Fresh Produce the Key Ingredient at these Chef-Driven Eateries
Knoxville’s famed The Bistro at the Bijou holds the distinction of being situated on the premises of the city’s fourth oldest building. The Bijou, originally named Knoxville Hotel when it opened in 1817, catered to dignitaries from Andrew Jackson to Ulysses S. Grant. During the Civil War, it was occupied by Union forces.
Designated a historic landmark in 1975, the Renaissance-style building soon became home to The Bistro in 1980. It’s come a long way from standard Southern fare to its current state of success under owner Martha Boggs, who’s boasted a “farm-to-table” philosophy since taking over the reins in 2009.
Martha Boggs, like many others in the culinary industry, embraced the local movement years ago as a necessity—not as a trend or buzzword.
Boggs, like many others in the culinary industry, embraced the local movement years ago as a necessity—not as a trend or buzzword. She owns a five-acre farm eight minutes from the restaurant, and much of its produce can be found on her seasonal menus. A commitment to vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options is important to her.
“I like to cook vegetarian food and add protein,” says Boggs, adding that The Bistro serves cuisine that is “new” American with strong Southern influence. “It was never intended to pander to any group; I just like vegetables.”
Brunch is especially popular at The Bistro, and locally, it’s a media sweetheart for its signature dishes. The Cool Hand Luke—a 10 egg omelet with a choice of up to four ingredients with cheese grits or potatoes—is a big draw for diners.
What keeps her menu fresh and interesting is the fact her crowd is very diverse. “We do not have average customers,” she continues. “Our location next door to a popular theater brings in a huge variety of clientele. We serve everyone from the down-and-out, just-released-from-jail types to the society types and the artists who perform at the Bijou.”
Embracing fresh produce is more than a trend for these restaurants as well. It’s a lifestyle they proudly serve daily to customers.
The Omaha, Neb.-based Eat Fit Go launched with one unit in 2016. It now boasts more than 40 of its unique grab-and-go concepts throughout the Midwest and in Atlanta. What sets it apart from other healthy-focused outfits is that its offerings are chef focused, says Karl Marsh, who acts as chief culinary officer for the company.
“It’s really easy for most chefs to come up with food that tastes good,” says Marsh. “It becomes tricky when you have to come up with food that tastes good and is good for you.”
The menu spans breakfast to dinner, with breakfast served throughout the day. It features offerings like a Southwest scramble of lean ground turkey, egg whites, diced jalapeño peppers, bell peppers, roasted corn, pico de gallo and shredded cheese; overnight oats with seasonal berries; and turkey meatballs on a bed of zucchini noodles with marinara sauce and parmesan cheese.
“We start with food that we like, which tastes good, and then we figure out how to make it healthy,” Marsh says. “That means a lot of things to a lot of people.
“Pretty much all our customers try to avoid carbohydrates, but then we have people who want to stay away from gluten. We have people who are meatless (eaters). There are those who are vegan, those who are on low-fat diets, low-sodium diets, so we try to hit a couple of those types of diets with every meal that we make.”
Eat Fit Go’s site takes in consideration the most popular dietary restrictions and offers a sophisticated tool that sorts them out. That ranges from dairy-free to gluten-free. A full-time registered dietitian ensures all nutrition requirements are met.
Marsh says fresh fruit and vegetables play an integral role in each dish. He credits the Salina, Calif.-based Markon for providing them with premium quality produce.
“Produce is extremely important in these dishes, and the quality of our produce is what really makes our meals,” stresses Marsh. “Our number one priority in our kitchen is food safety, and then our second is food quality.
“Food safety is what really sold us on Markon produce because they put such an emphasis on that with all the systems and controls and having the inspectors in the field and the soil samples. Also, when you’re growing good, safe produce, it’s usually high quality and quality is obviously important.”
Located in Mobile, Ala., Naman’s Catering boasts a host of signature dishes, some of which have been requested since the company’s inception in 1989. Owner Alec Naman will tell you the bacon cheese rings—a colorful blend of cheddar and green cheeses, green onions, chives and bacon surrounded by toasted pecans and topped with strawberry preserves—is his best seller. They’ll easily whip up a few thousand of these a year, or approximately 200 a month, for corporate events, anniversary parties, weddings and more.
There are, of course, Southern accents clients may request for their events such as the “grits station,” where guests may add hot toppings like sautéed shrimp, crawfish sauce, sausage Creole, shredded cheese, or bacon bits and chives.
“We have a lot of farming going on in our county, so we’re lucky to have so many home-grown tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, cabbage, zucchini, eggplants, snap beans and more at our disposal.”
-Alec Naman of Naman’s Catering
But what’s most important to Naman is his company taking advantage of its Gulf Coast location by using as much local seafood and produce as possible.
“We have a lot of farming going on in our county, so we’re lucky to have so many home-grown tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, cabbage, zucchini, eggplants, snap beans and more at our disposal,” says Naman. What’s not local to the area, or in season, he gets from other regions in the country.
In the end, it’s a way for him to present his dishes with “Southern flair in a healthy fashion.”