Meet the Chef: Wine Down's Marcus Garner says he always knew he belonged in the kitchen

Marcus Garner is owner and chef of Wine Down, a wine bar and restaurant in Ooltewah.

Marcus Garner, chef/owner of Wine Down Bar and professed wine enthusiast, grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts, in a family of foodies.

"My dad is a really good cook," he says, adding that his father, being from North Carolina, brought many Southern dishes and soul food to his family's Northern table. "I can vividly remember him working multiple pots and pans at once, and it amazed me. My mom can cook as well, and though she would beg to differ, I learned a lot from watching her, especially having to make meals very quickly because she worked a lot."

photo Marcus Garner, owner and chef of Wine Down in Ooltewah, creates the menu hand-picks all of the wines, beer and spirits served at the establishment.

All of that instilled in him a passion for cooking that translated into his current profession. And though he did not attend culinary school, like many accomplished chefs, he learned from those who did.

Q: What is your earliest food memory?

A: Helping my mother cook Thanksgiving dinner when I was 9 years old. She used to let me baste the turkey and do small jobs for the big feast. I remember being so intrigued by the sense of comfort and family that came from breaking bread together.

Q: When did you realize that you wanted to be a chef

A: I've been in hospitality for over 20 years, so the industry has always been fascinating to me. I worked a lot in the front of the house in restaurants, but always hung out with the culinary teams and have many very accomplished chef friends who I learned a lot from over the years. I always knew I belonged in the kitchen. A little over 10 years ago, I knew I wanted to be one of the rock stars in the kitchen, permanently.

Q: With no formal culinary training, who do you consider your mentor?

A: My very good friend Wilbur Cox. He's an executive chef in Baltimore, where I lived for some time. He took the time to show me a lot of things about food. We would cook at my house, his house and in the restaurant together. He is so talented and humble, which always drew me to his style of cooking.

Q: Did you devise the menu at Wine Down to match the wines or the wines to match the menu?

A: Our menus change very often, but I always choose wines with food in mind. Every bottle on our list is picked by me, and when I write menus, I always have a pairing in mind.

Q: Do you stick with the adage that white wine goes with chicken and seafood and red wine goes with beef and pork?

A: To a certain degree, but everyone's palate is different. That's a good starting point, for sure, but as one's knowledge of food and wine grows, so does one's pairing preferences. I don't believe there are dos and don'ts when it comes to that. It's all about preference and adventure.

Q: What is your favorite white wine and your favorite red

A: For whites, I can never turn down a glass of Vinho Verde. Smooth, crisp and slightly effervescent, it is perfect on a hot summer day. For reds, I love a nice Super Tuscan (merlot, cabernet, Syrah blend) because they work so well with food.

Q: What's the one piece of kitchen equipment or cooking tool you cannot do without?

A: There are so many fun toys in the kitchen, but I'd have to say my spoons. They are great for plating sauces and purees but, most importantly, tasting. This allows you to be sure of the quality of your dish before it hits the pass (where the dishes are plated and picked up to be served).

photo Marcus Garner, owner and chef, says his goal for Wine Down is to educate people about food and wine in a nonintimidating atmosphere.

Q: Is there a food that is your guilty pleasure?

A: There is zero guilt when it comes to me and food, but crispy fried chicken is my Achilles heel - especially if it's from Champy's.

Q: Complete this sentence: If I weren't a chef I would be

A: An educator. I love teaching people what I know, when I can. There have been many teachers who have impacted my life from an early age, including my brother, who has been an educator for many years. I don't think they get enough credit.

Q: How does Wine Down complement the other restaurants in Ooltewah's growing Cambridge Square development?

A: I think we all complement each other very well. It allows for more foot traffic in the square, which helps business tremendously. There's a huge sense of community amongst us all, and we all support each other.

Q: Do you think more people are becoming educated about wines?

A: I do. That's the hope for us, at least. At Wine Down, we try to provide a very casual and inviting atmosphere while making wine fun and exciting, rather than intimidating or stuffy. It should always be inviting and educational, but we don't force the education on you. We like to create a fun dialogue, build relationships and then provide as much background as needed.

Q: What's one of your favorite dishes to cook when you're at home?

A: I like trying something different every time I make a meal at home. It's a challenge and it's fun. Keeps you sharp. Basically, anything we can cook together at home is my favorite. A frequent go-to would be Chicken Tikka Masala. For this, my wife, Georgia, is at the helm and I'm the sous chef.

Chicken Tikka Masala

1 cup Greek yogurt

1 tablespoon lemon juice

4 teaspoons ground cumin, divided

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 teaspoons cayenne pepper

2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger

4 teaspoons salt, or to taste

3 boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into bite-size pieces

1 tablespoon butter

1 clove garlic, minced

1 jalapeno pepper, finely chopped (see note)

2 teaspoons paprika

3 teaspoons salt, or to taste

1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce

1 cup heavy cream

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Jasmine rice and naan bread

In a large bowl, combine yogurt, lemon juice, 2 teaspoons cumin, cinnamon, cayenne, black pepper, ginger and 4 teaspoons salt. Stir in chicken, cover, and refrigerate for 1 hour.

Melt butter in a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Saute garlic and finely chopped jalapeno for 1 minute. Season with remaining 2 teaspoons cumin, paprika and 3 teaspoons salt. Stir in tomato sauce and heavy cream. Simmer on low heat until sauce thickens, about 20 minutes.

In a separate pan, coat bottom with a little water and cook chicken (with yogurt sauce) until done (generally 5-8 minutes). I usually do this in a couple of steps (so pieces are not crowded in the skillet).

Add cooked chicken and tomato sauce, and simmer for 10 minutes. Add cilantro and serve over jasmine rice with naan bread.

Note: To make dish less spicy, add 1/2 or less of jalapeno to dish.

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