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Aaron Thompson in Lilou’s wine cellar

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C’est si bon! (It’s so good!)

Celebrate the Love for French Cuisine at Lilou

When we interviewed Jessica King and Aaron Thompson about their Italian-inspired bar (Brother Wolf) and restaurant (Osteria Stella) for our December 2022 issue, the first thing Jessica said was, “We’re a divide and conquer kind of couple.” As they celebrate the opening of their French-inspired cocktail bar and restaurant, Lilou, on the main floor of Hotel Cleo on Gay Street, it’s clear their passion and drive to offer authentic European cuisine has not waned.

“The last year has been full of discoveries and surprises, both good and bad, but we’ve been navigating owning and operating existing businesses while preparing to open the new one, all while having a three-and-a-half-year-old daughter,” says Aaron. “It’s been interesting but rewarding. Every day we’re getting to flesh out this idea that we had many years ago, but we’ve never done it on this scale before. This is bigger.” 

Their shared professional history and personal relationship dates back to the late 2000s, when Aaron became the proprietor of Sapphire, the former cocktail bar, and Jessica was in the throes of creating the original drink menu for the Peter Kern Library. Initially, they agreed not to work together so as to not blur the line between personal and professional. 

But, when a couple shares the same dream for a slew of European-inspired restaurants and bars, suddenly that line doesn’t seem so necessary. The partnership works. In 2022, Esquire named Brother Wolf one of the Best Bars in America. 

With the Italian spots in smooth operation, it was time to turn their attention to their affinity for France. 

“France is similar to Italy in that life is built around food and wine. We fell in love with the country’s history and agriculture. Around every corner is something new to discover,” says Aaron. “As for wine history, there’s nothing more definitive than that in France. My first love in wine was Burgundy, so that set me on my journey to discover French Pinot Noir and the history of how they parcel their land. Just like in America, every region of France has its specialties.” 

Which is why it was crucial for them to find the ideal executive chef to replicate the quintessential dishes of French cuisine in a way that appeals to both the French food connoisseur and the novice. They worked with a recruitment firm to find someone who was trained in the French brigade system, who spoke fluent French, and was willing to relocate to Knoxville. They spent what accumulated to more than a month traveling through various regions in France, as well as patronizing the best French restaurants in New York and Washington D.C. They wanted to see, smell, and taste everything from the basics to the exquisite. 

“One of the first things we said was to make the food approachable and not pretentious. It’s a balancing act. You can have escargot on the menu, or frog legs, but balance it with items that Jessica’s grandad is going to eat. Steak Frites is a good example of something that pleases most people because they’ve been eating steak and fries their whole lives,” says Aaron. “French onion soup is the north star. Same with beef bourguignon. These aren’t fancy dishes. They’re served all over France. If you make it the way they’re supposed to be made, they’re incredible. You have to get the stock right or it’s a caricature.” 

When the couple met Chef Benjamin Tilatti, who grew up between Gascony and the Basque country along the western Pyrenees, their interest was piqued. He’d recently sold his restaurant in Singapore, and despite working in Canada for a time, had never been to the United States. They booked him a plane ticket on faith so he could cook for them, tour the city, and see how he’d draft a menu that aligned with their goals for Lilou. 

“He grew up in the countryside and ate humble food, but that wasn’t enough to be hired. We’d trained our palates, and we had to approve the core menu so our vision was being met,” says Aaron. “He sent us an amazing menu, and his administration skills are very good. That’s hard to find – an executive chef and kitchen manager. You can tell he ran his own restaurant. All that’s to say, our primary directive is to not compromise.”

As for the interior, Aaron gives all credit to Jessica, who spent years collecting artwork and fixtures from estate sales, bringing home pieces from their trips to France, and working with local artisans, such as Pretentious Glass Co. and Emily Key, to create an authentically French atmosphere. 

“We wanted to beautify Sapphire’s place. Losing it was hard, so we had to pay tribute,” says Aaron.  “It always boils down to service. It takes time and training, but we must make people feel comfortable. We’ve given them an environment that feels like an art gallery with an open kitchen, where you can hear the chef’s French accent.” 

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Just like in America, every region of France has its specialties.

If you make [the dishes] the way they’re supposed to be made, they’re incredible.

  • Aaron Thompson in Lilou’s wine cellar
  • Chef Ben Tilatti, Jessica King, and Aaron Thompson