As the daughter of a U.S. Army chaplain, Sara White, executive chef at St. Elmo's 1885 Grill, moved around from city to city a good deal. As a result, she was exposed to a number of different people and foods common to their cultures. So it wasn't surprising that her first job was as a hostess at Texas Roadhouse.
"I knew within two weeks, though, that I fully belonged in the back with the cooks despite my lack of any culinary knowledge," she says.
Though she didn't come from a family of cooks, her parents gave her a strong footing for pursuing her goals.
"Once I was in the kitchen, I never looked back," she says.
To her parents' dismay, she dropped out of art school at East Tennessee State University, moved to Kentucky and enrolled in the culinary program at Sullivan University in Louisville. Following graduation, White moved to Chattanooga and began working at 1885 before owner Miguel Morales offered her a position at Feed Table and Tavern, another of his restaurants he was opening. She accepted the position of sous chef under Feed's executive chef, Charlie Loomis, where she stayed for three years before returning to 1885 as executive chef.
Q: Whom would you consider your mentor, and what are some important lessons he or she taught you?
A: Under Charlie, I was able to see his creative process, which aligned with my own values of innovative yet not overly complicated food. Miguel Morales has been an undeniable driving force for relentless quality in all aspects of the restaurant. Beyond teaching me the intricacies of a good business, he has showed me how to be a leader above being someone's boss. To me as a chef that is my highest goal.
Q: Describe 1885's menu. It seems to be a mix of Southern favorites.
A: We focus on Southern staples with a coastal influence. Our pimento cheese and okra appetizer is an immediate winner, while our wings are a six-time award winner. The shrimp and cheese grits are undeniably crowd favorites. Our focus has always been to let the ingredients speak for themselves. My goal is to continue to focus on moving toward "slow food."
Q: Do you follow trends?
A: Great food doesn't need too much, so trends aren't especially thrilling to me. I enjoy experiencing them, but in my love for food and cooking, I generally follow a less-is-more approach.
Q: How will the menu at 1885's new location at Cambridge Square in Ooltewah differ, if at all?
A: Our newest location will keep many of our staple items while expanding with other new exciting items.
Q: Finish this sentence: If I hadn't become a chef, I would be ...
A: A travel journalist. Whenever I have any chance for travel, my bags are packed. I enjoy getting lost in new cities and engrossing myself in other cultures. People and places are inspiring to me. My ultimate goal is all seven continents. I've made it to four but would really like to delve into America's awesome expansiveness and oddities.
Q: What food is your guilty pleasure?
A: Regardless of exciting locations when I travel and new foods, I will always take a pause for good pizza.
Q: As a woman in a male-dominated field, what advice do you have for young women who want to pursue a culinary career?
A: I've always chosen to be so focused in my goals through food that I've never focused on being, generally, the only female in the room. It's always been a bit of escapism to return to the fire of the kitchen every day. That being said, anyone who chooses this career path has to be driven beyond all doubt. Like anything great, the hard times become a great sense of pride moving forward. Knowing who you are and what you are here to accomplish will carry you through the trials inevitable in a kitchen. But I love every minute of it.
One of Sara White's favorite dishes to make during the holidays is her coq au vin. "It's a wonderful braised chicken dish, and it takes about two and a half hours to cook, so once it's started, you can enjoy your company or finish house cleaning before they arrive," she says. "This is just a classic recipe I really enjoy that always feels homey."
Coq au Vin
5 strips of bacon
4 whole chicken legs (thighs and legs)
Salt and pepper, to taste
3 cups flour
3 ounces brandy
8 ounces carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
3 cloves of garlic
1 yellow onion, medium dice
8 ounces crimini mushrooms
750 milliliters of red wine (I prefer a pinot noir)
1 quart chicken stock
1 bunch of thyme
Cut bacon into small strips, and fry in a Dutch oven, rendering the fat. Remove bacon from pan, leaving bacon grease in the pan. Season the chicken with salt and pepper, and dredge in the flour, shaking off any excess. Sear in the bacon fat on all sides until golden brown. Pull out the chicken pieces when seared.
Turn off the heat, and add in brandy, scraping up all the brown bits on the bottom from the chicken. Add carrots, garlic, onions and mushrooms, and begin to caramelize.
Once those are browned, return chicken to pan, and add red wine. This should cover the legs and vegetables 2/3 of the way, so add stock to completely cover chicken and vegetables. Add bunch of thyme, and reduce heat to a slow simmer; simmer for about 2 1/2 hours or until the sauce has thickened and the chicken is fully cooked.
Email Anne Braly at email@example.com.