Changing positions from general manager to executive chef at Flying Squirrel has combined Sanders Parker's education with his love of food.
Parker went to college for business entrepreneurship, but as manager of the popular, award-winning restaurant on Chattanooga's Southside, he often found himself working closely with the chefs in the kitchen.
"After our last chef, I decided it would be better for the business, as well as my own sanity, to just try to do it myself," he says. "That said, I still retain a lot of my general-manager duties, so I'm essentially doing both with a much heavier focus in the kitchen."
As a Chattanooga native, Parker has seen the city's transition from a meat-and-three scene to one that offers an incredible selection of foods.
"It's not the same town I grew up in," he says. "It's changed so much for the better."
Q: In what other restaurants have you worked?
A: My last spot before Flying Squirrel was at Hennen's downtown. I was the head bartender down there for years and actually came to Flying Squirrel as the bar manager before moving to general manager and eventually executive chef. Before Hennen's, I worked at the old High Point Restaurant, which was where Big River is now at Hamilton Place.
Q: What was your first-ever restaurant job?
A: I was a server at Fortune House on Signal Mountain when I was 15. I waited tables, answered the phones - all that good stuff. I still dream of their Sunday buffet.
Q: Since becoming executive chef, have you changed the menu?
A: It's 100% different. We try to get as much local stuff possible, and we source only humanely raised, high-quality proteins. So we make what makes sense for the season. The only thing we haven't changed is our fries. We'd have a riot on our hands if we took those away.
Q: What's the process of adding new dishes to the menu?
A: Oftentimes our menu consists of what gets us excited, so you could see everything from karaage (Japanese fried chicken) to a heavily French-inspired beet dish. We do everything in-house, from scratch, and feel it's very important to put out the food that we want to eat ourselves. We'll often start with an idea and then just manipulate it until it's something surprising and different. If we're doing a classic, we try to find the element that's going to make it our own, while still retaining some tradition.
Q: What's your go-to meal when you're short on time?
A: Curry! It's the perfect dish for getting rid of any produce or greens you have, and it can utilize a lot of different protein options. It comes together quickly and is deeply satisfying. If we're talking even quicker than that, I make a lot of salads and firmly believe that a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is godlike from time to time.
Q: When you're dining in another restaurant, what foods do you avoid?
A: Chicken dishes and most dishes that are heavy with starch. That said, it depends on the place and the chef. But, in general, these are not going to have the best value for your buck.
Q: What do you think is the most overrated food trend we've seen in recent years?
A: Deconstructed anything. (Deconstructed food is a process that involves separating all the components of a dish and presenting them together on the same plate.) I think it's so stupid and want it to go away forever. Any chef that's ever worked with me can tell you how I feel about this. Also, any food where you have to be told how to eat it.
(READ MORE: Restaurant review: Chattanooga's Flying Squirrel adds more Japanese fare to its menu.)
Q: What three other people would be at your dream dinner?
A: Both of my grandfathers who are now deceased, because I miss them and feel I never really got to know them well enough. And Samuel L. Jackson to keep things spicy.
Q: Describe your perfect day of eating in Chattanooga?
A: My lady and I live on the Southside, so we're always walking everywhere. Our perfect day would start at Alleia for cocktails and a snack, either the bacon-wrapped dates or the taleggio flatbread. Both are winners. From there, we'd probably swing through Meeting Place for another cocktail and appetizer, and to say hi to some homies. Those guys over there are awesome.
Then we'd mosey on from there to Easy Bistro for another cocktail/snack and probably dessert. Their dark chocolate financier is insanely good, and they always do a great job all around. Then wrap things up for after-dinner drinks at Unknown or Whiskey Thief. Both are wonderful for a nightcap.
Q: What spice are you liking these days?
A: Anything that's ground fresh with a mortar and pestle. We've been having a lot of fun at the restaurant lately not only being blown away at the difference it makes in terms of flavor and aroma, but also how it allows you to create a textural element because the spice hasn't been obliterated to dust unless you want it to be.
The spice that I'm using the most is freshly ground coriander. I just love how bright it is, and when you grind it fresh you really get a lot of nuttiness that is missed otherwise.
A: What food is your guilty pleasure?
Q: Poppy seed chicken. My mom used to make it for us when I was little, and it was always my favorite thing. Now that I'm older, I eat it probably more often than I should.
Mom's Poppy Seed Chicken
3 cups cooked chicken, chopped
1 can condensed cream of chicken soup
3 teaspoons poppy seeds
Juice of 1 lemon
16 ounces sour cream
1/4 cup butter, melted
Crushed buttery crackers, such as Ritz crackers
Mix together cooked chicken, cream of chicken soup, poppy seeds, lemon and sour cream. Lightly grease 11- by 7-inch baking dish. Spoon mixture into dish.
Pour melted butter over cracker crumbs, and stir together. Sprinkle over casserole. Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes or until hot and bubbly.
Email Anne Braly at firstname.lastname@example.org.