Meet the Chef: Marcus Willis of Parkway Pourhouse talks roast beef, wings and Mee-Maw's chicken and dumplings

Marcus Willis is executive chef at Parkway Pourhouse, 801 Riverfront Parkway.
Marcus Willis is executive chef at Parkway Pourhouse, 801 Riverfront Parkway.
photo Marcus Willis is executive chef at Parkway Pourhouse, 801 Riverfront Parkway.

Riverfront Parkway, once a major avenue for industry in Chattanooga, has recently undergone a transformation that extends the downtown dining corridor to include several new restaurants, one of which is Parkway Pourhouse.

The restaurant, at 801 Riverfront Parkway, offers an upscale tavern-like experience that has a strong Creole/Cajun influence. Executive chef Marcus Willis attributes that to both his and restaurant owner George Lewallen's love of foods from New Orleans. Willis met Lewallen at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, where both were students. Twenty years later, they're still good friends and now work together.

"We've both been to New Orleans many times and have a deep love for the food culture down there," says Willis, a native of Austin, Texas. "It's my favorite place to eat in the world."

If you're looking for a taste of the Big Easy, you'll find several examples on the menu, such as the House Boudin sausage appetizer served with Creole mustard or one of the most amazing seafood po' boys you'll find this side of Louisiana. But Willis says it was back at Sewanee where his love of cooking was realized.

Q: Do you come from a family of cooks?

A: My Mee-Maw was an amazing cook. To this day, Thanksgiving dinner is my favorite meal to cook because it reminds me of so many childhood memories. I still can't make dressing or gravy nearly as tasty as hers, though my turkey could give her a run for her money. But I really first fell in love with cooking at Shenanigans in Sewanee, where I worked after college. From there I went to culinary school at the Art Institute of Philadelphia. It was in Philadelphia that I got the majority of my training.

Q: What places are on your culinary resume?

A: I've worked in Austin, South Carolina and many restaurants in Philadelphia. And here in Chattanooga, I worked at FoodWorks when I first moved to town - that's where I met my wife. I worked for quite a while at Table 2, and I was the executive chef at Deep Bistro in the basement of the Tallan Building downtown.

Q: What is your favorite thing on the menu to cook?

A: It's probably our roast beef debris [sandwich]. We spent a great deal of time perfecting our recipe, and it's very satisfying when the process is complete and we have a delicious result. The process takes all day, and each step is important.

Q: What's your favorite thing on the menu to eat?

A: I am a wing addict, so I'd have to say that our dry-rub wings are my favorite. I've had at least one a day since we opened and am still just as excited about them as I was six months ago. It takes a full three days to prep them, and I think they are among the best in the area.

Q: What is a surprising thing people may not know about you?

A: As a boy I was a terribly picky eater - anything unfamiliar was unwelcome. Today, I'll try absolutely anything.

Q: Is it exciting to be in a new and growing area of town?

A: It's great to be getting into this area early. We'll have a large built-in clientele by the time all this development is finished. It's great to be so close to downtown and the riverfront as well.

photo Marcus Willis is executive chef at Parkway Pourhouse, 801 Riverfront Parkway.

Q: If you hadn't gone into a career in the culinary field, what do you think you would be doing?

A: Modeling was off the table early, so I really have no idea what I would be doing if I wasn't cooking. I fell in love with it right away. I have a hard time sitting behind a desk or in front of a computer all day. I love the instant gratification of coming to work and having a measurable achievement at the end of each day.

Q: What's your favorite cooking tool?

A: Other than a good-quality knife, I would have to say my tongs. You can do anything with a good pair of tongs - they become an extension of your hand and keep me from burning myself as much as I otherwise would.

Q: What ingredient could you not to cook without, and what are a couple of dishes that you use it in?

A: Roasted garlic puree is an absolute must for me - I put it in everything from soups to sauces, meatloaf, marinades. Absolutely everything.

Q: What's the perfect date-night evening for you and your wife when you have a night off?

A: My wife and I love to go to The Meeting Place and sit at the bar upstairs. Itís a great place to people-watch, and the food and wine are always incredible. Chef Rebecca Barron [executive chef at St. John's Restaurant and The Meeting Place] is an old friend of mine, and I don't know many chefs as talented as she is. During the summer, a perfect night out is walking to a Lookouts game and enjoying a few too many hot dogs and beers.

Q: So you say your grandmother was a great cook. What's one of your favorite recipes from her?

A: Chicken and dumplings is one of my favorite things to eat in the world, and my Mee-Maw's recipe is the best. I finally got her to share it with me a few years back. Not only does it taste amazing, it reminds me of her.

Mee-Maw's Chicken and Dumplings

1 fryer chicken, cut into 8 pieces

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Salt and pepper, to taste

For dumplings:

2 cups all-purpose flour

3 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

5 heaping tablespoons of shortening

1 cup whole milk

1 tablespoon black pepper

Boil the chicken in salted water until tender. When chicken is done, remove it from the broth, but keep the broth in the pan. Once chicken has cooled, pull or cut it into bite-size pieces. Add butter, salt and pepper, to taste, to the broth and bring to a boil; cover pot.

While the chicken is cooking, make the dough for the dumplings: Combine flour, baking powder and salt, and mix well. Cut in the shortening until incorporated, then add milk and black pepper, and mix well. On a floured surface, roll the dough out to about 1/2-inch thickness, and cut into squares or strips. Add dumplings to the boiling broth. Cover, reduce heat to a simmer and cook until dumplings are tender and cooked through, stirring occasionally.

To test doneness, break one dumpling open with a fork, and make sure it is thoroughly cooked. Finally, add pulled chicken back into the pot. Once broth has reached your desired thickness and flavor has been achieved, serve immediately or cool and store in refrigerator overnight. Makes 4-6 servings.

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