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.
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.
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.
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.)