The latest featured chef for our Friends of the Café dinner is Memphis-based Kelly English of venues Restaurant Iris, Second Line, and and Biloxi’s Magnolia House. His approach to Southern food, paired with international flavors, has helped Kelly make his name on the culinary scene. English was raised in Louisiana and studied pre-law at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Mississippi, where he was surrounded by a burgeoning food scene and took advantage of working in local kitchens. The experience helped him to completely change the course of his life, and he moved to Hyde Park, New York, to attend the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park. Shortly thereafter was a key component in opening several restaurants for John Besh in New Orleans.
After many visits, English fell in love with Memphis and set up shop in his flagship establishment, Restaurant Iris. His next restaurant, Second Line, is located directly next door and has a decidedly more casual feel than the more traditional Restaurant Iris. Second Line offers plenty of traditional New Orleans fare and is open late every night. The James Beard Semifinalist for Best Chef Southeast has also opened a Biloxi-based restaurant called Magnolia House. The head chef of Magnolia House, Cameron Razavi, will join Chef English in the kitchen for our dinner.
In anticipation of our upcoming Friends of the Café dinner featuring chefs English and Razavi, we asked them each a few questions.
AC: Not being a Memphis native, what drew you to Memphis to open your restaurants?
KE: Well, I went to Ole Miss which was my first exposure to this part of the world (being from New Orleans I draw stark differences in the idea of New Orleans being part of this bigger thing called the south in many ways) and I thought that we had the potential to be special here. We wanted to take a look at what we thought the people who settled in New Orleans would have cooked had they settled here in Memphis. Iris was and is my pride.
AC: You grew under the tutelage of John Besh, who has been at the center of the culinary #metoo movement. How have your restaurants responded to this situation? Or have you made any changes as you examine kitchen culture?
KE: We responded immediately to the news, posting policies and protective measures for our employees the day the news came out. I have always been proud of our workplace and have always put a premium on diversity but I am not sophomoric enough to believe that nothing has ever happened in our building that I am unaware of, and anything that I have been made aware of was dealt with swiftly. I obsess over inclusion and peace in our business since and I constantly look at ways we can do better.
AC: Your restaurants, Iris and Second Line, are right next to one another. Are you trying to create one larger experience for the diner? Or just begin a culinary empire one building at a time?
KE: I don’t think I’ve ever thought about our group as an empire, but I do think of them as siblings. Iris is the refined older sister and Second line is definitely the jerk little brother. They need each other for different reasons but are independent too. Second Line has always been closer to my personality as I grew up eating in places like that and I learned to cook in places like iris. Second line is my heart and Iris is my head.
AC: It’s no real secret that you started out in school as a pre-law major and switched majors after working in local Mississippi kitchens. You eventually graduated at the top of your class at CIA, having the opportunity to travel during your studies. Have those flavors found their way into your dishes? Or do you tend to focus more on tradition?
KE: Those travels and tradition are kind of the same. I tend to want to k now why a dish exists more than how it is cooked, that’s where I start with everything…I feel like it honors the people who cooked it more accurately. When I’m dead and gone I would rather people know why I did things over what I did.
Below are answers from both chef English and Razavi:
AC: Why did you choose to join the team as executive chef for Restaurant Iris? What was it about the company that lured you to work there?
CR: I’ve been with Kelly for seven years now. I opened and ran both of our restaurants in St. Louis and Biloxi. It was time to come to Memphis and the Iris mother ship where I have doing the day to day operations for over two years now.
AC: Can you (or maybe both of you) speak to the importance of using local and sustainable foods at your restaurants. How important is it to support local purveyors?
CR: I enjoy developing relationships with local producers. I love the idea of them coming in with something that they are working on for me to try that no one else in town will have.
AC: What inspired you to focus on the kitchen as a vocation? Was there a moment or more of a lifetime love?
CR: I was a pre-law student at the University of Oklahoma just looking for a summer job. My roommate and I wandered into a restaurant that was being built having no idea what it even was. I was hired on the garde manger station with no experience. I found myself showing up to work, but not going to class because I enjoyed it so much. I haven’t left since.
AC: What is your earliest memory of being in the kitchen?
CR: One of the first things I remember cooking was little pizzas of white bread, canned tomato sauce, shredded cheese and pepperoni.
KE: The first food memory I have is slurping boudin out of a casing that was wrapped in tin foil at Mardi Gras in Lafayette. My grandmothers in the kitchen are burned in my memory. The first thing I made on my own was tuna casserole: Can of tunafish, can of cream of mushroom, box of crappy mac and cheese…I still love it.
AC: What is your most reliable go-to ingredient? What do you always keep on hand in the kitchen?
CR: Saffron. It can be used in both sweet and savory applications. The smell reminds me of home.
KE: Brown butter…nothing doesn’t get better with it.
AC: Do you have seasonal favorites? How do you incorporate seasonal ingredients into your menus?
CR: I like the fall and winter seasons or “braising season” as I like to call it. Add a pinch of cinnamon or warm apple pie spices for a nice twist.
KE: Tomato season, and it isn’t close. Raw tomato with salt pepper and vinegar. Or cheap white bread and mayo with seasoned tomato,
AC: What was your last great dining experience?
CR: I actually don’t really enjoy going out to eat that often. A great dining experience for me is anytime I can celebrate or gather with family and friends around a table.
KE: I am a huge fan of Cam’s cooking and for the first time I really got to enjoy a dinner at Iris, it was strange for me and completely satisfying.
AC: In a culture where fast and easy solutions often prevail, what do you think is most important for home cooks to focus on? And what should they avoid buying when pre-packaged, if at all possible?
CR: My advice for home cooks is pretty simple. Recipes are just a template or a base to get you started. Change an ingredient here or there and make them your own. I like to just walk around the market and find something I’ve never tried just to gain that experience.
KE: I tend to keep tons of pickles and condiments at home along with vinegars and oils. When I want to cook I have everything I need except what to eat…so I know that the meat and vegetables that I just got from the store are at their best. Also I always keep crackers, cream cheese, and pickapeppa at home in case an impromptu gathering happens.
AC: Do you have plans for any more restaurants or ventures? Or are you comfortable settling in and experimenting where you are?
KE: We want iris to continue to evolve to where we want it, until then we are exactly the right size.