F rom the outside looking in, Chef Joseph Lenn and I may not have much in common. He’s a renowned chef who owns one of the most popular restaurants in Knoxville, and I’m a plastic surgeon. But at the end of the day, we’re both business owners and in this episode, I dig into how Chef Lenn got his start as an entrepreneur. We discuss the importance of fostering collaboration and creativity within our teams, and Chef Lenn also reveals how he deals with negative feedback and learns from it, as well as his attitude to overcoming setbacks which has allowed him to retain top talent.
In this episode, we cover:
J.C. Holdway website: https://jcholdway.com
Dr. Jason Hall, MD
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WHAT IS THE TRILLIUM SHOW WITH DR. JASON HALL?
The Trillium Show is a podcast about navigating change. Board-certified plastic surgeon Dr. Jason Hall discusses topics about health, wellness, and how to effectively manage change - in your body, in your mind, and in your life.
Dr. Hall: Welcome to The Trillium Show, where we help you make the changes you want to see in your body, in your mind, and in your life. I’m your host, Dr. Jason Hall.
Dr. Hall: All right, today I have got the distinct honor of having Chef Joseph Lenn here in the office. Chef Lenn is the owner and Executive Chef at J.C. Holdway, his restaurant which he opened here in Knoxville in 2015.
He grew up here in Knoxville, went to Johnson and Wales culinary school in Charleston, South Carolina, and then had numerous jobs in Nashville, in Charleston, before being hired as a line cook at Blackberry Farm. He subsequently then worked his way up to Executive Chef, was a 2013 James Beard award winner in the southeast, and has been named a Grand Chef by Relais and Chateaux—I think I’m saying that right—the people that own Blackberry Farm now. And like I said, in 2015, he left Blackberry Farm to open J.C. Holdway. So, Joseph, thanks for stopping by today.
Chef Lenn: Thanks for having me.
Dr. Hall: So, it’s kind of interesting because we moved here in 2015 about the same time you were transitioning and kind of building your space out downtown, we were kind of beset by construction delays. I mean, you know how that goes. I’m not sure if you remember this. We ended up sitting next to you at Knoxville Whiskey Works, tasting whiskey one Tuesday afternoon [laugh] because we had nothing else to do.
Chef Lenn: It’s funny, I remember people being there. But now it’s good to know that was you that I was sharing the room with. A friend of mine was a partner in that at the time and so we were tasting stuff for the restaurant and trying to pick out things that we wanted. He’s since moved on and actually opened PostModern distillery just down the street. But that’s one of the things when I had that downtime in between opening and leaving my last job, I was going around and tasting things that we would want to carry at the restaurant. So, try to do a lot of that hands-on tasting, whether it’s beverage or food, to see and seek the best for our clients, something that we want to showcase at the restaurant.
Dr. Hall: You were making productive use of your time, actually working. We were just [laugh] killing time because we didn’t have anything else to do. You know, I made the same jump from an employed position where I’ve been in Houston for a number of years, to then moving back to Knoxville and planting a flag and opening my own practice. I mean, you were the Executive Chef at Blackberry Farm. I mean, that’s a gre—I would imagine in the culinary world is a coveted position. And you picked up stakes and left and opened your own restaurant. Tell me about the thought process that went behind that. What were you thinking?
Chef Lenn: Probably out of my mind at the time because anybody that wants to open their own business has to be half crazy. But I had been with the company for a decade and they were expanding. I had always kind of dreamt of having my own place in Knoxville. I think it was when I moved back in ’05. I kind of saw Nama when it was on the 100 block and was like, “Man, this little tiny sushi place…”
And that was right around the time that Momofuku had opened in New York, and I saw this shotgun space just like Nama was. And the original Momofuku had this just kitchen line in the restaurant and just a counter, like a chef’s counter, and all the cooks served everything. And I was like, “Man, that’s all I want is something simple where you don’t have a waitstaff.” You know, that was the idea back in ’05, and just seeing Nama kind of had this idea of, like, I always wanted to have my own thing. Fast forward ten years, I’d worked at Blackberry for, obviously, a decade and the company itself was growing into multiple restaurants, talked about the mountain that they’ve now opened, and I could just see this getting bigger and bigger and bigger.
And when I started there, there was about 30, I think it was 32, 35 rooms, and when I left, I think it was up to about 62. And I just kept seeing this growth and—which is great for a business, but it just became where it was becoming so big and I wanted something that was a little bit smaller. One of my first line cook jobs in Charleston was attached to a hotel, but it still felt like an independent restaurant. And that’s kind of what I’ve always longed for, being part of the community and being a neighborhood restaurant. And so, that was kind of my desire after doing the resort hotel thing, taking a step back from the Uber fine dining and making it more place for almost anybody to come to rather than the big huge production that it was.
nd I’ve accomplished almost everything there that I thought I could. A James Beard award, a Relais and Chateaux Grand Chef, you feel like you’re on top of your game and you’re like, “Okay, this might be a good time to go and do my own thing.” But I stuck around for a couple more years after that, tried to leave it in the best hands that I could. The two people that were my sous chefs are now running two the restaurants there. In my departure I wanted to lead as best as I could.
Dr. Hall: What was the self-talk in the middle of the night as you were trying to make that decision or had made that decision? What was going through your head?
