‘Nobody invites a chef to dinner.’

Chef Joseph Lenn of J.C. Holdway with Gay Lyons at her home last night. In front of them is a tiramisu trifle Gay made.

Hats off to my friend Gay Lyons.

Sometime this summer when Gay and her friend Laura Cole were having dinner at the chef’s counter at the downtown eatery J.C. Holdway, chef owner Joseph Lenn came over to chat with them. Talk turned to a dinner party someone was having and Chef Lenn quipped, “Nobody ever invites a chef to dinner.”

Gay didn’t miss a beat. “Consider yourself invited!” she exclaimed.

That dinner occurred last night. Alan and I were lucky enough to also be invited, as were Laura, who brought the wine; her friend, Jason Drotar, who is a sommelier at Blackberry Farm; and David Butler, executive director of the Knoxville Museum of Art, who made pasta for the dinner.

If I were cooking for a James Beard Award-winning chef, which Joseph Lenn is, I’d be scared to death. Gay was cool as a cucumber. The evening was a blast.

David Butler and his homemade pasta. Yum!

When Gay first started planning the dinner, it was the middle of summer and her menu featured the variety of tomatoes that were flooding into the Market Square Farmers’ Market. She was going to make a peach pie for dessert.

But it was difficult to find a date that worked for everyone, so the dinner was pushed into this month when local tomatoes and peaches are in short supply. But not to worry. The new menu showed off pears and butternut squash and a tiramisu trifle. And David’s pasta, of course.

The dinner was a huge success. Gay’s husband, Bill, said he was embarrassed this morning by the number of empty wine bottles he had to haul to the trash can! But as good as the food and wine were, they were surpassed by the warm camaraderie of a group of friends having supper together on a Sunday night. Even if one of them was a superstar chef.

Laura Cole and Joseph Lenn when they arrived.

Gay was pouring Rosemary Pomegranate Royales.

We noshed on what Gay called “dueling pimento cheeses!” The one on the left was made by Joe Pryse. The one on the right by Kelly Absher. Joe’s had a secret ingredient: shredded Velveeta! Chef Lenn identified it immediately. (I didn’t even know it was possible to shred Velveeta.) Both were delish.

Other pre-dinner nibbles included “jam grapes” — super sweet.

And, then, Gay brought out the pièce de résistance, okra fritters with Comeback Sauce. (I adore okra in any form!)

I think Chef Lenn likes them, too!

The Italian sausage and pepper sauce was simmering away on the stove.

When it was time to sit, Jason poured some Sancerre.

The 2018 Claude Riffault “Les Chasseignes” Sancerre is made with sauvignon blanc grapes.

It was a perfect complement to Gay’s peppered pear salad with homemade croutons and Parmesan crisps. The dressing was raspberry-walnut vinaigrette.

She even provided a platter with more croutons, Parmesan crisps and dressing. Great idea!

The focaccia was from Paysan, purchased at the Market Square Farmers’ Market on Saturday.

Next, Jason brought out some fabulous Chablis. Yes, I am aware that Chablis is a form of Chardonnay, which I generally hate. But it is not oaky or buttery, which is my primary beef with Chardonnay.

This was a 2014 Daniel-Etienne Defaix Chablis Vieilles Vignes.

The Chablis was paired with a fantastic second course: butternut squash gratin with Gorgonzola and cornmeal crumble. It was so awesome.

Here’s David’s pasta with Italian sausages and peppers. Mouthwatering.

Especially when paired with this 2015 Vietti Barolo Castiglione.

Then, Gay brought out the tiramisu trifle.

And Alan acted like he was going to eat the whole thing! (Photo by Joseph Lenn.)

Here’s what he really ate.

With this Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve. Fab.

Chef Lenn told us how he got into the food industry. It started when he was a bag boy during high school at Butler & Bailey Market in Rocky Hill.

After bagging groceries for a while, he was moved to working in the store’s butcher shop. The butcher asked him if he’d ever had veal loin. Lenn said no, and the butcher sold him a veal loin that was about to go on sale. “Take it home and grill it,” the butcher said. Lenn did. And loved it.

Shortly after, the butcher asked him if he’d every had a lamb loin. Lenn said no and went home and grilled one of those!

After that, whenever a cut of meat was about to go on sale, Lenn would put one aside for himself and go home and grill it. Soon, he was hooked. He decided to drop his plans to study engineering and go to culinary school — Johnson & Wales University in Charleston.

