page%201top-550?v=1

Farm. Restaurant. Mouth. 

Chef Drew McDonald Shares His Philosophy on Food and a Healthy Twist on an Old Recipe

Drew McDonald is quick to say, “I wasn’t one of those guys who woke up wanting to be a chef,” but the regular patrons of The Plaid Apron certainly wouldn’t know it. 

Nestled in the base of Sequoyah Hills, The Plaid Apron is in its twelfth year and has evolved several times from its modest opening days of brunch-only to its current status as a must-go brunch and dinner spot with a full-service bar and a successful catering arm. Since opening in May 2011, the McDonalds have shifted their offerings to reflect what the public wanted or to stay afloat, as was the case during the 2020 pandemic. No matter the weekly hours or rotating menu, some things have never changed at The Plaid Apron, such as the McDonalds' commitment to buying most of its produce and meat from local farmers, baking all of their bread from scratch in-house, and upholding the philosophy that feeding people comes with a hefty responsibility.

“For me, it boils down to respecting what God put on this Earth for us to consume and being responsible with it in its purest form,” says Drew. 

Originally from Centerville, Tennessee, a town where everyone knows everyone, Drew’s plan was to become a doctor and care for the folks in his hometown where there was only one hospital. He went on to Lipscomb University and majored in Biology, but after two years, he was sitting on a C-average and wondering if medicine was the right route. He considered working in the family business at McDonald Funeral Home, but that came with its own toll in a town where everyone knows everyone. 

“It was a week before I was to go back to school, and it had been a tough summer at the funeral home. A few friends passed away, along with a few teachers. It was too much familiarity,” says Drew. “My grandmother said, ‘You can do whatever you want to do, and you could probably do a different career.’ With that, I took a step back and entertained other options. I’ve always cooked, and all the vegetables I ate growing up came from what my grandmother and aunt canned. So, in 2004, I got a job in a restaurant, Park Cafe. It was immediate – I loved it.” 

Drew switched his degree from pre-med to food service, graduated in 2005, and went on to culinary school at Sullivan University in Louisville. He lived the full culinary experience at a fast pace, working in restaurants in between classes and internships. Just as he was preparing for an externship in London, he got a call back on an application he’d submitted to Blackberry Farm. Three days later, he was in East Tennessee working on the lunch prep crew and sleeping on a mattress on the floor in Chef Joseph Lenn’s guest room. 

“I got along well with the head backer, Krissy Blauvelt, and she asked if I had a desire to learn bread. She needed an assistant, so I did that for a year. I loved it, and when she went on maternity leave, I was in charge of the bakery for a while,” says Drew. “To this day, that teaching is still a part of what we do. We bake all our own bread here.”

The journey from Blackberry Farm to The Plaid Apron came by way of New Zealand. Back in 2004, while still at Lipscomb, Drew went on a mission trip, which is where he met his wife, Bonni, a Knoxville native. The pair became a couple and eventually married in 2008 while Drew was still at Blackberry Farm. In those early years of marriage, the McDonalds started daydreaming about where their passions could take them – he as a chef, she as an equestrian. Their love for New Zealand prevailed, so within their first year of marriage, they’d applied for work visas, packed their bags, and moved to the South Pacific, where Drew landed a job at Huka Lodge, an award-winning, luxury destination, while Bonni found part-time work with an Olympic equestrian. The goal was to stay in New Zealand for a full year, but despite their best efforts, the McDonalds returned to the States after five months.

“We were newlyweds and work-driven, but we were immature. Still, I learned about menu development, the chemical balance in the root structure of vegetables, and so much more,” says Drew. “It’s been the most valuable experience I’ve ever had.”

Back in Nashville, the McDonalds found work in their respective professions, but neither wanted to settle there. Drew was mulling around an idea for his own place, and Knoxville felt like the right location. When they heard about a coffee shop up for sale in Sequoyah Hills, they jumped at the opportunity, gathered money from an inheritance, and moved to East Tennessee in late spring 2011.

“I wanted to do it as cheaply as possible and let the food do the talking. Bonni had never worked in a restaurant until then, and I don’t think it would’ve worked out had I been married to anyone else,” says Drew. “We’re a couple who fights for what they believe in.”

