New York native Regina Johnson, 38, moved to Chattanooga in April of this year, becoming the first female chef — and one of the youngest — to be named executive chef at Back Inn Cafe in the Bluff View Art District. Before that, she was a chef at Sea Trail Golf Resort on the North Carolina coast for 16 years.
Those who know her call her Reg, and like many chefs, her love of cooking can be tied to her mother's apron strings.
"We lost her to breast cancer 13 years ago, but she loved to cook, and I often try to recreate her home cooking," says Johnson, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (Hyde Park, N.Y., campus).
Michael Vasta, director of operations for the Bluff View Art District, says Johnson brings a "calm focus to the kitchen, which allows the staff to concentrate and be more productive."
Regina Johnson, executive chef at Back Inn Cafe, cites this as a go-to dish.
“It’s my favorite recipe to make at home for my family, she says.
Balsamic Chicken and Pasta
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
6 chicken breast halves, cut into chunks
1 medium yellow onion, diced
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
Chopped basil, to taste
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 pint bow-tie pasta, cooked al dente, or 3 cups cooked rice
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in skillet, and add chicken, cooking until lightly browned and no pink is showing in the middle of the chunks, 8-10 minutes. Remove chicken to a platter, and set aside. Return skillet to stove, and add 3 tablespoons olive oil. Add onions, and cook until translucent. Add garlic and continue cooking, but be careful not to brown or burn the garlic. Add tomato halves and balsamic vinegar, cooking until tomatoes have slightly softened and liquid has slightly thickened. Return chicken to pan and toss until coated with balsamic mixture. Add basil, salt and pepper, and serve immediately over pasta or rice. Makes 6 servings.
Here she talks about her favorite food, her favorite herb and the job that made her realize she wanted to be a chef.
Q: What dish do you best remember your mother making?
A: Her meatballs were my favorite. I often helped her roll the meat into balls when I was too small to do much of anything else.
Q: Would you ever consider tweaking any of her recipes to serve at Back Inn?
A: I haven't yet, but I'm making a new pasta dish with a meat ragout that is inspired by the Sunday dinners I remember as a child.
Q: Who encouraged you to pursue a culinary career?
A: My parents. They supported me early on in my 10th-grade year of high school. I knew then that I wanted to pursue a food-related career, and they supported me when I attended a vocational culinary arts program for my junior and senior years of high school.
Q: You're a female in a male-dominated field. What's that like?
A: It's taken a while for me to really feel confident in my skills. I'm always learning and absorbing new information, and I've learned a lot from both male and female managers and chefs. It isn't something that crosses my mind often, and I have a very mild personality — I get along with just about anyone. I feel like all of my staff, both male and female, show me respect based on my style of management.
Q: You're now working on a degree in food service management. How will that help your career?
A: As a chef, not only do you create meals and work daily with food, but you also work with staff and help them to develop skills needed in the industry. In my work, I manage my cooks, my food cost and my inventory. I believe a management degree will help me better understand all aspects of the business.
Q: What's your favorite food-and-wine pairing on Back Inn's menu?
A: I love wine with cheese, and I've added a market cheese board to our menu and will be changing it and pairing it with new wines periodically. But my favorite combination is MezzaLuna Fontina and Querceto cheese with a good Chianti.
Q: Is there a certain spice that you like to use?
A: I wouldn't say there is a particular spice I like to use. I do, however, love fresh herbs. Fresh basil is my favorite. I love basil cooked in marinara sauce or on fresh pizza and flatbreads. And fresh basil from the Bluff View garden is used to make our pesto, which is on our duck flat bread. It's also used in the gocce and ragout pasta dishes we serve.
Q: Do you follow food trends?
A: I like to keep up with what's new in the culinary industry. Chattanooga has such a great food/restaurant scene, and I love exploring new spots and checking out what's popular since moving here.
Q: What's your favorite food?
A: Pasta — any and all.
Q: What's something people may not know about you?
A: I started out my career as a pastry line cook at the Garden City Hotel in Garden City, N.Y. It was there — under the direction of the chef — that I realized I loved cooking a whole lot more than baking.
Contact Anne Braly at email@example.com.