Stints at Peninsula Grill in Charleston, the Hermitage Hotel’s Capitol Grill in Nashville and Blackberry Farm followed. It was during his 10 years at Blackberry that he won the James Beard Award in 2013. He opened J.C. Holdway in 2016.

It was such a fun, fun night with loads of laughs. Like when everyone spotted the bowl of sunglasses the Lyonses keep near their back door.

Bill Lyons with Chef Lenn. Goofs.

So, here’s a good thing about inviting a chef over: He stopped by his restaurant on the way over and fried up some donuts as lovely parting gifts for everyone! (Photo by Gay Lyons.)

For his part, Chef Lenn said folks shouldn’t be nervous about cooking for a chef. “You could bring out Kraft macaroni and cheese and I’d be grateful!” he said. (Not a chance. But maybe Velveeta.)


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16 Responses to ‘Nobody invites a chef to dinner.’

  1. Jennifer Holder, on November 25th, 2019 at 8:22 pm said:

    Looks fantastic!

  2. Cynthia Moxley, on November 25th, 2019 at 8:26 pm said:

    Jennifer: You know Gay! It was amazing!

  3. Allyn Schwartz, on November 25th, 2019 at 8:52 pm said:

    Wow! I love it! Gay is the boss! Any leftovers?!

  4. Steven M Smith, on November 25th, 2019 at 8:55 pm said:

    We gotta move downtown!

  5. Cynthia Moxley, on November 25th, 2019 at 9:07 pm said:

    Allyn: Gay IS the boss! But I bet you would do it, too!

    Steven: Heck yeah you should move downtown!!

  6. Janet Testerman, on November 25th, 2019 at 9:10 pm said:

    I can totally relate. While no James Beard Award winner, during all my years of catering, people would say they would never be able to cook for me. 🙁 I’m easy to please so a hot dog would have been glorious. It’s just the thought of someone else doing the work. Way to go, Gay! Looked a-mazing!

  7. Gay Lyons, on November 25th, 2019 at 11:49 pm said:

    This was one of the best times ever. Thank you, David Butler, for that amazing pasta & thank you, Jason, Laura, & Joseph for those incredible wines.

    Jason, you had me at Sancerre…

    From the get-go, for me, it was about friends who showed up in our kitchen for supper last night. It was such a pleasure for Bill & me to host everyone & serve some of our favorites to some of our favorite people.

    Joseph: As if you needed another thing, but those doughnuts…Oh my!

    Janet: How about getting together for my favorite hot dog combo: chili & slaw?

  8. Avice, on November 26th, 2019 at 5:23 am said:

    The meal looks amazing; send leftovers by Bill. I’m glad you had a great time.

  9. Ted Smith, on November 26th, 2019 at 7:28 am said:

    Gay, invite me for hot dog combo!!!! My favorite thing. Mmm, mmm, good.

  10. Susan Sinclair, on November 26th, 2019 at 11:14 am said:

    Looked like a fun evening! I need a pasta lesson from David!

  11. Joseph Lenn, on November 26th, 2019 at 11:19 am said:

    Gay: That was the best homemade meal I’ve ever had downtown! Bill and you really know how to entertain.

    Cynthia: Knoxville is lucky to have a storyteller like yourself, and a dessert eater like Alan.

    David: I have a pasta making position waiting for you at JCH.

    Laura: I loved the wines you brought, and the dog dress.

    Jason: Thanks for explaining the wines and showing Cynthia that not all chardonnays drink equally.

  12. Monique Anderson, on November 26th, 2019 at 12:12 pm said:

    What fun.

  13. Cynthia Moxley, on November 26th, 2019 at 12:14 pm said:

    Yes, Jason: I appreciate that lesson! Maybe I need to practice it more!

  14. Laura Cole, on November 26th, 2019 at 1:18 pm said:

    Gay, that tiramisu was so rich it should have a trophy wife. I enjoyed the conversation as much as the food–what a great discussion!

    Cynthia, thanks for documenting such a fun night. I don’t know how you kept up with all the details with all that wine we had–what an ace!

  15. Cynthia Moxley, on November 26th, 2019 at 1:19 pm said:

    Laura: I was afraid to ask Bill how much wine we actually had!

  16. Gay Lyons, on November 27th, 2019 at 1:58 am said:

    OK . Best comment goes to Laura Cole: tiramisu so rich it should have a trophy wife. Um..wow.

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