Chef Lenn: Part of it was, I felt like I was getting at a… writer’s block from a creativity side. We were going through, figured it up to be almost like 40 dishes a quarter, constantly changing every quarter for new menu, for seasonality. And it just kind of got to a point where I felt like I needed just a break from work in general because going for five years non-stop at that level of constantly changing dishes, I need a break because I can’t think of anything else for [laugh]. And so, it was almost like I needed to just to create a break as well from it. And a good friend of mine who is a chef, when I kind of shared with her that I was thinking about doing this, she goes, “I’m not saying it’s going to be easier,” but she goes, “It might actually be easier for you because you’ve had to go at this level for so long, you might just enjoy having a menu that doesn’t change every single day for a little while.”
And that resonated with me. Okay, there’s not this pressure and stress of, you know, we got to change this every day and make it different all the time. That was one of the things that led me down that path and thought process of, like, I may want to change of where I don’t have to do this at this level all the time. Because I’m getting older and I think one of the other things that I thought about during that time was my parents weren’t getting any younger and I wanted to be able to spend some holidays with them and some family time and the demand of a hotel is that you’re there. You’re open 365 days a year, so there’s a lot of missed holidays because especially at a resort, that’s where you’re serving people that are celebrating holidays, and so that requires you to be at work. Opening my own place. I was like, well, I’ll create a place that I don’t have to work those days.
Dr. Hall: The creative part is interesting. So, Blackberry’s menu does change all the time. Did you feel like you were having writer’s block from a culinary standpoint? How long did it take you to kind of get over that?
Chef Lenn: It was pretty quick, actually because, I mean, I was able just to spend time and think about food and go through farmers markets, I spent that summer going to the farmers market, establishing relationships with people, buying product, and kind of start thinking about what I was going to do with this, see what everybody had and how frequent and develop a game plan about evolving the menu where it would still change, but just kind of like a real natural approach of because the Farm, I was fortunate, I had a garden there, so I could kind of just walk out there and be like, all right, all right, the menu based on what’s out here. Where I still kind of do that with the farmers market, but spending that time seeing what was growing, taking notes helped me plan a little bit better for the restaurant. I took some downtime, just to think about things for a while and then I was able to get a notebook and just start writing ideas down and that kind of came pretty naturally again.
I think what’s fun for me is I, at the time, was really pigeonholed into all things southern, southern cuisine. Man, how many ways can I reimagine grits? That was also part of it, which it’s fun because it challenges you so much from a creative perspective, like, how many different ways can I make this? But there’s newer techniques, there’s other things that you can still reimagine, things that you’ve done in the past where becomes modern, again, still a classic, but with a modern touch. And that’s kind of how I always thought of it as, like, well, he’s still doing a riff on Southern food, but using global ingredients.
We started doing that J.C. Holdway because I didn’t really have any line in the sand of creativity. I can do whatever I want. And that’s kind of what I tell my cooks and chefs now. We can do whatever we want. Because I look at American cuisine as this big melting pot and we don’t have any rules now. What do you want to make?
Dr. Hall: That’s neat. So, just from listening to you talking about your team and their involvement in the creative process. I’m imagining this, like, Artist’s Collective with everybody just playing around in the kitchen. How does that process work in the back end? What do we not see?
Chef Lenn: I’m sure there’s chefs out there approach it to how I do, but when I was coming up, it was chef writes the menu, you execute as a cook, where when I worked with Sean Brock in Nashville at the Hermitage Hotel, [unintelligible 00:09:11], he would always challenge us, write down your ideas and come in tomorrow with what you want to do. And I remember literally writing a whole menu and we used components off of some of the stuff I’d written down, and that felt very rewarding to me as a cook to be able to say, “All right. I had a piece of this.” And that’s kind of how I’ve always managed my kitchens. Early on, I would just kind of write the menus, and then as I saw people develop, “Well, what do you want to cook? What do you want to learn?”
And so, I’ve kind of taken an approach of asking cooks, “What have you not worked with that you want to work with?” Within the parameters that we can or things that we can get or things that makes sense. We may not get some exotic ingredients from Japan, Hawaii, wherever but if it’s something that makes sense that we can get, we’re going to mess around with it. They want to use rabbit? Sure we’ll get rabbit in and try that out.
What I try to challenge them now is say, “Okay, here’s a list of ingredients that we’ve got coming in. Let’s think about this.” And sometimes you have to kind of give them guidelines like, “Okay, we’re going to braise the lamb,” we’re going to do whatever it may be with what ingredient, just to kind of give them a starting point. And sometimes there’s one component that they will ask [unintelligible 00:10:15] even to compose a dish, and it might be one component that’s just spectacular on there that we then say, you know, that would be great with this, or on this dish. So, then it becomes this, and we’re all just talking about it in the kitchen and then it kind of snowballed from there.
But the way we work now is we have aj weekly meeting where we go over ideas. Now, I have Google Doc, where we can start typing in ideas, myself in my management team, where we can kind of edit, okay, this dish is leaving the menu, this is what we’re working on to replace it, I’ve got this idea. It’s amazing how technologies come into play, where before, it was just the Moleskine book where I just sketch things down, and now you got an iPhone where you can share a note. All this has changed the creative process for me because you’re constantly looking and you kind of see something up here that you can include in the dish. To me is fascinating how we can really look at pages of ideas and say, I like that, that, that, and sometimes you just pull from all of them and than a dish gets created.
It’s almost like you hear musicians talk about a riff. Some of my favorite musicians, they talk about where they came up with a riff on guitar or bass or whatever, and then they say, hold on to that. And then it may be a decade before they use that, but it appears in a song somewhere. And I think that artistry in general, whether it’s painting, your line of work, my line of work, you may learn a technique and hold on to it for a while, and then all sudden, it comes into play somewhere. And I mean, there’s stuff that I’ve literally written down that I’ve never used that I start hearing somebody talk about another idea, I’m like, “Hey, let’s talk about this because I’ve got a similar idea of”—I can give you a perfect example.
