Young chefs always seem to find a playful side to food, willing to show a lively, experimental side to chefdom. Watching new chefs as they scale the restaurant scene with their bold talents is exciting as they introduce new foods and techniques.
Here are two chefs under 40 who are making a significant impact on the Chattanooga-area restaurant scene as they introduce innovation, creativity and dedication to their menus, as well as memorable dining experiences we'll want to revisit time and again.
Jason Greer, 31
Jason Greer was just a wee lad when he caught the cooking bug.
"I would say I was about six or seven years old," he says.
No wonder. His granddad, Lawton Haygood, brought Canyon Grill to the area, then followed that with Sugar's Ribs and Boathouse Rotisserie and Raw Bar. So cooking was in his blood, so to speak.
Greer started out bussing tables for his grandparents when he was 10 but left the family restaurant dynasty to work the register at McAlister's Deli when he was 16. After graduating from college with a degree in economics, he returned to the restaurant business, admitting that it was scary at first. He hadn't gone to culinary school, as had many chefs his age.
"I have no shame in saying that I was absolutely terrified when I first started this career," he admits.
He took the reins at Canyon Grill when he was 22, and, with Haygood, opened SideTrack on his 27th birthday.
"The learning curve is massive. Experience is everything, and it takes an immense amount of time to grasp what it takes to run a restaurant, so, truthfully, even the old guys are still figuring it out."
Greer emphasizes putting a new spin on food, making it fun and conversational, bringing a different take on dishes than many who've been in the business for decades.
"Chefs and diners alike shouldn't take themselves too seriously," he quips. "I'm a big believer in subdued complexity. I like for food to appear approachable, yet elegant and simple — while its components and their preparation are unknowingly intricate."
SideTrack's menu is best described as one that offers upscale comfort foods, presenting classic fare in new ways, such as SideTrack's chicken liver mousse served with Niedlov's sesame country loaf; red curry chicken with coconut milk, ginger, garlic, peanut and cilantro; and steaks, fish and lamb cooked over a wood-fire grill.
"When we first opened in 2017, we started with a very simple, all-around approach because we didn't really know how the area would respond to a nicer restaurant," Greer says. SideTrack brought a new dimension to dining to an area of North Chattanooga, Rivermont, that hadn't seen fine dining before. "After about a year, we decided to double down on our concept and moved to an a la carte format to encourage a shareable style dining experience and introduced a sense of seasonality that would change as the year progresses."
The restaurant business is a right-brain-left-brain thing for this young chef.
"I'm equally business-oriented just as much as I am creative," he says. "I think most chefs just want to create new dishes, and in a perfect world, I'd be right there with them. But I absolutely love figuring out how we get better inside and out as a business."
So he's constantly asking himself: How do we improve our staff? Our bottom line? The guest experience?
"And how do we ultimately grow?" he asks, adding, "You have to be good at a lot of very different things to make it in this business, and that's a challenge that excites me."
Shaved Fennel Salad
2 fennel bulbs
1-2 oranges, cut into segments (pith and rind removed)
1/4 cup good-quality extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon champagne vinegar
2-3 Calabrian chilis, sliced thinly (Fresno chili or red jalapeno will work as a substitute.)
1/2 cup pitted Castelvetrano olives, smashed or rough chopped
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped fennel fronds
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped dill
Shave the fennel very thinly on a mandoline. After removing the orange segments, reserve the membrane and core and squeeze the juice to be used in the vinaigrette.
For the vinaigrette, whisk the olive oil, vinegar, chilis and the juice from the reserved orange core together and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Toss the shaved fennel in the vinaigrette, and let it marinate for 5-10 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients and toss until mixed and all ingredients are well coated. Adjust seasoning as needed and serve.
Khaled Albanna, 30
Khaled Albanna orchestrates a medley of flavors to each dish he creates at Calliope, a word that translates simply into "a beautiful voice."
Albanna opened his restaurant in September 2021 inside Flora de Mel, a meadery located in the expanding culinary scene along McFarland Avenue in Rossville. In early 2023, he'll move his restaurant into a nearby stand-alone building. But for this young chef, it all began as a child growing up in Amman, Jordan, where his family owned a restaurant. He worked at the restaurant, doing odds and ends and helping out wherever he could. But it wasn't until his teen years, about 13, he says, when he realized a calling in the culinary field.
"I always loved what my mother did," he recalls. "And her presence in the kitchen inspired me. As I got older, I did food prep in my parents' restaurant during the weekend and assisted in the kitchen a couple of nights during the week. It was great."
But then that passion waned a bit. In 2012, Albanna visited Chattanooga, fell in love with the city and enrolled at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, getting a degree in civil engineering and working at Lookout Mountain Club for some extra money. Leaving the culinary field behind was a good decision — at least he thought it was. "I didn't want to step foot in a kitchen again," he says.
But something kept knocking in the back of his brain, a feeling he couldn't deny. He knew he was a good cook, a creative cook with a background on which he could draw.
"I began to realize that excelling at what I love is more rewarding than a high-paying job," he says. "I would have saved a lot of time and money if I'd realized that earlier."
So he took to the road, working in restaurants from Chicago to New York, and at the age of 27, he returned to Chattanooga and became executive chef at The Edwin.
"It wasn't intimidating at all," he says. "I was very familiar with the role before getting the actual position. The way I look at it, if someone takes on a senior leadership position and is nervous, then you're not ready for it. You have to be confident and open-minded to succeed as a leader. The future of the business and its employees depends on your drive and vision."
His position as executive chef gave him a sense of motivation that continues to fuel him, he says. In 2021, he left The Edwin to open Calliope, creating a menu that reflects his background while adhering to the farm-to-table philosophy.
"Our menu," he says, "speaks of my influences and inspiration through cultures. It's a way to bring my childhood and adulthood together, and let the food speak for itself."
Whipped Feta Dip
1 1/2 pounds of feta (use feta in brine, not dry or crumbled)
1 teaspoon feta brine
1/3 cup sour cream
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 tablespoons good-quality extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons good-quality honey
1/2 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
1/2 teaspoon grounded coriander (preferably freshly ground)
Salt, to taste
Freshly cracked black pepper
Strain the feta out of the brine, saving the brine, then small dice or crumble the feta and place it in a food mixer with a whisk attachment or a food processor. Add remaining ingredients and whip until smooth.
Serve immediately or refrigerate until ready to serve with a generous drizzle of honey and olive oil. Finish with a pinch of black pepper and a few leaves of mint. Serve with warm pita bread. Makes 4 cups; may be halved or doubled, depending on the size of your crowd.