Local and in season
Gone are the days when Tennessee’s primary food culture was battered and fried, smothered and covered. Now, with a raised collective awareness on where ingredients are coming from, the concept of farm to table is all the rage—and Knoxville’s culinary landscape has followed suit.
At the forefront of the movement stands Blackberry Farm alum, Matt Gallaher, chef-owner of Knox Mason, which debuted in 2013. All of Gallaher’s produce is sourced locally, and he whips up dishes with whatever’s in season—like a savory brioche bread pudding dressed up with oyster mushrooms, red peas, crème fraiche, and greens—meaning the menu changes multiple times a year. Though Gallaher has cooked in more than a dozen countries, his style has a distinctly Southern flair. One of the most ordered items on the menu, for example, is the pork rinds snack with bourbon barrel-smoked paprika and Tennessee Sunshine hot sauce, and his entrées range from cornmeal-crusted catfish to pork belly confit, and everything in between. Gallaher’s desserts channel his roots, too, through specialties like the Tennessee Derby Pie made from Olive and Sinclair chocolate, Jack Daniel’s whiskey, Muddy Pond sorghum mousse, and whipped cream.
Next door, local legend Holly Hambright has long been another name celebrated for her culinary concepts. In fact, she’s even credited with giving Gallaher his start, after taking him on as an apprentice of sorts during the early days of his career. The owner of Holly’s Eventful Dining, Hambright has cooked for politicians and celebrities spanning generations—from the Queen of Thailand to Frank Sinatra—and recently debuted Holly’s 135, a casual-cool dining experience that’s giving Knoxvillians another viable farm-to-table option on Gay Street. While every dish on the small yet diverse menu is chock full of flavor, the Meat-and-Three plate is always a good choice to sample a bit of everything—you’ll get a starch, a protein, a side, and a sauce—and if you’re not a picky eater, leave your fate in Hambright’s hands, as she’ll gladly choose for you. The imaginative cocktails—some of which, like the Bible Belt (Jefferson bourbon, grapefruit, honey, vanilla, and rosemary), are available on draft—perfectly complement each meal, which must be completed with dessert from Magpies, Hambright’s sister Peggy’s famed bakery that supplies Holly’s 135 with all its sweet treats.
For meat lovers, there’s no better after-work spot for grub than Stock & Barrel, situated right on Market Square. The cozy gastropub partners with farms in the area to promote local economic sustainability within the community. The result? Sensationally juicy burgers like the Farmhouse—barrel-aged cheddar, fried egg, Benton’s bacon, tomatoes, onion, and garlic aioli atop a Flour Head Bakery bun—and hearty sides, such as the sinfully decadent duck confit fries. There are even creative vegetarian options like the Deadhead, a black bean quinoa “burger,” as well as gluten-free buns available.
Newcomer OliBea steals the show down in the Old City with its inventive breakfast menu served mornings and early afternoons six days a week (a late night menu is reportedly in the works). Chef Jeff DeAlejandro’s motto is to bring Knoxville the best of fresh, local, and simple ingredients affordably, and he does just that with an array of staples like the Carnita Tostada or daily breakfast specials, such as an acorn squash dish stuffed with quinoa, Brussels sprouts, butternut squash, and kale, topped off with a duck egg. Those who don’t have time to stick around and wait for their food to be prepared can even order in advance online, then pick up their meal once it’s ready.
And while, sure, there are plenty of shiny, new places to eat around town, let’s not forget the originals—the ones who have been focusing on quality far before the farm-to-table movement became a trend. Beloved local institution The Tomato Head has been catering to the vegetarian, vegan, and health-conscious patrons since it first opened in 1990 with a large selection of pizzas, calzones, sandwiches, and salads and an impressive roster of regional craft brews to boot. And now with a more expansive second space down on Kingston Pike—and an increased awareness on where one’s food is coming from—even more food enthusiasts are able to enjoy the Tomato Head’s healthy fare seven days a week.
Knoxville’s culinary climate is indeed diverse and gives its Tennessee neighbors and fellow foodie cities Nashville and Chattanooga a run for their money. So many new restaurants opening on the regular—plus, seasoned industry veterans like Hambright and Gallaher leading the pack—will only continue to raise the bar and provide a creative palette for chefs in the years to come.