Our current chicken dish, it was on December 30th, I was working on these croquettes for New Year’s Eve, and all of a sudden, I started thinking of a version of their chicken croquettes, and I was like, “Well, what if I made a celery puree instead of this bechamel that we put in there?” And started going down this rabbit hole of chicken salad idea. Told it to one of my front-of-the-house people just because they’re back there polishing silverware and we were just talking, had this idea. Somebody in the kitchen—didn’t even hear it—and then he comes me, like, “So, I’m thinking about this chicken and going, like, chicken salad realm with, like, celery root,” and I said, you’ve got to go just talk to Jackson because I literally had this conversation about a different dish, but same thought process. So, it’s kind of fun when we both come up with similar idea and then we’re like, “That sounds great,” out of that. “That sounds good. Let’s mesh those together.”
Dr. Hall: People in tech, talk about that as well. Reading things about Google or Facebook or Apple and how they don’t like having offices and encourage interaction with other people in the office because you get that—I think Steve Jobs was the first one to talk about this—this melding of ideas that comes from people just kind of chatting and being around. I think that’s interesting.
Chef Lenn: Yeah. It’s like a brainstorming idea. Somebody may just have one idea that they come to the table with and it might not be complete. And there were times that that’s how it would be at Blackberry because I would sit down with Cassie, I’m like, “I’ve got these ideas,” and she and I could just do this bouncing ideas off each other and we worked really well together. Create some really fun menu dishes.
This one dish I remember hearing [laugh] of all people it was I think Snoop Dogg talking about how he and Dr. Dre came up with “‘G’ Thang” and they wrote that in, like, two minutes and it is one of the most iconic songs from back in the ’90s. There’s this riff on shrimp and grits that I did one time and I literally wrote the dish in 30 seconds. It was like, “Okay, we’ve got the andouille that’s really good. Oh, what if we did this sauce with it?” And just literally wrote this dish, and it was a fill-in on the menu because we had the menu written and we’re like, we need one more seafood dish.
And I remembered all this stuff that we had. And I was like, “Well, let’s just do a riff on shrimp and grits.” And we can use this, we can use that, we’ll make this sauce. And it was so funny, it was supposed to be on there for, like, a couple of weeks and then Ruth Reichl, who was the editor of Gourmet Magazine years ago, came in for dinner one night at the Farm and we served that dish. And this guy, Francis Lam, who’s an editor for Clarkson Potter now, coming up, he’s like, “Dude,” he’s like, “What is that shrimp and grits? Ruth’s going nuts about this.” And I’m like, “Really? [unintelligible 00:14:19] that dish in, like, 30 seconds and didn’t think much of it.”
So, end of the night, Cassie and I went off to this area just past the kitchen that was called the gambrel, and we were in there working on menu ideas because we would do that sometimes after work. And Ruth Reichl walks up and she’s like, “What do you guys doing?” And we’re like, “Oh, we’re working on new menu ideas.” She’s like, “Well, whatever you do, don’t take off that shrimp and grits.” So, we’ve got something here. This is just a play on a classic dish, but it’s kind of fun because a dish that people crave, and when it comes on the menu their like, “Oh, it’s back.”
That’s one of the things that I also like as a chef, as you kind of have that greatest hits album of certain dishes that people love that you bring back. And a lot of great chefs. Do that. Mike Lata in Charleston has a tomato dish that he does in the summertime that people go crazy about. And then Thomas Keller has oysters and pearls.
There’s certain dishes that I know people really love, and okay, when the time’s right, let’s bring that back and get people excited about that dish again. Chefs kind of think of dishes like songs, sometimes. There’s a lot of similarities in that in probably the creative process, too.
Dr. Hall: It’s interesting that you bring music into it. One of the things that is I was getting ready that I was going to ask you is you also have the customers that know you for a particular dish. Does it feel like Skynyrd and playing, “Free Bird?” You know, everybody wants to come—everybody wants to hear, “Free Bird” at the Skynyrd show. Does it feel like that sometimes?
Chef Lenn: There’s certain dishes. And I think, for example, poached farm egg with chicken confit and potato gnocchi, it’s a riff on chicken and dumplings, which was my favorite childhood dish. It’s funny, that dish has paid mortgages, rent, car payments, it’s paid the bills, so to speak. And it’s one of those where I think cooks may get tired of cooking it, but it’s four ingredients that all have to be perfect. And when you taste it, it’s a really, really great dish.
But I think it’s one of those that I don’t ever get tired of it because I love the dish and I see enjoyment and happiness people get out of eating it. When I was a cook, one of the things I got excited about was when you’re plating a dish that is the chef’s signature and people are happy about it and executing it flawlessly every time where it tastes perfect, I still get that same excitement when I make that dish. Like I’ll go over and sometimes somebody has to leave the line to go to use the restroom, so I’m like, “I’ll jump in, I’ll cook it.” And I get jazzed, like when I get to make that dish. I’m sure there’s something, probably, out there I could think of that I would get tired of but we just keep making it [laugh].
I’ll go ahead and address probably there’s an elephant in the room about a hamburger but [laugh]—
Dr. Hall: [laugh].
Chef Lenn: We had a hamburger on at one time and we call it the station or cook killer because the minute a cook got on that station and had to cook a burger, man, we got their two-week notice not long after [crosstalk 00:17:06].
Dr. Hall: Really?
