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Executive chef J.R. Crutcher poses for a portrait at Cafe on the Corner on Tuesday, May 15, 2018, in Lookout Mountain, Tenn.

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Meet the chef: J.R. Crutcher specializes in 'Southern food, redefined, with a twist," at Cafe on the Corner

Hands-on experience is essential when learning to cook. And if you want to become a professional chef, you'll need to pair those skills with a love of cooking that you can't help but share, says J.R. Crutcher, executive chef at Cafe on the Corner in Lookout Mountain, Tennessee.

"I learned from a lot of different chefs," he says. "It's an art. And I think it's pretty cool to make something really beautiful and make it taste good, too. I love making people smile. Food makes you happy."

He recently talked to the Times Free Press about his culinary upbringing, why he shuns trends and one of his favorite recipes for summer.

Q: You didn't go to culinary school, so who would you say influenced your cooking the most?

A: My grandmother and mother. I always helped out in the kitchen as a young boy. But I'd also credit a few of the chefs I worked with. And working with Ruth (Ruth Oehmig, owner of Cafe on the Corner) over the years has been great.

Q: What's it like working at a restaurant on Lookout Mountain?

A: Growing up, we never came up on the mountain unless it was to go to camp. To be able to work on the mountain is a blessing. It's wonderful to have a positive impact on the community.

Q: What's your favorite dish to make there?

A: The burrito bowl. It has a lot of different flavors and textures and is a great comfort dish.

Q: Lookout Mountain is not exactly a dining destination, so what are you doing to attract people from other parts of town?

A: By making great food and providing a great experience. We can provide any type of experience people are looking for — whether it's a romantic date night or a fun and relaxed atmosphere for the family. Ruth and I have a ton of fun working together and using each of our influences to create unique dishes and experiences for our customers.

Q: How would you describe your cooking style?

A: Southern cooking redefined, with a twist. I love cooking all types of food but always come back to the Southern roots.

Q: What trends, if any, are you following right now?

A: I think trends are overrated. You can't please everyone, so I think sticking to things that you know people like is great. In Chattanooga, people are used to certain foods, and I try to stick with them.

Q: What do you think of Chattanooga's food scene?

A: It's grown tremendously over the years. I think Chattanooga has one of the most-popular food scenes in the country.

Q: What's the craziest job you've ever had?

A: Working at a chicken house. Oh my God! Chickens running around everywhere. It was crazy.

Q: Fill in the blank. If I weren't a chef, I'd be

A: Probably a coach. I've always played sports — and was really good, I might add. I love kids and did coach for years.

Q: What food is your guilty passion?

A: Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

Q: What's something people would be surprised to know about you?

A: I'm a really good poker player and fisherman.

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

A: My pasta salad. It's quick and easy and perfect for warm weather.

J.R.'s Italian Pasta Salad

16 ounces penne pasta, cooked to al dente stage

1 pint grape tomatoes, cut in half

2 cups kalamata olives, cut in half

1 cup stuffed olives

1 cup diced red onion

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1 cup Italian dressing (your favorite)

4 teaspoons each dried oregano, basil and thyme

Salt and pepper, to taste

Mix all ingredients together. Refrigerate for a least 45 minutes.

Email Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com.

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