Meet Three Knoxville Area Chefs
Joe Cunningham, Northshore Brasserie
He remembers eating radishes for breakfast.
Joe Cunningham, chef at Northshore Brasserie in West Knoxville, was a 13-year-old American boy in a small town in Provence, France.
“My mother and I went there for a summer,” he says.“We were in a small town. We got our food every single day—the boulangerie getting fresh bread, shops that had one thing, as opposed to having a big grocery store. If you wanted cheese, you got your fromage somewhere else.
“I remember eating radishes with butter and fresh bread for breakfast,” he says.
The radishes were not cooked in butter. They were raw.
“It’s all about the flavor,” he says. “I kind of liked being able to eat a croissant or having fresh fruit available—things I probably wouldn’t have snacked on if we were back here.”
Cunningham’s French experience, coupled with his formal training as a chef at the French Culinary Institute in New York, make him the perfect chef for Brian and Stephanie Balest, owners of the Brasserie.
“I was the food and beverage director for a luxury hotel in Charleston, South Carolina,” Brian Balest says. “When Stephanie and her husband moved back to the States from Belgium, they ended up in Knoxville. We always talked about a restaurant growing up, and she said, ‘Hey let’s open a traditional brasserie like we always went to in Europe.’ We decided to go for it. It’s been wonderful. A lot of our bar guests say ‘This is our Cheers.’”
The Brasserie serves a lot of steak frites, as well as fish, rabbit, French onion soup, profiteroles and crème brulee.
Stephanie likes the Belgian tradition of a tablecloth (a sign of cleanliness) and the moules frites.
“We have mussels four different ways served with our fresh-cut pommes frites,” she says. “That was a classic Belgian dish I loved.”
She may have influenced the menu, but she says her brother is “the driving force” behind the restaurant. “Make no mistake. I never would have done it on my own.”
The hours at Northshore Brasserie, 9430 S. Northshore Drive, are 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday–Saturday and 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday with the bar opening at 3 p.m. For more information, call 865.539.5188 or go to NorthshoreBrasserie.com.
Ben Vellines, Clancy’s Tavern and Whiskey House
Ben Vellines didn’t set out to work in an Irish restaurant, in spite of the red beard he used to have. Or in spite of his Scots-Irish heritage on his father’s side. Or the Scots-Scandinavian on his mother’s side.
“Irish establishments have just gravitated toward me,” says the Knoxville native who is now chef and kitchen manager at Clancy’s Tavern and Whiskey House located next door to the Tennessee Theater on Gay Street.
Vellines has found himself in a restaurant that he says has an Old World vibe, traditional Irish staples, gastropub food and specials that allow him to show off his artsy side.
“I started out getting a job when I was a kid as a dishwasher,” he says. “I really liked the industry. Next thing I know, I worked my way up to being kitchen manager. About that time, my cousin decided he was going to open an Irish pub in Market Square, so I went with him.”
While Vellines was accumulating culinary skills, he pursued art and music at home.
“What I really wanted was to make the cool, crazy stuff you see on TV,” he says. “It’s like this: I like to paint a picture that’s really cool. It’s pretty to look at, you know? What’s even better than that is when I can do the same thing with food. Food attacks all senses.”
Clancy’s offers shepherd’s pie, corned beef and cabbage, and bangers and mash.
A most asked-for specialty is a crab cake-stuffed rib-eye roulade tied off with butcher’s twine.
“I marinate it in Guinness and cut it on a bias, so it stands up on the plate and looks like a tower,” he says.
His favorite TV chef? Anthony Bourdain.
Now he just needs a TV appearance of his own where he can show off his crab cake rib-eye roulade.
Clancy’s Tavern and Whiskey House at 602 South Gay St., is open 3 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday-Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday, 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday and 11 a.m. to midnight Sunday. For more information, call 865.219.1266 or visit ClancysTavernKnoxville.com.
Shelley Cooper, Dancing Bear Appalachian Bistro
At the Dancing Bear Appalachian Bistro in Townsend, Memphis native Shelley Cooper makes sure the food is real and rustic.
“Both sides of my family are very agrarian, and we made most everything from scratch. My father’s family is from North Carolina, and my mother’s family is from the Mississippi Delta,” she says. “I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with whoever was cooking. Food has always fascinated me. It’s part of my identity.
“My grandmother was always growing things, taking corn off the cob and doing creamed corn, shelling peas,” she says. “My grandfather used to hunt, so we’d always have quail that he just killed and deer meat and things like that, but also, on the other hand, they’d take me out to the finest restaurants.”
Her father’s side of the family “lived off the land for the most part. My uncle ran moonshine, and we had a storage shed on the side of the mountain where we’d pick potatoes. We made our own sauerkraut and cured our own ham. At the same time, when there was an opportunity to eat at a really nice restaurant, I was never denied that. I never bought spaghetti sauce in a store until I was an adult. You made your own with canned tomatoes. You didn’t feed your family or loved one anything you didn’t prepare from scratch.
“Food is an expression of love for me, even when we’re eating the simplest of meals, be it biscuits and gravy and fried chicken and mashed potatoes. This is my life and who I am,” she says. “It’s my identity, my people, my heritage, my culture. I’m very comfortable in my skin doing it.”
Cooper hasn’t been planted in the South. After Johnson and Wales Culinary Institute in Charleston, South Carolina, and at the San Francisco Baking Institute, she worked in South Carolina, Florida, New Zealand, Los Angeles, Alaska and Hawaii and, now, Tennessee.
“I definitely have wanderlust,” Cooper says. “I’m trying to plan a trip to Europe right now.”
On her trip to Taiwan a couple of years ago she discovered similarities to Southern food like pork, peanuts and greens.
“You have to be a massive multitasker,” she says about the industry. “You need to enjoy having stresses in your life. In order to be good at this at this level, you have to be able to engage those challenges and master them. That’s one of the things about this property that I absolutely love. There’s a lot of variation. It keeps me stimulated.”
Visit Dancing Bear Appalachian Bistro at 7140 East Lamar Alexander Parkway, Townsend, Tennessee 37882. The bistro is open 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. For more information, call 800.369.0111 or visit DancingBearLodge.com.