Chef's Spotlight: Comfort food at Cafe LeMont

Chef's Spotlight: Comfort food at Cafe LeMont

April 27th, 2011 by Clint Cooper in Entertainmentfood

EDITOR'S NOTE: Chef's Spotlight is a monthly food feature in the Life section. To suggest a dish for a future report, email Clint Cooper at ccooper@timesfreepress.com.


Cafe LeMont owner LeMont Johnson prepares a blackened catfish dinner atop a bed of rice, with fried whole okra, cole slaw and corn muffins. Staff Photo by Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press

It's all about the comfort.

When you come into Café LeMont, said chef LeMont Johnson, the atmosphere is intended to convey kick-your-shoes-off, sit-back-and-relax, take-the-pressure-off comfort.

His customers' favorite dishes, jambalaya and fried catfish, along with the background smooth jazz, provide such inner solace, he said.

Lately, though, Johnson's been lightening things up a bit.

"People eat a lot of fried food," he said. "We're trying to get away from the heat a little."

Blackened catfish, which the Dodds Avenue restaurant is offering this spring and summer, is such a dish.

Catfish and tilapia, which the restaurant also prepares, are among the few fish that stand up to blackening," Johnson said.

"The others tear up," he said.

Johnson's mixture of blackening spices, including garlic and lemon peel, is applied to one side of the filet before it is sautéed in olive oil "to keep it light," he said. After the fish is turned, the blackening is applied to the other side.

The fish is typically served on rice with side dishes of homemade slaw and okra, which is dredged in a seasoned light milk base and then lightly battered with cornmeal before being fried.

"It's only six or seven minutes from cooking to the table," Johnson said of the dish.

Café LeMont, which will celebrate its seventh anniversary this year, serves a variety of Southern food, from soul food to Cajun to Caribbean, according to its owner.

"It's a mixture of everything cooked from the South," he said.

Johnson said his favorite dish to prepare is jambalaya, which is described on the restaurant's online menu as "a two bean and tomato ensemble with chopped sausage, seafood, chicken, pork and beef drenched in our Cajun spices."

The meal-in-a-dish is served with rice and buttermilk cornbread muffins.

Johnson said he likes to prepare the jambalaya because it's "some of me," some of his New Orleans-raised son-in-law and some of other food experiences he's had.

"I've got a feel for it," he said. "I've got a flair for it."

Johnson, a Chattanooga native and graduate of the former Riverside High School, said he got his start in the culinary field about 33 years ago when he was in the Army.

When his supervisors saw he had a knack for food preparation, he said, they sent him to a chef's school in Charlotte, N.C., run by Morrison's Cafeteria. After that, he said, he often was responsible for food preparation - including the cultivation of a flair for sculptured fruits and vegetables - for special events involving military brass.

"The school taught me a lot," Johnson said.

After leaving the Army, he served as a chef at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga for 10 years and later spent close to eight years in a similar position at the then-newly opened Siskin Hospital for Physical Rehabilitation. Along the way, he began a catering business that eventually would evolve into the restaurant.

Now, Johnson and his wife, Renita, creator of the restaurant's Monster Cakes and Monster Cupcakes, run the restaurant, which also employs their daughter, Tomeka, and goddaughter, Chanda.

Contact Clint Cooper at ccooper@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6497.

ABOUT THE DISH

  • What: Blackened catfish and okra.
  • Includes: Catfish, rice, fried okra, slaw, cornbread.
  • Price: $9.95.

ABOUT THE RESTAURANT

  • Where: Café LeMont, 801 Dodds Ave.
  • Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday-Friday.
  • Phone: 629-1388.