When Dennis Kinsey took over as head chef at The Honors Course 33 years ago, his biggest challenge was getting the members of the Ooltewah golf club to stick around for a meal. To be sure, getting golfers to come to play the stunningly beautiful course was not a problem, but they were not impressed with the overly fancy items on the menu, which didn't even include a sandwich of any kind, for heaven's sake.
"You have to have chicken and tuna salad in the South, or you might as well close," Kinsey says.
The course, which opened in 1983, had two highly trained "Yankee" chefs before Kinsey, and founder Jack Lupton was ready to give it one more try — or make a drastic decision.
"It was hemorrhaging money, the kitchen was, and when Mr. Lupton hired me, he said I had to either turn it around or he'd close it down," Kinsey recalls.
Kinsey did turn it around, in part thanks to a chance encounter between four of the members — Ed Jolley, Mickey Soloff, Jerry Bogo and Bill Price — and kitchen staffer Mary Jane Brown, who was eating lunch on the patio.
"I don't think I can serve you today," she told them. "I'm too full."
Kinsey says he had started preparing a daily meal for his staff that usually consisted of a meat and two veggies, such as meatloaf with turnip greens and black-eyed peas. When the four golfers were told what Brown had eaten, they each grabbed a plate and went into the kitchen for their own servings.
"Pretty soon, I had people coming by with plates all the time," he says.
"Mr. Lupton came into the kitchen one day and said, 'What did you do?' I said, 'I just gave them what they wanted.'
"He said, 'Good job,' and walked away."
The Honors Course is a privately owned golf course designed by Pete Dye that consistently ranks among the very best amateur courses in the world. Over the years, Kinsey has cooked for President George H.W. Bush and first lady Barbara Bush and sports legends Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Peyton Manning, Joe Namath, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, among too many other celebrities to remember.
Such clientele might conjure images of ball gowns and tuxedos and meals of champagne, caviar and Caesar salads made tableside. Over the years, Kinsey has prepared such meals either for the many amateur tournaments that were played there or for special events around the holidays, but what Lupton, and the members, wanted was "Southern comfort food served with Southern hospitality," he says.
"It was very relaxed and not stiff at all, and that is what Mr. Lupton wanted," Kinsey remembers. "Oh, he would eat caviar, especially if someone sent it to him, but he wanted comfort food."
Kinsey, who acknowledges that Lupton "could light people up" when angry, says he and the late Coca-Cola magnate had a long and friendly relationship "because I did want he wanted and he didn't have to worry about me." Lupton did bequeath him the nickname "Bear" after witnessing him growl at a server who tried to "fix" a pot of soup he had made by pouring a coffee pot full of hot water into the soup.
"I was getting onto her pretty good telling her not to ever help when Mr. Lupton heard and came into the kitchen to tell us to stop. I growled at her, and he called me 'Bear' after that."
Kinsey says he learned to cook in his grandmother's East Ridge kitchen and later at the Old Plantation restaurant his family owned. His education took a giant leap forward while cooking under chef Gunther Krupp at the Read House.
When Krupp left, Kinsey went to work at Mount Vernon, which is where he met and cooked for Lupton.
"He asked me if I could make a Spanish omelet without burning it, which I did. The problem was he had already hired three people away from [Mount Vernon owner] Jeff [Messinger] and promised him he wouldn't take anybody else."
Kinsey says he explained to his future boss that he was looking for a change and was leaving Mount Vernon whether Lupton hired him or not.
Over the last 33 years, Kinsey says he was able to create a menu all his own by using the skills for preparing and presenting fine dining meals he'd learned from Krupp along with the Southern comfort entrees and desserts he picked up from his time at Mount Vernon.
"I learned a lot at the Read House," he says. "It was very professional."
Kinsey is especially known for his amaretto pie and other desserts. One of his more popular items was his grandmother's soft-serve ice cream recipe, but he eventually had to change it.
"I bought an ice cream machine, and Mr. Lupton loved it, but he came to me one day and said, 'Can you make it without so much sugar? I've gained 8 pounds,' so I learned to make a yogurt."
Other house favorites were his banana pudding, which was served warm out of the oven, and fresh-made cobblers.
"We also made sweet rolls every day," Kinsey says. "Everything was fresh."
Kinsey says meeting the rich and famous was fun, but they are just people and like all people, they like to eat, so it wasn't unusual for Charles Barkley or Michael Jordan to wander into the kitchen.
He especially enjoyed the challenges of preparing meals for the many tournaments, as they often meant feeding large groups of people several times a day. His menus included everything from homemade potato chips and hand-cut fries to shrimp and crabmeat cocktails to grilled salmon and fresh vegetables.
"It was a great place to work," he says.
Contact Barry Courter at email@example.com at 423-757-6354.
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Here are two of Dennis Kinsey's favorite recipes from his tenure as head chef at The Honors Course.
1 pound raw, boneless, skinless chicken breast
1/2 cup celery, chopped fine
1/2 cup sweet pickle relish
1 whole chopped green onion, white and the green
1 cup Hellmann's mayonnaise
1 teaspoon Lowery's Season-All
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
Boil the breast until fork-tender. In a bowl, let cool, then shred. Add the remaining ingredients, and mix.
Egg Custard Pie
2 cups whole milk
4 large eggs
3/4 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 9-inch unbaked deep-dish pie shell
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Scald milk in a pot. Temper your eggs with the milk. Add the rest of the milk. Add sugar, vanilla and salt. Pour into shell. Place on a baking pan, and bake at 350 degrees for 50 minutes or until golden brown.