Retired priest's travels reflected in Bluegrass Grill's diverse menu

Retired priest's travels reflected in Bluegrass Grill's diverse menu

May 23rd, 2012 by Casey Phillips in Life Entertainment

Jonas Worsham, chef/owner of Bluegrass Grill, makes his signature Mediterranean Frittata with tomatoes, Kalamata olives, spinach and onions topped with mozzarella and feta cheese.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

At 10 a.m. on a recent Thursday, business at the Bluegrass Grill was still simmering after the rolling boil of early morning.

Shuffling slightly in a medical walking boot, head chef and owner Jonas Worsham remained cheerful after a shift that began, as usual, at 3:30 a.m. with preparing the day's batch of bread, soups and handmade biscuits.

Despite a long line of order tickets still in the kitchen's queue, the 63-year-old smiled through his thick, gray beard. For a while, at least, it was someone else's problem.

Overhead, the speakers piped in bluegrass music -- a high, lonesome vocalist singing over a rolling banjo melody. When it comes to running a successful restaurant, setting the proper mood is critical, Worsham explained.

"This is our fourth restaurant, all of which have been successful," he said. "Part of that is that we create an ambiance, an atmosphere, where people feel at home and feel at ease. It's an enjoyable thing for them to be here."

Since Worsham and his wife opened the doors at their Main Street eatery four and a half years ago, it has become a destination for breakfast lovers attracted by a menu mixing traditional staples with more adventurous offerings.

Worsham said he likes to consider more about his food than simply its taste because to sell the stomach on a dish, you first need to win over the eyes.

The Mediterranean frittata is served with fresh fruit and a half-wheat, half-white flour biscuit.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

"If you see something that looks good to you, you want to eat it," Worsham said. "How far does that go back? Try Adam and Eve.

"The forbidden fruit was first and foremost appealing to the eye. You want your food to be appealing."

A prime example of this philosophy is the grill's Mediterranean frittata, a colorful dish mixing eggs and a sautéed vegetable medley.

On the day of our visit, Worsham began assembling the dish by adding a half dozen Greek Kalamata olives to a pan with fresh spinach, green onions and tomatoes. He then cracked two eggs and whipped them before pouring them into the mix.

After two minutes on the stove, the frittata was set. With a practiced flick, Worsham flipped it to continue cooking briefly on the other side.

He then plated the frittata and added a handful of feta and mozzarella cheese before sending it on a brief spin in the microwave to melt. For a garnish, he sprinkled on dill -- for color, he said -- and added a half-wheat, half-white flour biscuit.

With the addition of a side order of mixed fruits, including cantaloupe, watermelon, grapes and kiwi, the finished product was a riot of color.

"I want every plate I serve to look, first, appealing and satisfying to someone just to look at," Worsham said. "I think that's one of the good things about cooking, to take pride in your work."

Worsham has learned this lesson after more than 40 years in the kitchen.

After grilling hamburgers and steaks as a line cook while attending Oklahoma State University, he graduated in 1972 to his first full-time position as the chef for The Mad Greek, a Mediterranean restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio. The owner's wife, he said, made sure he knew the menu backward and forward.

"I cooked everything except for the pastries. I cooked almost as much Greek food as a Greek grandmother," he said, laughing.

While cooking has been part of his life ever since, Worsham has spent just as much time behind the pulpit as an orthodox minister.

His and Joan Marie's first restaurant, Brother Juniper's, was one of Memphis' most popular and helped supplement their income during the 12 years he spent leading a church there.

Worsham and his wife sold Brother Juniper's and left Memphis in 1999 to help members of their congregation establish a boys school in Kodiak, Alaska. There they opened their second restaurant, The Captain's.

In 2000, they relocated once more to Charlottesville, Va., where they established the first Bluegrass Grill. Two years later, the Worshams moved to Chattanooga, where Jonas took up leadership of St. Tikhon's Orthodox Church.

Originally, Worsham said, he didn't want to open another restaurant, opting to cook at other venues, including the Walden Club and Easy Bistro & Bar.

Eventually, he said, he realized he could make more money running his own business and opened the second Bluegrass Grill on East Main Street in October 2007.

Worsham said he has tried to offer items on the menu that reflect the culture of the places he has lived, whether that was halibut-cheek hash in Alaska or honey-wheat pancakes, a Chattanooga addition that provides a healthier alternative to their buttermilk classics.

As with all their restaurants, however, the Bluegrass Grill's menu is built around a solid foundation of dishes that has remained mostly unchanged since their Brother Juniper days.

"[Customers] will have a biscuit, and they'll say, 'I know that biscuit. I had it in Memphis at Brother Juniper's,'" he said. "The menus are probably 80-90 percent the same, and the rest reflects the city."

After undergoing quintuple bypass surgery in 2005, Worsham said he realized he needed to alleviate some of the stress in his life. Instead of hanging up his apron, however, he retired from the clergy a little more than a year ago, though he continues to volunteer at a mission parish in Clarksville, Tenn.

Rather than weighed down by the stress of decades working in two careers, he seems buoyed by his experiences.

"We have a very interesting life," Worsham said. "You've heard the phrase 'Get a life?' I could give one away and still have a couple to spare."

Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @Phillips CTFP.

ABOUTTHE DISH

  • What: Mediterranean frittata.
  • Includes: Two-egg omelet with a sautéed mix of Kalamata olives, spinach, green onions and tomatoes topped with feta cheese and mozzarella. Side items: fresh fruit, home fries or grits and either toast or biscuits.
  • Price: $7.25.

ABOUT THE RESTAURANT

  • Where: 55 E. Main St.
  • Hours: 6:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 6:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday.
  • Phone: 752-4020.
  • Web: www.bluegrassgrillchattanooga.com.