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It's Comfort Food Season

Chef Joseph Lenn Shares a Favorite Dish

Chef Joseph Lenn had a collection of interests when he was growing up, but working in a kitchen wasn’t necessarily one of them. It wasn’t until he worked at Butler & Bailey Market - first as a bagger in high school, then under owner Tom Butler in the butcher shop while in college - when he caught the fire for cooking. 

“They had stuff in there I’d never had, like lamb chops or veal chops. [Tom] would let us take things home to cook them, and I had a charcoal grill. It was an epiphany,” says Joseph. “My friends and I wanted to cook out more since it was cheaper and better, so I told them if they bought it, I’d cook it. Those friends of mine told me I should go to culinary school, but I didn’t want to work in a kitchen all day.” 

It was the summer of 1999 when Joseph watched a special story about chefs on the local news and started to consider that culinary school was a good idea after all. He talked to his dad about it, and they scheduled a tour at Johnson and Wales University in Charleston. That was all it took. 

Over the next 17 years, between enrolling in culinary school and opening his own restaurant in 2016, J.C. Holdway downtown on Union Avenue, Joseph did whatever an ambitious chef would do: he networked, researched, and worked hard. Not only did he take advice from seasoned chefs, he also took whatever shift they offered him.

“We had classes in culinary school on how to apply for jobs, and my goal was to get an internship at Blackberry Farm. Chef John Fleer offered me a job doing breakfast and lunch, and I said yes before I knew what the job was,” he says. “It was a 45-minute drive, so I was getting up at 3:45 in the morning. I did that over the summer of 2000, and it was the best thing that ever happened.” 

While at Blackberry Farm, Joseph reconnected with Robert Carter from Peninsula Grill in Charleston, where he tried to get a job the previous year. The two struck up a conversation and hit it off immediately. Then Joseph reminded the Charleston chef that he’d once interviewed for a job at his restaurant but wasn’t hired. 

“He said he’d give me a job if I came back. I worked there for three years,” says Joseph. “It was probably one of the most important jobs I’ve had because the standards were upheld there. It was very consistent, and if it wasn’t perfect, you had to start over. It taught me to work quickly and accurately.”

The next decade proved successful as Joseph’s professional experience bore out across Tennessee, from The Hermitage Hotel’s Capitol Grill in Nashville to Executive Chef of the Barn Restaurant at Blackberry Farm. He was named a Grand Chef by Relais and Chateaux, and then received the James Beard award for Best Chef Southeast in 2013. When the Daylight Building came available in 2015, he jumped on the opportunity. He’d had his eye on the property for years.

Opening J.C. Holdway, named lovingly after his Uncle Joe, meant Joseph’s culinary experience was coming full circle. 

“That first veal chop I cooked was over wood. I remember the flavor of that. We also had a wood-burning grill at the farm, and you cannot replicate that with gas. There was nothing like that in Knoxville, so I wanted to create something new,” he says. “We always cook with some sort of comfort. It’s elevated comfort food with familiar dishes.” 

JC Holdway Black-eyed Pea, Kale and Benton’s Bacon Soup

8 ounces Benton’s bacon 1/4”-dice

1 quart onion 1/4”-dice

2 tablespoons garlic thinly sliced

2 cups carrot 1/4”-dice

2 cups celery 1/4”-dice

2 cups black eyed peas dried (soaked overnight)

2 quarts chicken stock

2 bay leaves

1 tablespoon thyme chopped

1 tablespoon parsley chopped

½  pound kale (stems removed and leaves torn)

Salt and Black Pepper To taste

In a medium sized stock pot over medium heat, cook bacon until oil is rendered. Add onion and garlic and sweat until translucent. Next add carrots, and celery and sweat until celery starts to become translucent. Add strained black-eyed peas, chicken stock, sachet of bay leaves, thyme, and parsley stems and simmer for 15 minutes. Add collard greens and cook until black eyed peas are soft, approximately 10 more minutes. Finish with salt and black pepper.