Chef Lenn: It’s just, you know, you have to think of it from the perspective of they’ve spent this money to go to culinary school or their desires to be you know, a chef at a great restaurant. I used to hear chefs tell me, “Put as much care and love into the searing the hamburger as you would searing a piece of fois gras or something like that.” Whenever we were serving that at times, I would jump back there and start cooking it because seeing that sear perfect, that crust that was so crispy, I remember describing to a cook one time, and he just looked at me like it was nuts. I was like, “It needs to be like a KitKat.” I was like, “You know when you bite into it, it’s like crispy, soft, crispy, soft, crispy, soft? That’s how that burger is.” And he goes, “That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard, but it makes perfect sense.”
And when the guests tastes it—and there’s a reason why people love that hamburger—the problem is honestly, it took up so much space on one of the stations that we didn’t have room for other dishes. Ultimately, that was one of the reasons we chose to take it off the menu. I mean, people loved it, but we had no room for anything else on the station. It was something that was meant to be, like, we have five of them or ten of them because it was all of our trim from the ribeye. And so, that was another reason it tasted great, really expensive primal cuts that we were using to make hamburger. And luckily, during Covid, it paid the bills having hamburgers, but once we opened back up, we had to evaluate how much room we had for things.
Dr. Hall: In your answer, there’s so many things that I want to ask you based on that one answer. You put a lot of care—I mean, it’s very obvious that you’re passionate about what you do, you put a lot of care and thought into the menu with your team. It’s you, but it’s your team. There is an art to what we both do, day in and day out, that involves other people.
When you get negative feedback for that, that you’ve put your time and your—you really put your heart into, for me. I read a negative review and it stings. I take it personally and it takes a day or two to kind of let that sting go away and then try and learn from that. How do you deal with those?
Chef Lenn: I agree. I mean, when I first opened, they probably stung even mo—they still all sting. I took it really personally when we opened, and I was man, “I hope this isn’t what everybody thinks.” Heard, you know, for every one person that actually says something, there’s ten more that feel that way. “Wow, is there a hundred people out there that hate what we’re doing?”
Tried to really manage how we actually review reviews. The ones we take to heart the most or people that have actually dined there. And so, that’s through Resy, our reservation system because if you’ve dined there, you get an email, “What did you think?” And I look at all of those. That’s how my morning starts every day because I get an email, it has the list of all the reviews, and so I look at all of them.
And we look for consistency in if there’s a negative review. So, let’s say salt, for example, somebody said something was salty. If we get that complaint a couple of times, we literally do an audit. We go back into the point-of-sale system, match the name to Resy. We know what table they sat at, then we look at where they sat, look at what they ordered review footage if we need to, to see what that interaction could have been. If it was negative feedback on service, we’d look at what we did incorrectly there.
So, there’s a lot of things that we really look at when we get negative criticism. But we’re looking for consistency in what we can address and correct. So, if it’s somebody that didn’t like it, what did they have? What did they not like? So, there’s a lot of thought put into what we did that didn’t make them happy.
Now, Google, Yelp, TripAdvisor, all of those, that’s something that I will look at, but don’t necessarily address because sometimes we have found that people didn’t even dine at the restaurant that leave those reviews and it’s hard to respond to somebody that hasn’t dined there. There’s other reviewers out there—and we have kind of a joke, we call them review extortionists—they get on and write negative reviews hoping to get gift cards, even if they didn’t have a bad time because they’ll say this, this, and this happened, and so we’ve actually seen where that name did dine with us. And we’ll review footage and we’re like, that actually didn’t happen. So, it’s interesting when you have people that go and give negative criticism, and I don’t know why that happens. Like, they’re looking to get something so could be, you know, influencers, so to speak, who’s looking for free meals in exchange for positive praise on Instagram or whatever social media platform it may be.
We also try to focus on the positive feedback too, so it’s not all negative. We’ll reach out to—especially if it’s Resy and they leave a negative review—I or my general manager, or reach out immediately, contact them and say, we’re so sorry. Because he makes an effort to hit every table to ask them, “How’s dinner? Is everything okay?” And sometimes people don’t want to say something because they don’t want the conflict at the restaurant and so they’ll let us know, through Resy.
But then when you try to reach out and find out what the issue is. We try to please everybody that does come in, but we understand that sometimes we’re not everybody’s cup of tea. And that’s okay, too. But if we’re not, we want to find out why we weren’t and what we can learn from to be better. And honestly, that’s the only way we can get better is if people do give us constructive feedback. And we are appreciative of it, positive or negative. That’s how we get better as a restaurant.
Dr. Hall: Yeah, I agree with you. I think that even though the negative feedback stings, it also is a great teaching tool. For me personally, I look at that and think, okay, you know, what can I do to better my craft? One of the things about owning our own business where your name is on the bottom of everything—J.C. Holdway is you—any feedback that comes in through the restaurant may not be a direct reflection on your menu or your cooking but may be a reflection on your team, but it all comes back to you. It all comes back to me. They have a bad experience with the person who answers the phone or the reservation system. How do you do quality control and training with your staff and the rest of your team so that they reflect your brand and what you want to portray to the public?
Chef Lenn: Well, with our quote-unquote, “Front of the house,” which is the forward-facing people, whether it’s the hostess, the bartender, servers, back waiters, all of those people that are out on the floor, we’ve actually changed some things up to where there’s a five-week training process now with anybody walking through the door where if they’re going to be a server, they have to be a hostess for a week, they have to work back-waiting [expo 00:23:55], all these things, the kind of train on all of these things so they, kind of, know all facets of front of the house service. And that so they have an appreciation for all the job duties that all the different team members do, but they also know how to do them all if somebody gets sick, somebody’s out of town on vacation, they can kind of step in and do those roles. That’s one thing we’ve done from a training aspect. And then that way, this rigorous training, they know the brand expectations of everything.
