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Best New Chefs 2009: Kelly English

Kelly English

Restaurant Iris, Memphis


Born: Baton Rouge, LA; 1978.

Education: Culinary Institute of America; Hyde Park, NY.

Experience: August, New Orleans; La Provence, Lacombe, LA; Lüke, New Orleans.

We loved: Sautéed veal sweetbreads with pork belly.

How his cooking career started:
“I was filleting catfish in a little fish shack in Oxford, Mississippi, while I was pre-law at Ole Miss. I realized I liked going to work more than going to school. When I told my dad, who’s a lawyer, that I wanted to go to culinary school instead of law school, he was really excited about it. In his business, everyone is unhappy; I liked the idea of making people happy. He took me to August restaurant in New Orleans—we had gnocchi in fennel cream sauce with black truffles and blue crab, and from that first bite, I knew. That dish changed my life.”

How he opened Iris:
“I was in Memphis with my now-wife, Angela, and I heard about a space that was for sale, an old Memphis institution called La Tourelle. Inside, there was a stained glass fleur-de-lis [a New Orleans symbol], and I said, ‘Oh my goodness.’ We went outside and there was a rainbow. I said, ‘What’s next, a unicorn?’ Everything about it was exactly right.”

Biggest Influence:
John Besh (an F&W Best New Chef 1999) of August and Lüke in New Orleans, and La Provence in Lacombe, Louisiana.

Humbling moment:
“When I was cooking at Lüke, we were doing a banquet for 300 people. We had crawfish étouffée, court bouillon (a seafood stew with redfish, shellfish and tomatoes) and two pots of seafood gumbo in unmarked pots. I told someone to ‘marry the gumbo’ (i.e., combine the two pots) and they combined everything—the gumbo, court bouillon, everything. It was 15 minutes before the banquet started. I strained the stuff and separated out the seafood and did what I could, but everything tasted pretty similar. After that, we had a rule about labeling pots.”

Ingredient obsessions:
Morton’s Kosher Salt and Allan Benton’s bacon. “I’m hugely loyal to Morton’s. And I’m obsessed with Benton’s bacon—it’s a joke here, how am I going to fit bacon into every dish on the menu. I can’t imagine how bacon could be improved upon.”

Favorite childhood dish:
His father’s grillades, a Creole stew made with thinly sliced and pounded veal or pork. “My dad cooked it every Sunday to eat with grits. It’s like a meat gumbo. The first brunch we were open, my dad was in the kitchen cooking grillades with us. I still have it on the brunch menu: It’s called My Father’s Grillades and it’s precisely how he makes it.”

Favorite cheap eat:
Pork tamales at Las Tortugas outside of Memphis. “Every Monday, my wife and I go there. In my opinion, it’s the best Mexican food outside Mexico. They don’t take deliveries—every day they go to the market and pick up ingredients. And they won’t Americanize their food. If you ask for cheese on your tacos, they won’t do it.”

Favorite value dish:
Veal Holstein on the menu at Iris. “It’s schnitzel with an over-easy egg, anchovies and capers. It goes back to my dad, he used to make it all the time.”

What he’d be if he weren’t a chef:
“I would be a middle linebacker for the New Orleans Saints—that’s not a talent-based answer.“

Least favorite food trend:
“If I never see fish with mango again, I’ll be happy. It seems like whenever someone doesn’t know what to do with a piece of fish, they say, ‘Oh, mango!’”

Advice to future cooks:
“Take the hard road. Don’t flow like water to the easiest path. And be ready to be poor for a while.”

What his Food Network show would be:
Cooking with musicians. “It would be neat to do some of their road food in an upscale way, or do upscale food in a road way. And I’d get to meet the musicians. My first show would be with Wilco. I’m enamored of them.”

Family cookbook:
“When my grandmother died, my dad and his sisters put together a cookbook of all her recipes. Her desserts were incredible, and her breakfast food was incredible. I have her mirliton [stuffed chayote] on the menu at Iris. We’re an eating family, I’m telling you.”

Restaurant Iris, 2146 Monroe Ave., Memphis; 901-590-2828.

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