With a Buzzy New Restaurant, These Memphis Chefs Remind Us What Loving Your Hometown Is All About
Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman decided to raise the row of booths along one side of the dining room inside their just-opened new restaurant concept, The Gray Canary, because they wanted to give diners sweeping, unobstructed views of the Downtown Memphis. The design touch was not an afterthought. From these seats, you can take in the serenity of the Mississippi River, the Downtown skyline, street scenes, condos being built. All of it, whether you realize it or not, a kind of visual soundtrack for the careers of two celebrated chefs and business partners for a decade now whose culinary ambitions have earned them a national profile, constant attention from the food press outside of Memphis (including from this magazine, where they were named Best New Chefs in 2013), and most recently, a coveted spot on the list of James Beard semifinalists for Best Chef: Southeast.
That national acclaim notwithstanding, though, it’s actually right here—in the hometown of Elvis, far removed from the bright lights of the big city—where Andy and Michael have deliberately chosen to stake their claim. They wanted you to have a clear view of the city around you, a postcard-quality panorama of Memphis to accompany selections from The Gray Canary menu that include cocktails like the Wild Rumpus, crab claws and smoked fish dip. The view is something of a reminder that Andy and Michael — practically “restaurant royalty” in Memphis, as The New York Times described them in early 2017 — are true champions of their hometown.
“We’ve been here our whole lives and just always decided we wanted to stay here, support the city,” Hudman tells Food & Wine a week out from a grand opening bash for The Gray Canary that’s set for Feb. 20. “A lot of it has to do with this just being home. We really feel like, if we can do anything special, we want to do it here. We’ve grown so many great relationships with farmers and friends and all kinds of purveyors. From the wine guys to the farmers to everybody. This is just home.”
What is home, anyway? Thomas Wolfe has written about what he describes as the “strange and haunting paradox” in America that movement somehow conveys order. About how it’s easy to feel most assured and certain of your purpose when you’re heading towards it, when you’re on the way there. Andy and Michael aren’t on the way anywhere. Friends who’ve known each other since grade school and who both come from big, extended Italian families, each time Andy and Michael have coaxed a new restaurant into existence since 2008 — six times, they’ve done it now — the blogs and the food writers all sit up and take notice. You come to them, not the other way around.
Barring a single exception — Josephine Estelle, a one-off concept they were approached about opening in New Orleans’ Ace Hotel a few years ago — the two friends have stuck to a pretty basic playbook in setting up their small restaurant empire here in the Bluff City. First up was Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, the inaugural modern Italian concept they opened in East Memphis’ Brookhaven Circle in 2008. Two others later followed, on the other side of the street — Hog & Hominy and Porcellino’s. Later still they headed Downtown for Catherine & Mary’s — and now, The Gray Canary.
There’s a predictability to the rhythm. After getting the new place up and running, eventually, it will happen: the what-ifs and the fresh ideas. They talk about doing something new. And there’s always something new.
Enough talk, enough time passes, it starts to turn into something real. Their Next Big Thing, once it begins taking shape, starts landing on those “Most Anticipated Restaurant Openings” lists. When the pair marches ahead with a new one like The Gray Canary — which opened at the end of January and occupies a little more than 5,000 square feet in a Downtown Memphis warehouse that’s also home to a distillery — publications from The New York Times to Vogue weighed in to give the enterprise a patina of buzz.
The experience at the Gray Canary includes a raw bar offering oysters and sashimi-style fish as well as a wood fire kitchen. Michael and Andy stayed up until 3 a.m. one morning brainstorming names for the new place. (Fun fact: The cocktail list, with selections like Confluence, Revelry and The Wilde Haire, also doubles as a roundup of the potential names that didn’t end up making the grade.) The restaurant’s location at 301 S. Front St. in Memphis also puts it inside Old Dominick, a distillery that opened in 2017 and started aging barrels of locally made whiskey for the first time in Memphis in 100 years.
“We like to talk about a place like this as somewhere we really want to be, Andy and myself, as diners,” Michael says. “So, we love to start a meal with the raw bar. Really showcasing different oysters from all around, mainly depending on what’s the freshest and what we can get best from our purveyors. A loose guideline of East Coast, West Coast and Gulf Coast. An homage to a smoked tuna dip, and then the hearth we’ve got here — we really wanted to showcase different elements, more of like a technique, right? So there’s smoking that we do from there. We do high heat. With different vegetables or different meats in the actual ash. And cooking over high heat. We take logs and burn it down so we get a real clean high heat application when we scoot them over. We’ll run bars across the top and hang things on that. It’s really like a big playground for us.”
They’ve done this often enough — opened a new place of their own, stirred up excitement about a new concept, new flavors and styles — that you’d think they ought to have this down to a science. But it’s guaranteed — a few months out, Andy can be found sweating all the little details, stewing over everything. Michael is the Zen-like picture of calm. Until at some point, those roles reverse. Every time, like clockwork.
Says Andy: “It’s usually a two-year process of us sitting around a table eventually saying, ‘Let’s just try this.’ And, like, we put a game plan together …
“... The process is hilarious,” Michael chimes in. “About three months out, when it starts really taking shape, Andy gets really quiet, really nervous.”
“I actually get stressed out and antsy six months out.”
“... But now you fast-forward to opening day, and he’s cool as a cucumber,” Michael continues. “And I’m freaking out.
“We say to everybody, I don’t know how in the world anybody runs a restaurant by themselves. There’s no way I could do this without him. I think — we just see different things in a restaurant.”
Sometimes, when everything is humming along, when it’s all just right,there are moments when a restaurant is something so much more sublime than a well-oiled machine with a commercial imperative.
What you’re greeted with is no less than the physical manifestation of the creative team behind it. It’s a beautiful, maddening, near-impossible enterprise. We know there’s no such thing as alchemy. But when you’re lucky enough to hang out your own shingle half a dozen times, to cook the food you want with your best friend in the world in the city of your choosing — maybe that’s close enough, the nearest approximation of spinning something ordinary into gold.
“We’ve always said perfection is really unobtainable,” Andy says. “For us, you’re gonna have maybe a handful of days or nights where everything is just perfect. Every dish that went out is perfect, every element of service is perfect. The vibe, the atmosphere, the energy, the whole thing — it all comes together. Our thing is, we aim for perfection but try to live in a realistic area, like, right beneath it and not waver from that area. You have to be realistic about it. There’s so many things that go into it, and you can’t stress about every little thing.”
“... because there’s so much that’s uncontrollable,” Michael adds. “We’ve said since day one, since the beginning — if we strive for perfection but live right beneath it, we’ll be happy.”