We’ve even added in another position who now her role is actually she comes when we have a new dish. We have a daily lineup with the staff anyway and when we present a new dish, we talk about it, but in case somebody hasn’t been there, she goes ahead and essentially takes notes, minutes, about the dish and all the ingredients so we have yet another Google Doc that’s going that has the new dish, al. The allergens, the idea behind the dish, and all the ingredients, so that way this whoever may have missed the day can be trained appropriately on everything that’s in the dish. So, if there’s dietary, there’s all these things they’ll be well versed in knowing all of that. As far as the kitchen goes, what we’ve tried to do when we’re staffed appropriately, is that there’s a sous chef, that actually, they are trained by them, so they know the exact standards of how we do things in the kitchen.
That way, it’s from a management level of training so then that way, the game of telephone, “Well, so-and-so told me to do it this way,” it’s heard from basically the top down how we want things to do. And we’ve kind of really started implementing that moreso, in the last year, on and off based on, we’re fortunate, we stayed staffed very well, but then there’s the occasional—we had an unfortunate, we had a cook break his leg a week before Christmas, and so all of a sudden, that kind of put the management back on stations again instead of overseeing everything. The good thing about a manager on the station, you know it’s going to be right. We typically try to run what most people would think as overstaffed, but it’s so we can ensure that there’s always a set of eyes on what somebody’s doing to ensure that quality that we’re putting out. We have a huge employee handbook that has all this stuff spelled out for them, but we reiterate those things in a daily lineup as well.
Sometimes it’s funny because if somebody’s not there, you hear Adam go over it again and it’s like on repeat [laugh] and sometimes you wonder if it’s actually—people are being receptive to it because they’ve already heard it and they’re just like, “Oh, I’ve already heard this.” But we really try to make sure that message has been communicated clearly, multiple times.
Dr. Hall: Is that something that you learned in school? Is that something you picked up along the way? Or is that something you figured out when you were in business by yourself?
Chef Lenn: A little of both. Danny Meyer, and he’s a great restaurateur in New York City, that’s how they do a lot of their training at some of the restaurants. And we’re fortunate enough that we have an employee that worked for that company at one point. And she started with us, probably within the last six months, and she had went through a tra—because we had started a training program and she goes, “Here’s some ideas that I think”—because we asked her, like, “What could we have done better for your training here?” And she’s like, “Well, some things we did at this restaurant was this.”
And we’re like, “Ooh, that’s a great idea.” So, we adopted some of those practices. Training at the Farm was very rigorous when I was there. You weren’t, as a server, allowed on the floor until you had—there’s all these written tests. And we have a lot of those too, and sometimes people are like, “Oh, this is so corporate,” but there’s a reason that corporate restaurants are very consistent. It’s because they have the same business or process.
So, I think there’s a way to implement some of those processes, but still be the very hands-on owner that knows every employee’s name versus your number and everybody knows everybody and it’s a really tight-knit crew, for the most part, everybody gets along really, really well. And I think that’s part of that training is kind of getting to know the person and, “Hey, this is how we do this.” And as an owner, I’m not afraid to get in do any job in there. I’m in the dish pit a lot of times. They see that and I think that’s another thing that they kind of buy into that culture, too: literally, signature on my paycheck is back here washing dishes, sweeping the floor, all these things, and that’s kind of how I’ve always taken that approach since I own my business is trying to lead by example.
No job is—I’ll do any of them. I’ll jump in at a moment’s notice. All sudden, I see glassware piling up because they’re so busy. Let me wash these, let me polish them for you. What do you need? And having that 360 awareness of all what’s going on and understanding, too. You see a wave of people walk in, bar is about to get crushed, they’re going to probably need help, and so just kind of seeing all those things, for me it’s the beauty of having an open kitchen. I can see what’s about to happen. Same with the cooks. They see people walking in there, I’m like, let’s get ready. It’s going to happen [laugh].
Dr. Hall: So, it’s a combination of things you’ve picked up, and—
Chef Lenn: Yeah.
Dr. Hall: —and things that you’ve kind of created just from taking feedback from your own team.
Chef Lenn: Exactly, yeah. We’re big on constructive feedback, even from our team. I always say, I don’t know everything and if y’all see a better process that we can do that’s more efficient, let’s do it. That makes sense. Because it goes back to those teams that don’t work in, like, the traditional office, come to to me. I’m the guy that can make the difference. I can implement that change that we need to. If something’s not working, I’ll be the first to say, “That’s not working. Let’s fix it.” We definitely rely on our staff’s feedback on how to make things better.
Dr. Hall: It’s almost like every question, we’re talking about our respective teams. Since you opened, you have had a couple of fairly high-profile issues of fire, flood, Covid. The restaurant has continued to maintain a very high-quality output. You’ve been able to keep your team together and going through all of those things. How did you manage some of those?
Chef Lenn: All those events that you mentioned, we as a company said, we’re going to take care of our employees first, no matter what. When we’ve had some sort of event in the restaurant that caused us to close, we made sure that we paid our employees, kept them on. We found a way to always employ them. During Covid, I was out of town, like, the day that [laugh] everything just kind of stopped. And my general manager calls me and goes, “What do you want me to do?” I said, “Close the restaurant.” I said, “I’ll be back in two days, but keep everybody that’s on the schedule coming in. Pay them.” I said, “I’m happy to call each individual, but communicate that to everybody that they don’t need to worry.”