Today, The Plaid Apron represents Chef Drew McDonald’s core beliefs about food, relationships, and dreams. He will not compromise on quality, which is why he still works with some of the same local farmers he started with more than a decade ago. He will not sacrifice his family, which is why he still cooks at home most nights and their three boys are often milling around the restaurant. He will not short-change his own goals, which is why he’s always listening to feedback so they don’t get too comfortable.

“We sacrificed so much. We opened with four employees, two of them being Bonni and me. We washed dishes and stuck to our guns. We’ve sacrificed profitability for good food. The way I cook, I belong in California. But I love the seasons, and I love to hunt, and I don’t want to live in California,” says Drew. “We have an awesome staff, an incredible general manager, a great kitchen team, and our menu is fantastic. Our philosophy is to focus on farmer-restaurant-mouth, and to leave out the stuff in between.” 

Learn more at ThePlaidApron.co.

Lucky Collard Green Salad

Feeds 6

Ingredients

12 oz. Fresh or Frozen Black-Eyed Peas (canned are not recommended)

12 oz. Farmers Market Fresh Collard Greens De-Stemmed (substitute petite kale if petite collards are not available)

3 oz. (1 pack) Sliced Speck Ham or Prosciutto

2 Leeks

1 Small Shallot 

4 Cloves of Garlic

1/2 cup Dried Cranberries or Cherries

1/2 cup Toasted Pecans

Salt and Pepper to taste

2 tbsp. Sherry Vinegar (make sure it’s a good quality)

1/2 to 2/3 cup Olive Oil

2 tbsp. Fresh Herb (Thyme, Parsley, Tarragon, Chives, or whatever you like)

Pecorino or similar cheese to garnish.

Steps

Cook black-eyed peas as directed on the package but add sliced garlic and minced shallots. Sweat the garlic and shallots in a little oil before adding the peas and liquid to bring out those flavors. Season lightly due to a flavor reduction and concentration in the pot likker. (Pot likker is the brothy liquid left behind after boiling greens and beans.)

Once cooked, strain garlic, shallot, and peas, then return the pot likker to the pan to reduce by half, slowly.

For the speck or prosciutto, there are a few options related to preference. If you like crispy speck or prosciutto, lay it flat on a silicone mat on a baking sheet and slowly bake in a 350-degree oven until crispy. (This will make the ham salty, so remember this when seasoning your salad.) If you like it fresh, pull apart or slice into thin strips to add later to the entire mix.

Wash and put aside the petite collards. Make sure they are drained of any liquid. For the leeks, remove the upper leaves where the color shifts from white to green and the root stems. Remove a few of the layers to make sure there is no dirt hiding. Slice in rounds approximately a half-inch thick.

To cook, heat up a little butter in a heavy pan (preferably cast iron) to medium heat and sear each side of the leek until cooked through. Do not forget to season! Remove from heat and place on a paper towel to rest.

To make the vinaigrette, combine the pot likker and sherry vinegar in a small mixing bowl. Using a whisk, whisk in the olive oil to make the vinaigrette. Adjust seasoning as needed.

In a large bowl, combine just enough vinaigrette, which should be slightly warm, with the collards, leeks, pecans, and chosen dried fruit. (Too much vinaigrette will have the greens swimming, and you don’t want that!) Gently massage all together, bruising the collards to tenderize them with your clean hands. Tongs are fine here but God gave you hands for a reason. Add the black-eyed peas to the mix and toss once again. Plate with fresh herbs and shaved pecorino cheese.

Drizzle a little of the Pot Likker Vinaigrette around the salad for a chef’s touch.

“For me, it boils down to respecting what God put on this Earth for us to consume and being responsible with it in its purest form.”

"I don’t think it would’ve worked out had I been married to anyone else... We’re a couple who fights for what they believe in.”

Related Businesses

Colorado Fruit Designs.

Desserts

Colorado Fruit Designs.

Grand Junction, CO

From all kinds of fruit and brownie treats - many dipped in decorative and decadent chocolate - to ice sculptures and...

Five Central

Burgers

Five Central

Houston, TX

Five Central is a locally-owned and operated entertainment venue in the heart of the Upper Kirby District. You get to...

See More

Related Articles

See More