Culinary community coalesces for Chef Cunningham

Chef Joe Cunningham, center, with fellow chefs Joseph Lenn, left, and Matt Gallaher at a party in 2015 at Public House to celebrate Lenn’s leaving Blackberry Farm to start his own restaurant. Lenn and Gallaher were among the organizers of Sunday’s soiree.

The Knoxville restaurant and hospitality community came together this past Sunday for an over-the-top fundraising dinner to assist the family of Chef Joe Cunningham. The popular 43-year-old executive chef at Northshore Brasserie died in July from complications after a car accident.

His industry friends organized a five-course dinner with wine pairings. They sold 200 tickets at $250 a piece and put together a silent and live auction at The Mill & Mine in downtown Knoxville. The result: they raised more than $88,000 which will go to Cunningham’s wife, Laura Petit, and two children, Noah, 19, and Willa, 10.

It truly was a community effort. “It hasn’t been any work,” said Stephanie Balest, co-owner of Northshore Brasserie, in brief remarks. “Every phone call has given us a yes. Every morsel of food, the chair you are sitting on, the plates, the wine. All have been donated.”

Cunningham’s mother, Nancy McCoy from Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, brought tears to the eyes of his friends when she briefly took the microphone. “I always knew he was special,” she said. “I am so glad he was in a place where he was loved and cared for as much as he was in Knoxville.”

The best chefs in East Tennessee collaborated on the project, producing what surely was a once-in-a-lifetime culinary experience for ticket holders. And, while the occasion certainly was sad, a sense of joy seemed to hang in the air, too, as folks marveled that so many had cooperated to pull off such an amazing event.

“I know everyone loved volunteering and the camaraderie in the kitchen was amazing to see,” said Matt Gallaher, chef-owner of Emilia and Knox Mason and one of the event’s organizers.

The dinner was a sellout.

Chef Trevor Stockton brought a huge charcuterie spread that was house made at RT Lodge, where he is executive chef.

Truffled grit cakes with burnt honey and truffle aioli produced by Chef Sarah Steffan, executive chef of The Dogwood at Blackberry Farm, were amazing as a passed appetizer.

Steffan’s watermelon with pickled rind, lime, Aleppo pepper and fried chicken skins also were passed.

Stephanie Balest, center, with guests Madge Cleveland, left, and Jenny Hines.

Chef Cunningham’s mother, Nancy McCoy, and 19-year-old son, Noah.

Guests Jenny and Rick Blackburn, seated, with Kay Clayton and Bob Lederer.

Beef tartare with frisee lyonnaise and egg yolk dressing was the first seated course. It was prepared by Chef Brian Balest of Northshore Brasserie and Jesse Newmister of Kaizen and Tako Taco.

All the servers were volunteers, too. Here’s our guy, Will Kerlin of Northshore Brasserie.

My foodie friends, Jen and Matt Mowrer.

And Michael Higdon, left, and Scott Bird.

Herb-poached Louisiana swordfish with a stew of black-eyed peas, spelt and wild chickpeas with pickled peppers and crispy okra was fantastic. Chefs Drew McDonald of The Plaid Apron and Brian Strutz of A Dopo were responsible for its deliciousness.

Guests Bob and Becky Paylor.

Jit and Ruth Koh. Chef Cunningham was Ruth’s son-in-law.

Oh my God! People could not stop raving about this ricotta gnocchi with Cheshire pork and smoked tomato. It was prepared by Joseph Lenn, chef-owner of J.C. Holdway.

Andrew Coffey, center, with Jacque and Cliff Hawks.

Jason Drotar and Laura Cole. He’s a sommelier at Blackberry Farm.

Carolyn and Doug Leahy, seated, with Alan Carmichael.

Braised Provencal lamb with summer vegetable ratatouille and oil cured olives was next. It was courtesy of Chefs Matt Gallaher of Emilia and Knox Mason and Chef Ashley Quick.

David Pinckney, right, executive chef at Cherokee Country Club, with his friend, Sam Curtis.

Dave Bowers was another of the volunteer servers. You may recognize him from his years behind the bar at Chesapeake’s or Tako Taco.

Killian Dalloz pitched in. You usually see him at Emilia.

Holy cow! This dessert: cherry clafoutis, brown butter and white chocolate. It was by pastry chef Adjryche Channing.

Northshore Brasserie’s Stephanie Balest making a few remarks.

Furrow Auction’s Blake Wilson was the auctioneer. Another donation of time.

The kitchen was a picture of organized intensity. Owners of Tako Taco, located next to The Mill & Mine, generously donated the use of its facilities for the event.

Hello from Chef Joseph Lenn.

Matt Gallaher, center, with Krissy Minton, left, of Emilia, and Susan Finnerty of Beverage Control.

Volunteers, from left, Nathan Osborne of Empire Distributors; Danny Greene from The Parlor at Maple Hall; Keith Kirk, general manager and beverage director at Emilia; Lance Davidson of Northshore Brasserie; Marty Stanton of Northshore Brasserie; Killian Dalloz of Emilia; and Katie Meyer of Northshore Brasserie.

Many, many chefs.

Ken Parent of Pilot Flying J with one of the prized auction items of the night: a dog by glass artist Richard Jolley.

Great, great job, everybody.

Here are Stephanie Balest and Chef Joe Cunningham at Blount Mansion during Christmas season of 2017. He leaves a hole. (Photo by Vaiden Taylor.)

 

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