Because we anticipated recession before then, so we’re holding some back in case times got tougher, so we would keep people on and all of these things. We’ll do this right now and we’ll kind of see how this shakes out. And you’re like, “This should only be, like, a couple weeks,” [laugh] whatever.
Dr. Hall: It’s only two weeks, right?
Chef Lenn: In two weeks, we can figure anything out for two weeks. But what was funny is before, I’d gone on a trip down to Florida, and gone—I love to fish so I was down there on a fishing trip, but most of the time is spent on the phone, working through all these things. But what was interesting and we had kind of heard about this was, you know, West Coast Covid, whatever and make its way over here to the East Coast. Let’s have a plan in place in case something does happen where we have to close. I said, “We could do lunch, we can find ways to generate revenue where we can employ everybody still.”
So, we literally wrote a lunch menu and a takeout lunch menu. And so, [laugh] I made the phone call, I said, “Hey,” and I talked to my chef-in-charge at the time and I said, “Hey,” I said, “Just go ahead and order that stuff in.” I said, “Let’s plan on doing that menu in a couple days.” But when the other things happened—you know, floods, whatever—we had to close for a little while. I mean, we were closed for two months right after reopened for Covid because we had a sprinkler head break, flooded out the restaurant.
That was also at the time I was noticing that all the staffing issues had started at that time, and I said, “If we lose our staff, I don’t know how we’re going to come back from this.” But we paid everybody while we were closed, majority everybody stayed with us. It was one of those things, they were like, “Thank you so much. We appreciate that y’all care enough about us to take care of us while we’re closed.” And I said, “Yeah. We have to.”
That’s helped also with our culture that new people come on and then they hear, “Chef paid us while we were closed, so it’s a pretty good place to work.” And when I was developing this restaurant, I always thought of the things I wanted as a cook. “Man, it’d be nice if there was paid time off. Man, it’d be nice if there was health insurance offered. Be really cool if there was a 401(k).”
And all these things that mattered to me in my mid-20s, while that changed after Covid, a lot of places started offering that, but we offered that from day one when we started. That really helped me retain quality employees. Because we found we lost an employee one time who was—they were a bartender, and they were on that in between full-time and part-time and I found that after they left, the only reason they left because they didn’t have insurance. Well, if it’s something that’s simple, we can fix that. So, we switched that immediately. And people that are students that are—or just work four days a week and don’t really hit that full time, do well enough to pay their bills, now they have that option to have insurance.
Dr. Hall: First of all, I mean, that is awesome. Health insurance in the restaurant industry is—
Chef Lenn: Didn’t exist when I was coming up.
Dr. Hall: Has it been harder since Covid to replace people that cycle out of the restaurant as part of kind of a normal business flow?
Chef Lenn: It is, but [sigh]… it’s kind of a two-fold thing because we’re fortunate that we haven’t lost too many people. Our problem is that business is growing and we need to add staff. Finding qualified candidates at our level—obviously, there’s more restaurants, Knoxville is growing at a very rapid rate, and there’s more restaurants opening, so there was already a smaller talent pool. And so, the more restaurants, that talent pool shrinks. We’ve been very fortunate from the beginning to attract quality cooks, staff from whatever aspect in the restaurant, but I talk to people who they own restaurant supply companies, they own distributors, whatever it may be, there’s this natural thing that’s happening over the country that is harder and harder to find employees—because ours is a very skilled labor; it’s not cut open a bag and warm it up kind of thing.
We’re a scratch kitchen. Everything’s made—literally made—pasta’s handmade, literally everything we make, salad dressings. All this seems simplistic; it all takes time from mincing a shallot perfectly and just for a vinaigrette, you know? It’s all these things take time. And we have an employee now who is a UT student who has been our dishwasher and wants to work in the kitchen.
So, those are somebody that, as long as they have a great attitude and ability to want to learn, you know, we can show them. That does take time, so you got to kind of balance it out with people that are skilled in the industry that know how to work a wood burning oven versus somebody that has never worked it. Which we can teach them, but if you have a kitchen full of you have to teach everybody, you’re training from the ground up and that takes a little bit longer. It’s try to find this balance of people that are new to the business and then some people that have some experience and have those, kind of, work together.
Dr. Hall: I think that would be difficult with the level of output that you expect and are known for, that it would be hard to find, you know, not everybody who can use a grill can work for you [laugh].
Chef Lenn: Right. I mean, if you’re an expert on the Big Green Egg and want to cook, I don’t know, 25 ribeyes in a night, come on down. We would love to have you. So—
Dr. Hall: [laugh]. One of the things I’m interested in is talking about setbacks. I find personally that when I have a setback or a failure in any avenue, that that’s a really a great place to grow. Most of my own personal growth has come as a result of a setback or a failure or something. Do you have a failure that you would call kind of a favorite that you’ve learned the most from?
Chef Lenn: Man, I would say, opening the restaurant itself was borderline going to be a failure. I was probably destined to fail, but—and I’ll say probably from being undercapitalized. Everything I read said you need this much money in the bank to operate all these things. You need at least six months, you need this, and you need this. And when I was opening, I was very fortunate, I had great partners. And so, I had borrowed money from my parents, and I was looking at, like, how much was in the bank, how much our last bill for construction was going to be, we’ve got to get open and start generating some revenue because there’s not going to be more money soon. And that was, to me, the most pivotal point of me opening this restaurant. I don’t have an option other than to succeed. And so, when we opened the doors, it was like, I will be here from dawn till dusk and I literally was.
