Meet the chef: St. John's, Meeting Place give Rebecca Barron a chance to be serious, playful with food

Executive chef Rebecca Barron slices vegetables at St. John's Restaurant, one of the two restaurants she oversees. She also is in charge of St. John's companion restaurant, The Meeting Place.
photo Executive chef Rebecca Barron at work in the kitchen at St. John's Restaurant.

Rebecca Barron, executive chef at St. John's and its companion restaurant, The Meeting Place, developed an early love for cooking, preparing meals for her family as a child in her home in Milwaukee, Wis.

"I learned how to make bechamel and roux from the Betty Crocker cookbook when I was 10," she recalls, adding that Julia Child made a huge impression on her about the same time. "She was probably my first major influence. And Anthony Bourdain's 'Kitchen Confidential' made me want to be a part of a kitchen family. Also I think I just loved eating so much that I had to figure out how to feed myself."

Barron was home-schooled; didn't graduate from college; nor did she attend culinary school. Some chefs are born with a culinary gene. Barron is one - a woman whose restaurant career began making pizza at Domino's Pizza in Collegedale and ended up in one of Chattanooga's top award-winning restaurants.

Q: Was it tough getting a foothold in a male-dominated field?

A: Yes and no. I think women bring a unique approach to the kitchen, and I was fortunate enough to work for men that appreciated that approach and helped bring me up in the business. But it can be hard, so you just have to work harder.

Q: What advice do you have for young women seeking a career in the culinary arts?

A: Keep your head down and work harder. Read books. Drink less. Learn. Have patience.

photo Rebecca Barron, executive chef of St. John's Restaurant and The Meeting Place.

Q: What's your earliest food memory?

A: It was my first medium-rare steak. My family was a medium-well kind of family, and I was very excited about eating a bloody steak. I want to say it was at the Ponderosa when I was 7 years old.

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

A: A bartender or a filmmaker. I love movies and have lots dreams about the movies I would make if I had the money for it.

Q: How has Chattanooga's food scene changed since you moved here?

A: Downtown Chattanooga has changed a lot since I moved here in 1997. It's been exciting to see places like Community Pie, Southern Sqweeze and Main Street Meats open up. They remind me of places I love in other cities, but I get to enjoy them right here. And I love the Chattanooga Market where I always get a Bloody Mary and then walk over to the food-truck area and get a hot dog from Griffin's. I get so sad when the market ends for the year.

Q: How would you describe the food at St. John's?

A: It's New American/Southern fine dining. We love grits and buttermilk and braised greens, but we also have a lot of French and Italian influences in our food. And then there's my love of Indian spices.

Q: So how does The Meeting Place differ from St. John's?

A: The Meeting Place offers a more fun and playful version of our food. There's our pork belly sliders, burgers, fried goat's cheese fritters and top it all of with a banana split. It's a bit more of a casual atmosphere. We also have a killer happy hour with half-price champagne - my favorite.

Q: What are some of your signature dishes at both?

A: At St. John's, I'd say it's our pumpkin soup. We make it with butter-poached lobster and curry oil, and it's a reigning favorite. Our wagyu beef zabuton steak paired with brisket is our signature steak. And at Meeting Place, our burgers are the favorite. We grind the beef in-house every day.

Q: How important is it to you to buy local?

A: Very. I love, love, love all the local products we can get around here.

Q: Is there one ingredient you shy away from using?

A: Hmmm. Anything artificial. I like the real deal.

Q: What's one of your favorite side dishes for winter?

A: Roasted root veg mash. They're so much more colorful, delicious and exciting than just plain mashed potatoes.

Roasted Root Vegetable Mash

1 sweet potato

1 turnip

1 golden beet

1 red beet

1 rutabaga

Vegetable or olive oil

2 cups heavy cream, warmed

1/2 pound butter, melted

1 tablespoon prepared horseradish

Salt and pepper, to taste

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Peel all the vegetables, then toss them in oil and sprinkle lightly with salt. Place diced vegetables in a large casserole dish, and roast for 40 to 60 minutes or until tender. Add remaining ingredients to vegetables, and return to the oven to roast for another 20 minutes. Remove from oven, and gently mash the vegetables with a whisk or potato masher. Keep warm until ready to serve.

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