After Robert Barclift graduated from high school, his dad gave him an important word of advice:
"You have two choices: Go to college or go to work, but ... whichever you chose to do, give it 100% in order to be successful."
Barclift chose the latter, not attending college, and today is executive chef and owner, with wife, Brooke, at Lakeshore Grille. But the road that led him to a career as restaurateur was met with a few twists and turns along the way.
It began in the corporate kitchen at Applebee's in Athens, Georgia, where he realized his creative abilities were limited. So he left and went to work in a high-end restaurant in Madison, Georgia, where, he says, he was able to grow and develop his culinary skills under the eye of a chef who specialized in Southern fusion, as well as another chef from France under whom he served as sous chef.
Here he talks about his restaurant, his mentors and the three people he would invite to his dream dinner.
Q: What sparked your interest in becoming a chef?
A: It happened once I realized I was able to express myself through my food. I was never one to sit behind a desk. I always had to be moving and creating with my hands. The fast-paced work environment provided me with a challenge and suited me well.
Q: Do you come from a family of cooks?
A: Actually, my great uncle, Walter Nikola, was the executive chef at the Lakeshore restaurant back in the '70s. We have several pieces of china and things we use that came out of that restaurant. He was a very skilled German chef.
Q: Whom would you consider your mentor in the culinary world?
A: Julia Child. She wanted to bring French cooking to people much the same as I do. I still love to make beef bourguignon to this day, and do so sometimes as a special in my restaurant.
Q: Do you offer French cuisine on your regular menu?
A: My menu at Lakeshore Grille is very much French-inspired. But I do try to make sure the menu offers something for everyone, from seafood, hand-cut steaks, jambalaya and shrimp and grits to gumbo and pastas. We make everything in-house from scratch, including our own sauces and salad dressings.
Q: Lakeshore Grille has a prime spot on the Tennessee River, but is more of a dining destination than other areas of town. Where do your patrons come from?
A: We are a bit off the beaten path — just over the dam on the other side of the river, yet only 10 minutes from downtown. We're perched above Lakeshore Marina with beautiful scenic views of Chickamauga Lake and the mountains. Our patrons travel from all over to enjoy our food and the beautiful views.
Q: What's a customer favorite on the menu?
A: It would have to be our she-crab snapper.
Q: Professional kitchens can be a stressful place, so how do you manage calm?
A: Kitchens can be stressful, but I've been in them for 20 years and have seen it all — the good, the bad and everything in between. But at the end of the day, I know I have my wife, Brooke, and children waiting on me. So no matter how stressful it gets, they are my calm place.
Q: What food is your guilty pleasure?
A: Veal sweetbreads. I believe I could eat them day and night for the rest of my life.
Q: Do you follow trends, or do you prefer to strike out on your own and set your own trends?
A: I don't feel I need to be trendy. My food speaks for itself. I enjoy clean simple food with fresh ingredients.
Q: What's the one spice in the kitchen you could not do without?
A: Different spices complement different dishes, so I believe they are all necessary. A good chef should understand this and carry them all in their arsenal. The loss of one spice should not disable your dish, yet allow you to create different depths to that dish.
Q: What is the perfect date night for you?
A: Out enjoying some of the great live music that Chattanooga has to offer.
Q: What three people would you invite to your dream dinner?
A: Chefs Robert Irvine and Gordon Ramsay, and Jon Taffer (host of Paramount network's "Bar Rescue"). I don't think there would be a dull moment during the entire dinner.
Here's one recipe he might serve.
Boneless Chattanooga Whiskey Drunk Leg Quarters
4 leg quarters
2 tablespoons margarine
Salt and pepper
1 small yellow onion, diced
8 mushrooms, sliced
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
1/2 cup chicken broth
1 shot Chattanooga Whiskey
2 tablespoons butter
Place leg quarters skin side down on cutting board. Cut a line along the leg bone and thigh bone. Slide finger underneath each bone, and separate the meat from the bone. Cut meat from the bottom of the leg bone. Cut meat back along the knee to separate the meat from the bones.
Heat oven to 425 degrees. Melt margarine in large nonstick, oven-safe skillet over medium-high heat. Season leg quarters with salt and pepper. Sear leg quarters, meat side down, in skillet. Flip over leg quarters to skin side down, and place skillet in oven. Cook chicken until internal temperature reaches 165 degrees. Remove chicken from skillet, and allow to rest.
While chicken is resting, saute onions, mushrooms, garlic and rosemary over medium heat until onions are just translucent. Deglaze pan with chicken broth, then add whiskey. Reduce until sauce lightly glazes a spoon. Add butter to sauce to cream the sauce. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Pour sauce over chicken and serve.
Email Anne Braly at email@example.com.