Meet the Chef: Patrick Halloran keeps Hummingbird Pastaria humming along

Chef Patrick Halloran stands in the dining room at Hummingbird Pastaria on Signal Mountain.
Chef Patrick Halloran stands in the dining room at Hummingbird Pastaria on Signal Mountain.

A native of Ann Arbor, Michigan, Patrick Halloran, chef/owner of Hummingbird Pastaria on Signal Mountain, says he grew up in a family of good cooks. He remembers a certain fondness for his Austrian-raised grandmother's desserts, as well as his granddad's steak seasoning, a special recipe he uses to this day.

"My mother is a good cook, too," he says. "Being a working mother with three sons, she still found time to make dinner when she got home from work. Every night she would recruit one of the three of us into the kitchen with her to help. Now, for better or worse, none of us boys are timid in a kitchen to this day."

So his road to a culinary career was a natural one - genetic, one might say.

Here he talks about the first solo cooking experience, his career path from au pair to chef and a favorite recipe from his days in Texas. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

photo Chef Patrick Halloran in the kitchen at Hummingbird Pastaria on Signal Mountain.

Q: What is your earliest food memory?

A: My most vivid memory of cooking as a child was after I received a cookbook for kids for Christmas. There was a recipe for a chocolate cake in it. There was no one else home, so I looked around the pantry, realized we had all the ingredients, so I just made it - didn't really give it a second thought. I remember other people later discussing that I had made a chocolate cake "from scratch" and being impressed by it.

Q: Is this when you realized you wanted to be a chef?

A: No. I spent a year in the Netherlands after high school working as an au pair. I realized during my time there that my favorite time of the day was when I got to start making dinner for the children after school. It was at that point that I figured maybe cooking was a better career choice than teaching, which is what I thought I wanted to do.

Q: Did you go to culinary school?

A: I got a degree in English literature from University of Michigan. While there, I was working at a restaurant owned by the Zingerman's Community of Businesses [a gourmet food business group] when I ran into one of its former head chefs, Thad Gillies, at a party. I knew that I wanted to cook, and he advised me that it was a field that has been taught by apprenticeships for generations. Culinary school was very expensive. I took his advice, and he hired me. That was my first sous chef position.

Q: Do you consider Gillies to be your mentor?

A: Yes, but there are others, too. In butchering, I was trained by Sebastien Bonneu of Countryside Farm just outside of Austin, Texas. Ryan Samson, Ren Garcia and Jason Dodge all taught me a great deal about Italian food. Kyle Newberry and Matt van Orden taught me how to run a shift. And my wife/business partner, Sally, teaches me more every single day about how to be a better manager and a better human being.

Q: Hummingbird Pastaria places a strong emphasis on buying local. What does that mean to you personally?

A: Building relationships with the people we buy from are an important part of our business. Being able to talk to the individuals raising the animals and hear that our values align with theirs regarding treatment, diet and quality of life makes our food better. The quality of the proteins speak for themselves. Our partnerships with Travis and Elizabeth Smith with Olive Branch Farms for our whole hogs; Bobby and Deb Collier with 3 Hills Farm for our lamb; and Thomas O'Neal at Signal Mountain Farm for his produce are exceptional.

Q: How does this translate to the menu at Hummingbird Pastaria?

A: We use the entire animal. Just as an example, when we get a whole hog, the pork loins and tenderloins go into our saltimbocca dish; the bellies get used for specials; and the rest gets seasoned and ground for polpette, sausage and bolognese; and the bones then get cooked for several days and turned into a pork demi-glace.

We also use, on average, 100 eggs per day from Thomason Egg Farm in Calhoun, Georgia, just for our pasta dough.

Q: Is the menu at Hummingbird a fusion of several cuisines or a cuisine all its own?

A: Our menu has an Italian focus with a definite understanding of where in the world we are located. Being in Southeastern Tennessee influences it a great deal. Whether it is from the use of Benton's bacon, or our Italian homage to the Southern classic of shrimp and grits (in Italian, Gamberi con Polenta), we use what is locally available and treat it as honestly as possible. We are a rustic restaurant. We like to say, "If your Italian great-grandmother didn't know how to make it, we're probably not doing it here."

Q: What's the one piece of kitchen equipment you can't do without?

A: My knife. I've used a whole lot of knives in the past. My favorite, though, is light and fast. Not too big, not too fancy - just right. It's a Shun, 7-inch Japanese chef's knife. It sharpens well and holds an edge.

Q: What food is your guilty pleasure?

A: When all else fails, and I'm too hungry to think about what I want, I eat meatballs on garlic bread. It's the food that has sustained my existence for the last decade.

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

A: I'd probably go back to school for a master's in culinary anthropology.

Q: What's your favorite date-night restaurant in town?

A: Clumpies. We really like ice cream. That's where I go with my wife and girls - that's my best idea of a good date.

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

A: Breakfast tacos. Not a breakfast burrito. I fell in love with them in Austin, Texas.

Breakfast Tacos

2 strips bacon (cut into lardons - 1/4-inch strips)

4 eggs

8 tortillas (corn or flour)

1 ripe avocado, cut into chunks

Juice of 1 lime

1/4 small onion, chopped

1 serrano pepper, seeded and chopped

1 tomato, diced

1 tablespoon cilantro

Salt and pepper, to taste

Shredded cheese (preferably gouda)

Cook bacon to desired crispness, and drain. Scramble eggs, and cook to desired consistency, adding bacon halfway through. Toast tortillas in a skillet on burner.

Mix together avocado, lime juice, onion, pepper, tomato and cilantro. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Top tortillas with egg/bacon mixture, then top with vegetable mixture. Sprinkle with grated cheese before serving.

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