Meet the Chef: SideTrack's Jason Greer talks wood-fired cooking, Instagram addiction, Oreos and milk

Photo by Anne Braly / Jason Greer is executive chef at SideTrack in Rivermont as well as the reigning champion of Chattanooga Market's FiveStar Food Fight.
Photo by Anne Braly / Jason Greer is executive chef at SideTrack in Rivermont as well as the reigning champion of Chattanooga Market's FiveStar Food Fight.
photo Photo by Anne Braly / Jason Greer is executive chef at SideTrack in Rivermont as well as the reigning champion of Chattanooga Market's FiveStar Food Fight.

Fresh on the heels of winning the FiveStar Food Fight at Chattanooga Market, a competition that put him up against four other talented locals chefs, Jason Greer, executive chef at SideTrack in Rivermont, is set to compete on a different level, against chefs from around the world in the annual World Food Championships set for October in Dallas.

"Winning the FiveStar was a very cool experience," he says. "Winning a competition like that validates lots of hard work, both personally and professionally. It's really fun to be able to represent a restaurant that is so near and dear to my heart and make our staff and restaurant family proud."

When he steps into the ring in Dallas, he admits it will be a little nerve-wracking. "Any time I do something new like this, there's just so much that goes into that - all the things you have to be prepared for. That's where you get nervous. Thankfully, I have a very talented team with lots of different strengths who I will have there with me. I have lots and lots of ideas in the works."

Greer grew up in the Dallas area in a family of good cooks.

"Most of my family grew up in my grandparents' restaurants in some way, shape or form," he says. "I've heard countless stories about my mom breaking down whole fish as a kid, or my uncle working the line. Food and wine has always been the dominant topic of discussion as far back as I can remember. We spend most our time together in the kitchen or at a restaurant."

Greer is a graduate of Louisiana Tech University and got a degree in economics, never thinking he'd end up in the restaurant industry, he says.

Q: So how did you end up in the culinary world?

A: I saw myself in the corporate world for some reason. But I gave all of that up shortly after graduating when I realized my passion for food was something I couldn't ignore. My culinary education came from the "school of hard knocks," so to speak. Everything I've learned I owe to the people I've worked with over the years. I was very fortunate to be surrounded by some very talented people early on who taught me the basics. They were super old-school cooks and pretty much told me "put your head down, work harder than everyone around you, and listen." Being a self-taught cook isn't the easy route. It takes time, patience and the desire to get better every day.

Q: Who would you consider your mentor in the food world?

A: Without question, my grandfather, Lawton Haygood (owner of SideTrack and Boathouse Rotisserie and Raw Bar). I remember being a little kid and thinking he was the coolest guy in the world. He was like a culinary superman to me. He taught me how to bait a hook, clean a fish and cook it. He's given me so many life lessons, it's hard to keep track really. We bounce ideas off of each other constantly and truly enjoy learning from one another.

Q: You've been at SideTrack since it opened. How hard is it to start from scratch?

A: Bringing a restaurant to life takes much longer than people realize - designing recipes, ordering new equipment, hiring, training, etc.

Q: What is the one kitchen tool that you could not live without?

A: Everyone expects you to say a knife, but honestly a really good stack of dry bar towels are a cook's best friend.

Q: Where do you turn for inspiration? The internet? A favorite cookbook?

A: I have a growing collection of cookbooks at home that I have read cover to cover and thumb through frequently. Lately, I've gotten a lot of inspiration from social media. I'm slightly addicted to Instagram, and I could spend an hour just scrolling through food photos. I also love to travel to new places trying to find something that sparks an idea.

Q: What food is your guilty pleasure?

A: I'm a sucker for Oreos and a glass of milk.

Q: Other than SideTrack, what is the perfect date night for you?

A: I love to go to Alleia. My perfect date - I'm single - would include sharing a lot of things so that we get to try more. I love to start off with their soybean salad or maybe the fig and gorgonzola pizza, then we'll share a pasta and a side. If there's still room for more, their cinnamon gelato is incredible.

