The Oliver Royale Invites Everyone to Try Something New
The goal for the Oliver Royale was simple: create an authentic, intimate space where guests could enjoy a local, seasonal and original dish in a historical building where the integrity had not only been maintained but fashionably updated.
Maybe the goal wasn’t entirely simple, but that didn’t keep owners and developers Philip Welker and Ethan Orley from moving forward with the idea to pair a one-of-a-kind, chef-driven restaurant with their one-of-a-kind boutique Oliver Hotel.
Casey Brooks, marketing and events coordinator, has been with the restaurant since its first day. Opened in November 2015, they just celebrated a successful third year.
“The goal from the beginning was to be available to anyone on Market Square to dine,” says Casey, who’s been in the Knoxville restaurant industry for nearly a decade. “We don’t want to be intimidating, but we want to maintain an upscale atmosphere.”
Walk into the Oliver Royale and one of the first things you’ll notice are the paired globe light fixtures. Simple and bold, they float your gaze to the well-stocked bar, a beautiful sight for those who appreciate a well-crafted cocktail. The dining area is small, comparatively, but once seated, the enclosed space is not even noticeable. The intimacy adds to the mood, and the modest flickering candle in the center of the table is exactly enough. As a patron, there is no pressure to be one way or another. Instead, the dimly lit room invites you to have a seat and enjoy.
However, the atmosphere is only one arm of the body, and Oliver Royale is so much more than its appearance. It has to be, because, at a chef-driven restaurant, there is one pressing question that must be answered: How’s the food?
Executive Chef John Gatlin doesn’t mince words.
“This place should be a hub for Knoxvillians who enjoy food and want to get in tune with the season and know what’s going on with food,” he says. “We create an opportunity to try trending food and cocktails on a much more approachable stage. The menus we write are fundamentally sound. We’re not chasing trends that don’t fit Knoxville.”
John’s experience in the kitchen stems from his high school’s culinary arts program in Cleveland, Tennessee, a hobby he balanced with playing baseball. Eventually, he had to choose, and after working as a kitchen manager in a local restaurant, he enrolled in Cordon Bleu in Atlanta. Using the school’s connections and his own determination to carve out a career, John worked in the best restaurants in the city, where he could hone his skills, learn from his mistakes and decide where he wanted to go upon graduation.
“The classroom gives you a chance to learn and look by experimentation. In the kitchen, you learn by failure. In the beginning, you have to be a spectator, and then they put you on a task to show you’re not a complete idiot,” John says, laughing. “At Joelle, I blanched asparagus six hours a day. But when you don’t mess up, they see what you can do.”
Quickly, John realized his brain was well-suited for the chef’s hat. It was a science for him, organizational and analytical. He became intrigued by pairings, discerning scents and sounds, and morphing them into flavors. Like an experimentalist in a lab, John tracked his findings.
“It’s a tactical mentality,” he says. “You’re logging flavors, not evening thinking about it. Logging what coffee tastes like, logging what lime does to water instead of a lemon. Smells and temperatures outside, too. That’s why barbecue smells good in the summer. If you think about it all on a plate, you think about the aromatics. You even consider the steam off the plate.”
After myriad culinary gigs across the South, John landed in Knoxville and, then, in front of Philip and Ethan, auditioning for the position of executive chef at their up-and-coming restaurant.
“I had to submit 12 menus. Ethan is meticulous, interested and a foodie. The initial menus were chaotic because we had to discuss everything and bounce ideas back and forth,” John recalls. “I felt the pressure, but we’ve always had a good, solid crew who’s had my back and could handle curve balls we’ve been thrown.”
One of the perks of being on the team from the restaurant’s inception was being able to lay out the kitchen exactly how John preferred it. Then came the menus, which are drafted every three months in coordination with the season and which ingredients are readily available. Three years in, and they’ve never unearthed an old menu.
“We try not to be redundant. We don’t use the last playbook. I write every menu from a new, fresh thought process. I won’t even use the same literature where I got [previous] inspiration from,” John says. “When the weather is off, it throws me off. The farmers and I communicate, and if they say, ‘All we have is kale and squash,’ then that’s what I’m making.”
Though there are staple dishes that never roll off the menu—the Oliver Burger, for example, and Philip’s must-have Royale Ramen—John endeavors to put ingredients and pairings that may be unfamiliar to patrons. The goal is always to raise the bar with regional comfort dishes, but he believes, just like Mom used to say, that everyone should try new foods.
“If you come in here, you should try something that you don’t really know or understand. In no way would we make something completely unknown and it be terrible,” he says. “If it’s an unknown, it needs to be good.”
And to be good, the team must be top-notch. This has been the biggest lesson for Casey and John—and General Manager Sondra Richardson, who says restaurant standards are higher than ever, so investing in the people who cook and serve the food is key. With only 31 on staff, the entire orchestra must be in sync and in tune.
“When you think about the small staff and what we’re executing, we all do our part. The industry isn’t for everybody, but some people are just built for it,” says Sondra, who managed La Tasca in Washington D.C. for five years prior to relocating to Knoxville. “I love having the opportunity to cultivate and teach staff. They are our ambassadors, and they pass that on to the guests.”
Which means that when a patron asks for a staff member’s recommendation for a dish, the answer is always genuine.
“We do the same daily pre-shift review, talking about where things come from, to give them all the information they need. John makes a few dishes each night to taste and understand, even sample drinks,” she says. “When people ask what we recommend, the answer is honest. They study packets of information, bar lists, cocktail notes. If someone wants halibut and wants a paired drink, our staff can answer that.
“Our logo is literally a crown upside down. We have a beautiful restaurant, but don’t take it so seriously,” she says. “We want to be confident and true to our product without being pretentious. Knoxville people are loyal once you’ve earned their trust.”