In The Beginning
The legendary Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem is reopening this summer, and the rejuvenated jazz club will serve “Southern Revival” cooking on fancy china along with its bebop.
Good news, but I’m bemused by the word “revival.” Here in Memphis, chefs have never stopped cooking Southern, and the wave of national interest in our regional diaspora can make me feel, well, a little smug. Add in the continued recognition of Memphis as a sophisticated foodie town, and it’s easy these days to act downright prideful.
No longer overshadowed by its sister cities in the South, Memphis grew up in 2012, garnering an impressive string of media attention. For example, Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives featured six Memphis-area restaurants in 2012, focusing high-profile spotlights on The Elegant Farmer, Rizzo’s Diner, South of Beale, and Three Angels Diner, along with two nearby Mississippi neighbors: Memphis Barbecue Company in Southaven and Hernando’s Memphis Street Café.
Other food celebrities followed. Canadian chef Chuck Hughes ate his way down Main Street for an episode of Chuck’s Eat the Street, stopping by Felicia Suzanne’s, the Peanut Shoppe, and the Rendezvous depot, where pit masters smoke and ship two tons of ribs every day.
Brandy Lowe, the maestro behind Cochon 555, staged two chef-driven competitions in Memphis to showcase the gastronomic delights of heritage breed pork. Even Anthony Bourdain, America’s favorite bad-boy chef, visited Memphis this year, bringing his Guts & Glory tour to the Orpheum for an evening of rollicking foodie fun.
National book publishers also recognized the expertise of Memphis writers, with titles from experienced cookbook authors such as Jennifer Chandler and Joy Bateman to first-timers like the Memphis Flyer’s Bianca Phillips, whose Cookin’ Crunk veganizes popular Southern recipes. Local freelancers Angela and Paul Knipple also published an engaging book titled The World in a Skillet about the contribution of first-generation immigrants to the evolution of Southern food. Even I jumped into book-writing mode, with The Food Lovers’ Guide to Memphis.
After writing 68,000 words, I can unequivocally credit our city’s talented chefs with putting Memphis on the national menu. Our readers apparently agree, voting in record numbers for their favorite chefs and restaurants in our annual Readers’ Restaurant Poll. Overall, readers voted in almost 50 different categories, handing wins to some perennial favorites (Kelly English and Restaurant Iris take a bow) along with a few first-timers (hats off to Hog and Hominy’s “Best New Restaurant” win).
In addition to the results of our restaurant poll, our annual February dining issue includes Hannah Sayle’s profile of River Oaks master chef Jose Gutierrez (featured here on our May 1990 cover), who relocated to Memphis 30 years ago to head Chez Philippe, the award-winning French restaurant in downtown’s historic Peabody hotel.
Elsewhere in the issue, Marilyn Sadler gives us an inside look at WMC-TV reporter Andy Wise and his popular Thursday night segment, “Andy’s Restaurant Scorecard.” And Susan Ellis reports on her enviable assignment to sample desserts at six downtown restaurants on a new “Tastin’ ‘Round Town” culinary tour orchestrated by chef Lance Silkes, a recent Chicago transplant.
I tagged along on the tour and was energized by the apple dumpling at Blues City Café and by Silkes’ enthusiasm for Memphis. He talked about the city’s great-tasting water, the new restaurants in Midtown’s Overton Square, the return of Cochon Heritage BBQ on Labor Day weekend, and the commitment by Memphis City Schools to serve students locally sourced and healthy lunches.
I drove home smiling, thinking how sometimes it takes newcomers to remind us how fortunate we are to live in a city with responsible farmers and innovative chefs who understand the connection between community, family, and food.