attention to it, so it’s easy for me to make the switch into the kitchen. Having that concentration when I’m in there is part of what originally attracted me to it.
Jennifer: Do you ever cook at home?
Kelly: It’s rare. You know, I really like cooking for other people and I really like other people cooking for me. If I’m cooking for two or more, sure… but I will never cook for myself.
Jennifer: Sure, I know Bryan was the same way. I would go to his house and there would be zero food in the fridge.
Kelly: If you go in a cooks fridge, there are all these cool condiments and pickled things… but, like, nothing to eat.
Jennifer: Exactly, weird things. I’d walk in to the house back when we were just dating and want to fix something, but would be like, what am I going to do with this!? All I have to work with are tons of pickled veggies, sriracha, fish sauce and mayo.
Kelly: We go to the store and get what we need to eat. But we’ll have 15 different mustards in the fridge. You know all this different stuff.
Jennifer: Do you think that will ever change? Do you think you’ll cook more at home in the future?
Kelly: The first years at Iris were tough. It was consuming. Sometimes you just want to get away from cooking because it was feeling like “work”. Plus you have to get out so that you can see what other people are doing and to get a feel for your town.
Jennifer: Yes, we dine non-stop… several times a week. I get to the point where I don’t want to go out to eat anymore.
Kelly: It can get exhausting.
Jennifer: Bryan does cook at home a lot now. It’s nice, plus I think he feels that he has the ability to explore new ideas that way.
Kelly: Yes, I’m sure when he opened reef he was the prep cook too, so the further you get away from that, the more you want to cook at home.
10 quick responses to a topic
- Iced Tea – Does it have to be one word? So I have a long answer for that. I think the term un-sweet is stupid. Because it’s not like you sweetened it and then unsweetened it. So I think it should be tea and sweetened… so my one word would be complicated.
- Social Media – Important These Days.
- Okra – Gumbo.
- Line cook – I wish I could be one again. You get into the ownership and stress and you wish you could go back and set a station and focus on that one dish.
- College football – Hotty Toddy.
- Home – Not there enough.
- Tipping – Ohhh. It’s a tough one. that stuff hasn’t really hit memphis as much yet. I think it is easy to be gung-ho about the difference in the wage change and all of that. For a long time my servers made more money than I did every year. I think, to the average person, if they only read all the stuff about $2.13 an hour they don’t understand and get angry. I just hope that everyone is prepared to see a vastly different way to price menus.
- Booze – Brown.
- Sous Vide – Never use it.
- Memphis – I love memphis, I love this town. Memphis has been very good to me.
Jennifer: Yes! The people here are amazing. We have met and encountered the most incredible personalities this weekend!!
Thank you Kelly for your honesty and time when I knew you had 1,839,920 other things that you needed to do. Readers, stay tuned… Next week’s Oui Chef will feature Mike Gulotta, owner and chef at Mo-Pho in NOLA. Last time we were there it was our first stop upon arrival and he was also just named Food and Wine Magazine’s Best New Chef. Then, the week after, we have Hugh Acheson, chef, writer, restauranteur and judge from Bravo’s Top Chef joins us. Hugh also happens to own my favorite spot to sip Belle Meade Sherry Cask in Atlanta… Empire State South.