Q: Finish this sentence: If I hadn't been a chef, I would have been

A: Most likely in medical sales.

Q: What's one thing that people may not know about you?

A: I like to travel alone. I'm a bit of an extrovert, but I love marching to the beat of my own drum. Sometimes I just like to go explore a city with me, myself and I.

Q: Describe the menu at SideTrack.

A: We do a lot of wood-fired cooking. It's kind of our "M.O.," so to speak. We have a grill and an oven that are solely heated from local hickory. The majority of the menu comes from these two areas of the kitchen. You'll find grilled fish on our menu and even whole fish from time to time, steaks grilled over wood, a half chicken that roasts in the wood oven. The sides are very classic and simple.

We really like to buy good produce and not mess with it very much. I like to think we're a fairly seasonal restaurant, so you'll see things change here and there as the year progresses. Overall, I think it's best described as "eclectic comfort food." We just try to make things that taste good and are interesting but approachable.

The one item that makes me the happiest, though, is a dessert that was such a challenge to perfect, The Grownup S'mores. We make the graham crackers from scratch using my mother's recipe. The chocolate component is a boozy brownie made with amaretto. We also make the marshmallow from scratch. It's served warm, and the marshmallow gets torched right before it's sent to the table.

Q: What's one of your favorite recipes for fall?

A: I'm a big fan of comfort food when it gets cooler outside. In Tennessee, it's still fairly warm outside in the fall, but I still tend to cook with the seasons. A roasted chicken is a thing of beauty when it is done properly. There's also something to be said about the hum and warmth of an oven while you have a glass of wine in your hand and music in the background. That's how I cook at home, which is a stark contrast to restaurant cooking. In the fall I want easygoing, good-mood food. I think this recipe fits that vibe. I like to cook the chicken in a large skillet so that it collects all of the juices and seasons whatever I place into the pan with it.

Herb Roasted Chicken and Gnocchi

Step One:

2 quarts water

1/4 cup salt

1 tablespoon black peppercorns

2 bay leaves

1 lemon, cut in half

5 cloves garlic (lightly crushed)

2 sprigs fresh rosemary

2 sprigs fresh thyme

1 quart of ice

1 (2- to 3-pound) whole chicken

Step Two:

1 pound softened butter

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme

2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon minced garlic

Step Three:

1/2 small onion, sliced into wedges

1/2 lemon

1 bay leaf

1 garlic clove

2 ounces white wine

Boiled gnocchi

Chopped chives (for garnish)

For Step One: Combine all the ingredients in a pot (except for the chicken and ice), and simmer for 10 minutes to dissolve the salt and infuse the flavors. Remove from the heat, and pour into a large container. Allow to cool for 10-15 minutes. Add the ice, and stir till the brine is chilled completely. Submerge the chicken, and allow it to brine for at least 5 hours (preferably overnight).

For Step Two: Mix all ingredients together until the herbs are evenly distributed throughout the butter, and set to the side. After you have removed the chicken from the brine, pat the skin dry with paper towels. Rub the herb butter underneath the skin of the chicken. Any remaining herb butter can be stored in the fridge and saved for later use in other recipes.

For Step Three: Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Add the chicken to the center of a large skillet, and scatter the onions, lemon, bay leaf and garlic around it.

Place skillet on the center rack of your oven, and cook for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven, and baste the chicken with the drippings in the pan periodically. Every 10 minutes is a good rule of thumb.

Continue to cook for approximately another 20 minutes or until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh (near the bone) registers 165 degrees. The chicken should be golden brown and even slightly charred in spots.

Remove from the oven, and place the chicken onto a serving dish. Squeeze the roasted lemon over the top of the chicken. Return the pan to the stove over medium heat. Once hot, add white wine to deglaze the pan. Finish the dish by tossing boiled gnocchi in the jus and pan drippings until well-coated and evenly browned slightly. Season with salt and pepper, as needed. Pour the gnocchi and jus into a serving dish, and top with a handful of chopped chives. Makes 2-3 servings.

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