I’d get there at eight in the morning, leave at one in the morning. And that was my schedule for probably the first five, six months. This has to be successful. There’s no other option because one, I don’t know what I’m going to do if this fails. There’s my reputation gone if fail restaurant, I’m going to lose all my friends who loaned me a tremendous amount of money that I have to pay back.
I still have to pay them back. I don’t even know how I can pay this much money back at my regular job. You start thinking, “How is this all going to work out?” And that fear alone drove me to just this has to work and everything has to be great. Fortunately, my first team was all about this restaurant, and so I’m forever thankful for them.
But you don’t know what you’re capable until you’re so afraid of failure that failure is not an option. That opening week and then we had a setback because there was a fire in the wall because of a small crack in the mortar and there was a two-by-four in the wall with no—a wood stud that nobody even knew was in the wall. And this nail conducted enough heat to turn that wood stud into charcoal and was smoking out. And I thought the hood was messed up.
And anyway, you know, that setback gave us ultimately an extra week to train. Which I looked back and said, we probably weren’t ready to open, and I kind of pushed the opening because I was so stressed about the financial side of it. Look at it like, “Oh man, I can’t believe this happen. This is terrible.” But then you also—now I can look back and say, “I guess that was a good thing to happen because we were able to pivot and use that to make our staff better.”
Dr. Hall: Fear of failure when you’re hanging a shingle, you go out on your own, that’s something that is—people who don’t do that, you can never really understand what that feels like.
Chef Lenn: Yeah. I mean, I think I opened and I had 150 bucks in my bank account [laugh]. This has to work.
Dr. Hall: Yeah. Exac—and that’s very similar. When we met, we were two weeks behind schedule and we had two people that we had hired that we were paying them because they quit jobs take a chance when this room was still concrete and drywall. They said, “Sure, this sounds like—you know, what you guys are doing is great.” And then opening day came and went and we had to pay them regardless. So, I mean, we were three weeks behind opening and you’re just watching your bank account just go ching, ca-ching, ca-ching—
Chef Lenn: Yeah.
Dr. Hall: —every week with no money coming in.
Chef Lenn: We were paying that rent check. And I was just like, man, that’s expensive and nothing coming in. Similar thing; we had staff on and we were paying them. And Matt Gallaher, who owns Emilia, he kept telling me he’s like, “Dude, just get open. Just get open,” and he goes, “It’ll all work itself out.”
Forever grateful for my opening team that stood beside me through all of that. I mean that was a very challenging. And I’m sure I was probably challenging to work for at the time because I was just a huge ball of stress. It’s hard for anybody to understand that until you’re literally in that position. And you kind of feel like you’re on an island, too.
Dr. Hall: When I was a general surgery resident, I had a mentor who would leave us in charge of everything, and would say, “Call me if you need me. But don’t really call me.”
Chef Lenn: Right.
Dr. Hall: And that’s the way—that’s kind of the way you feel. You’re like, you know, you don’t want to pick up the phone and make that call.
Chef Lenn: Right.
Dr. Hall: Even though you sometimes you probably should.
Chef Lenn: I’ve had wonderful partners who are great mentors and still great friends to this day. They’ve been a great ear to bend when you have questions about—and fortunately, they both have had their own businesses, so I can call them and say, you know, “How did you handle this situation?” Or whatever. If it was bad situations, I learned from those as well. “Okay, I would handle this differently. Maybe that way.”
Even things that seem terrible at the time, you definitely learn something from all of those. Been one of those that I’ve taken every moment where most people will look at it as bad I was like, “Man, that was a great learning experience.” May not necessarily have been something I did or it was working under a chef who we saw something happen. “Yeah, I’m not going to do that. I’m going to do it this way when that happens.”
Dr. Hall: And I think that’s what separates people who are successful from people who aren’t is how they deal with adversity. Do you know who Jocko Willink is? Navy SEAL?
Chef Lenn: Yes. Yeah, oh yeah.
Dr. Hall: So, his phrase, “Good.” Something bad happens, fire in the kitchen? “Good. We’ve got more time to train.” Restaurant floods? “Good. Now, we can reimagine the menu.” And I think it’s that attitude that carries people, successful people further up.
Chef Lenn: One of the biggest adversities right now in the kitchen is costs escalating across the board. I mean, we have labor through the roof. [unintelligible 00:41:55] you go to the grocery store right now. I mean, you see it. As a restaurant, we operate on super thin margins anyway.
When you see twenty-some-dollar-a-pound meat in the grocery store, we’re paying about the same thing for that, so it’s not like we’re out there getting some special deal on things. It’s our costs. I mean, we serve premium products. A chef has to get creative. I was just watching something on, I think it was Bloomberg the other day about Shake Shack and how they’ve had to adjust, watching their CFO talk about their costs going up and going up.
They have to raise prices like everybody else. Talking about hamburgers and when I heard them talking about theirs, I’m like, what ours was, we’re using primal cuts. They cost more than buying tubes of ground beef. Those are the things that I think for me, would be probably the most challenging is finding that balance where something on a plate comes across as still of great value, you feel like you got your money’s worth out of something, and satisfying our clientele. They’re having to spend more at home; they’re having to spend more on everything they use, so when they come out, they just want to relax and have a good meal.
But there’s also that stress of the price tag that’s attached to that too. And so, that’s something that we really focus on with the team, too. From an execution standpoint, we really need to deliver to the guests because they’re paying a premium right now. And so, we’re very aware of that. I’m sure in your line of work, cost of—I mean, we could talk about nitrile gloves—
Dr. Hall: Yeah [laugh].
