Debating the staff of life: free bread with dinner?

Joseph Lenn, chef-owner of J.C. Holdway, brings a skillet of cornbread to the table.

My husband is a bread lover. Raised in North Knoxville, Alan Carmichael says his family had bread at every meal: biscuits, cornbread, dinner rolls — or just sliced store-bought white bread stacked on a plate in the center of the table.

We have enjoyed traveling quite a bit around the United States, Canada and Europe and we’ve noticed that at many of our favorite out-of-town restaurants, customers are greeted with baskets or plates of the most amazing breads. Free of charge. With excellent butters or other toppings. Alan is always in heaven when this happens!

Not long ago, we asked ourselves, “Why don’t the restaurants in Knoxville have wonderful complimentary bread on the table?” So, we consulted with some of our favorite hometown chefs and proprietors and here’s what we found out: it’s complicated.

Randy Burleson has some of the best restaurant brands in East Tennessee. We are regulars at his upscale Bistro By the Tracks in Bearden, the Sunspot on campus and all the Aubrey’s locations. He told me recently that deciding whether to have complimentary bread service is problematic.

At Bistro by the Tracks, bread service is automatic. At Aubrey’s, the servers ask if you’d like some bread and butter. At Sunspot, it doesn’t come up!

“There’s so much waste involved with bread service,” Burleson said recently. “We just throw away so much of it. We are re-thinking it. Maybe if we charged for it, people wouldn’t be so quick to waste it.” He said he’s considering upping the quality of his bread and charging for it.

Bread and butter at Bistro by the Tracks.

That’s what Matt Gallaher, chef-owner of Knox Mason and Emilia, does. “When we opened Knox Mason, we were on such a tight budget, we couldn’t afford to give away anything!” he said. “The raw ingredients of bread are very inexpensive, but the labor to make bread is every bit as expensive as anything else when you are running a restaurant.”

Blake Sallie joined the tiny Knox Mason, then located on the 100 block of Gay Street, as a line cook, but showed a real interest in baking bread. Gallaher gave him a key to the eatery and, after the restaurant closed every Friday and Saturday, Sallie would stay there until midnight practicing and experimenting with bread baking. Soon, he was making all of Knox Mason’s bread as well as bread for Gallaher’s Italian restaurant on Market Square, Emilia.

“He became a real expert on the different sensitivities with bread. You can’t just follow a recipe,” Gallaher said. “Temperature, humidity, mineral content of the flour — all make a difference.”

A couple of years ago, Gallaher and Sallie partnered to open Paysan Bread and Bagel shop just north of downtown. It sells bread to the public, we well as supplying Gallaher’s restaurants — and some others.

Gallaher always has charged for bread rather than just bringing it to the table. “There’s a lot of waste in compulsory bread service,” he noted. “And, today, there are so many gluten and celiac issues, that some people get really offended if gluten lands on their table.”

At Emilia, the warm focaccia, which has been on the menu since the restaurant opened in 2016, always has been the best selling item. It costs $5.

The warm focaccia at Emilia. It is delicious.

At J.C. Holdway on Union Avenue in downtown Knoxville, chef-owner Joseph Lenn feels the same way about bread service.

“We make our bread and the amount of labor that goes into sourdough is unbelievable,” he said. “All together, it takes three hours of work for eight loaves of bread. And that doesn’t count the time when it’s rising! That’s why bakers have huge ovens.”

Lenn made the starter for his sourdough in the summer of 2015. “It must be maintained,” he noted. “We put a lot of care in what we make.”

Why go to the trouble? “I wanted something artisan-made,” Lenn said. He keeps some extra sourdough starter “tucked away.”

But one of his best-sellers is cornbread, which is priced at $7 and served with sorghum butter. “That butter is not inexpensive,” he laughed. Another reason he charges for the breads instead of giving it away? “I’d rather people fill up on food that is more delicious than bread.”

Cornbread and sorghum butter at J.C. Holdway.

The restaurant you will see Alan and me at the most is Bistro at the Bijou. It’s practically next door to us and we love the food, the atmosphere, the jazz music and Martha Boggs, the proprietor. They serve complimentary cornbread and biscuits, but only after the server asks the customer if he or she would like some.

“It’s not automatic. Sometimes offering people bread is like you are offering them heroin!” Boggs chuckled.  “So we always ask. If a server doesn’t offer you bread, they’re not doing their job.”

The Bistro has a small kitchen and bread can take a big chunk out of the available cooking space. That’s another reason it’s not just handed out. But, Martha has a prediction. “All diet trends come and go. And I predict bread is coming back!”

A basket of complimentary cornbread at Bistro at the Bijou.

That’s good news for Alan. And for my friend Gay Lyons, another fan of our local restaurants. “I want bread,” she says without hesitation. “I want it to be put there! I don’t want to have to decide if I want to be virtuous. I want you to make that decision for me!”

How do you feel about it?

Some other restaurant breads we have loved:

A server with a vast assortment of house-made breads at Marea on Central Park South in New York City. All free.

Back down south, huge complimentary biscuits are served with pimento cheese at the best restaurant on the Gulf Coast (in my opinion), Voyagers at the Perdido Beach Resort in Orange Beach, Alabama.

A choice of the breads offered gratis at Madison’s, the tony eatery at Old Edwards Inn in Highlands, North Carolina.

I love the way the bread is served at DB Bistro Moderne, chef Daniel Boulud’s casual French bistro a block east of Times Square in New York City — in mint julep cups. No charge.

Here’s the endless complimentary bread selection at Alan’s favorite restaurant, Le Bernardin in New York City.

Our traveling companion Gary Bentley seen behind some melt-in-your-mouth breadsticks placed on the table of CottoCrudo, the restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel in Prague. Helps you keep up your strength while studying the menu!

Wow, look at the bread selection at the Michelin-starred Field restaurant in Prague. My favorite was the pretzel roll.

Back to New York City for the bounteous selection of on-the-house bread offerings at Carmine’s in the Theater District.

Bread offered at Garde Manger in Old Montreal comes with a great spread containing Old Bay seasoning and Worcestershire sauce, among other things. The eatery is owned by chef Chuck Hughes and was featured in the TV show “Chuck’s Day Off” on the Cooking Channel.

Simple but delicious bread comes automatically at acclaimed Blackbird in Chicago.

The bread basket that welcomes diners at Becco in New York City comes with delicious hummus and olives. We go there on every trip we make to NYC. Sadly, we had to cancel our trip there this year.

Now, are you hungry?



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