Alexis West, a native of Trenton, Georgia, began working at Canyon Grill at age 20 as part of her externship, a requirement for her culinary degree from Virginia College. Now 23, she's the executive chef — quite a feat for one so young, but her achievement doesn't surprise Johnny Holland, owner of the eatery atop Lookout Mountain in Trenton. Holland was the same age when he started out as an inexperienced fry cook at the grill, then became manager and executive chef before eventually buying Canyon Grill from restaurateurs Lawton and Karen Haygood.
"Alexis is one of the most-determined people I have ever met," Holland says. "Many people her age would crumble under the pressure. Alexis has strived. She holds herself and her staff to high standards, and we are thankful that she is a part of Canyon Grill."
West admits to being a perfectionist when it comes to the food she presents to diners. "I have to have a well-thought-out plan before just adding an item on a menu," she says.
Her interest in cooking started at her grandmother's knee, making fried apple pies and canning vegetables fresh from the garden.
Q: So you come from a family of good cooks?
A: My family is a Southern family, where recipes are handed down through generations.
Q: Who would you say is your mentor?
A: Kevin Dunlap. He was the executive chef at Canyon Grill before me, and he taught me so much during the years I worked for him.
He knew I aspired to become a chef and learn as much as possible. However, being as young as I am, I really looked up to all my elders and people who have worked here for many years. They have all really shown me what it takes to make a restaurant run. Without these people in my life pushing me to always be better, I would not be where I am today.
Q: What would you consider your specialty?
A: My specialty is a saute cook. I thrive under the pressure in that station.
Q: Canyon Grill is not exactly on the beaten path. What is it that attracts people?
A: Canyon Grill is in a more secluded area, but it maintains a regular customer base and continues to grow. I believe this is due to the atmosphere, quality of food, consistency and prices. We provide fine dining with high-quality food in a more relaxed atmosphere. Even though we're more of a fine-dining restaurant, we have a menu that includes different price points for guests to choose from.
Q: Where do your guests come from?
A: We have people who come from closer places like Chattanooga and Mentone [Alabama], but we also have regulars that travel from Birmingham, Huntsville and Atlanta. Many of our staff have been with us for many years and have built relationships with our guests, and we're so thankful for the support, especially during this difficult time with the pandemic.
Q: What's been the biggest adjustment for you as a chef during the COVID-19 pandemic?
A: One challenge has been making quick changes to the menu due to availability of products. As a restaurant, you obviously want many options for the guests; however, we've had difficulty getting items like beef, pork, chicken and seafood. Additionally, there are quality issues that have arisen during COVID-19. All of this limits the menu we can provide to our guests.
Q: Do you have a favorite cookbook or website that you turn to for inspiration?
A: My favorite recipe book was my great-grandmother's — I inherited it when she passed away. It's full of recipes I grew up eating. Additionally, with the internet now, I can do research with many platforms, different websites, chefs and cookbooks.
Q: You're a female in a male-dominated field. What advice can you give young women who want a culinary career?
A: I would advise all women to believe in themselves, be strong-willed, determined and thick-skinned. Do what you know, and get it done. And for anyone, not just women and not just kitchen employees: Be willing to accept constructive criticism, and learn from mistakes. At the end of the day, it will help you grow not only as a leader, but as a person.
Q: What's your favorite spice and why?
A: Garlic. I think it adds so much flavor to a recipe. When I'm cooking at home, garlic goes in just about every one of my dishes.
Q: Complete this sentence: If I had not become a chef I would have been
A: A forensic psychologist. It's my hobby. I love listening to true-crime podcasts.
Q: What's your favorite thing to make that's on your menu?
A: Salmon Bisque. It's a seasonal dish, and the development of flavor and the rich bisque makes it a delicious dish we serve during the fall.
Q: If you could add one thing to the menu, what would it be?
A: As a chef, I'm constantly thinking of new dishes to put on our menu. One item I've been working on is Shrimp Toast, which is a little spicy and saucy served with that great Canyon Grill bread.
1 can of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
2 rehydrated guajillo peppers
2 tablespoons toasted cumin seeds
1 teaspoon white pepper
1/4 cup chicken stock
6 large shrimp, peeled, with tails
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped garlic
1 tablespoon white wine
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon heavy cream
4 tablespoons butter, softened
Sliced ciabatta bread, lightly toasted
Chopped Italian parsley, optional
Lemon wedge, optional
Make chili paste: Combine chipotles, guajillo peppers, cumin seeds, white pepper and chicken stock in blender, and blend until well combined.
Make Shrimp Toast: Salt shrimp. Heat a skillet over medium heat, and once it's heated, add olive oil. Saute shrimp in pan until slightly pink, flipping to ensure an even cook. Reduce heat to low, and add 1 1/2 teaspoons chili paste and garlic, and toss until all shrimp are coated. Deglaze the pan with wine, and add lemon juice. Add heavy cream until mixture reaches a creamy consistency so butter does not separate. Add butter to mixture.
Serve shrimp mixture with toasted ciabatta bread, chopped parsley and fresh lemon wedges.
Email Anne Braly at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @annebraly.