Chef Lenn: —like in the case of gloves just during Covid, like, went from $80, $90 now and it was $40, $50 before. And you think about a restaurant and gloves, somebody puts a glove on that cost eight cents to make a salad or two and you’ve just added 16 cents to your cost of every dish that you’re making. Those add up. As an owner, that was something that you just didn’t budget in before—two cents, whatever—and then all of a sudden, you go from two cents to eight cents a glove, wow, that’s a lot. Paper goods, things like that, to-go boxes, all that has gone through the roof, too.
And for us, we have to kind of think how many people are going to take things home. But it’s also this whole where’s it going to stop because that just keeps going. It’s kind of leveled off a little bit, but a month down the road you’ll see it pop up again. I thought we were done with this.
Dr. Hall: As a luxury brand, it’s finding that balance between cost. We do have some control. I mean, you can’t control the price of everything that goes into what—to the service or the product we each provide, but there’s the cost and value and how you can balance that or make that equation tip in your customers’ favor. Patients, customers want to leave feeling like they got a deal for what they spent, even if it would cost more than something down the street, that it was worth it.
But it’s funny to hear you talk about the gloves. When you work for somebody else, you don’t think about it. But now I do the same thing; I look at the gloves, one tears and you’re like, ah man. Are you se—you know, I see one of the nurses, we’re setting up for a procedure and she gets a big stack of gauze out and sets it on the counter, I’m like, you only need two of those for that [laugh].
Chef Lenn: Paper towels. It’s like, “You only need one.”
Dr. Hall: Yeah.
Chef Lenn: “You don’t need three.”
Dr. Hall: Yeah. Yeah. But it’s also, as a consumer, it’s made me much more mindful when we go out to eat. Do you really want to take something home because that’s going to—that just cuts in to your margin when we take a couple of bites home that we probably won’t eat, we’ll end up giving to the dog later because it’s about to go bad—like, no.
Chef Lenn: And I think I’ve always kind of been somewhat conscientious of that when I go to a restaurant, for example. But even gas station on a road trip, I don’t know, I think of just need one paper towel or whatever like that [laugh]. It’s just funny because you see your employees do certain habits. For us, it’s the bar towels. I see somebody, like, drop one on the floor and then have to go throw it because it’s his the floor, then they got to go 25 cents right there [laugh].
And you’re just like, these things add up. It’s part of running the business now and that’s just how it is, but I think the early reopening when all of that was happening, I think it was just this information overload on cost. Man, this is, like, way more expensive now. And for a restaurateur, the biggest thing is controlling costs. I mean, you have to.
That constant everyday looking at every invoice to make sure that everything’s priced appropriately because like I said, we’re on thin margins, you all of a sudden look, “Oh, wow, this went from running a 30% food cost that we’re now doing 40 to 50. That’s a recipe for failure in restaurant business.”
Dr. Hall: The similarities between our businesses are very—it’s one reason I wanted to sit down and talk with you. But I know it’s Sunday. I want to be respectful of your time. We’ve been going for almost an hour. I do have one or two more totally non-business questions. What’s your favorite cut of meat? You pick one piece of meat that you can have—
Chef Lenn: We’re talking [unintelligible 00:46:50] meat, or—
Dr. Hall: Anything.
Chef Lenn: Oh.
Dr. Hall: One—one anything.
Chef Lenn: That’s tough. Man, I would probably have to go, probably a rich piece of pork. Like, a great pork chop. And that’s really tough because I love a grilled steak and I love chicken as well. Fish—so man, it’s not really a fair question.
So, I guess, desert island you get one thing—
Dr. Hall: Yeah.
Chef Lenn: —last meal, I may have to go with a grilled steak over a wood fire. I mean, that’s tough to beat.
Dr. Hall: Ribeye? Strip? Filet?
Chef Lenn: Probably going to go ribeye and especially on the chuck end where it’s got the cap on there.
Dr. Hall: Yeah, the cap is the best part. Last question. I enjoy cooking at home. One tip from a pro to a complete rookie that’s going to make me a better cook in the kitchen?
Chef Lenn: Invest in a good knife and great cookware. I’m not paid to say this, but I promise you, like, great cookware. If you come in our restaurant and look what’s hanging, we’ve used that same cookware for six years, and man that stuff is, like, bulletproof, and it’s Le Creuset. That stuff is incredible. But great cast iron, a good cast iron skillet to me because they don’t work something like that.
But as far as, like, really good tips, practice a recipe and just keep practicing it until you kind of just nail it. I think that’s one thing that can really make you a great cook. Really, like, read things through before you start it, think what you’re going to do. We call that mise en place, ‘things in place.’ In the kitchen, that can really help.
But man, the YouTube world, you can learn how to make almost anything now, watching a YouTube video. It’s crazy. If you’re reading a cookbook and things like that, I think really reading it through, analyze, thinking about your steps that you’re going to do that it’s going to take to produce something, write it down yourself, and your game plan, what you’re going to do, and I think that that really helps. It even helps me. I still do it to this day in a professional kitchen, sometimes.
If I’m working on a new recipe, I’ll write down what I’m going to do. Like, I’m going to go get this bowl, I’m going to need this tool. For example, we make the gnocchi for the egg. It takes two bowls, a piping bag, a food mill. When the potatoes are ready, you got to have all that ready to go.
You got to have your things in place. That and cleaning as you go are the two biggest things. Because cleaning as you go, you don’t have this big pile of dishes at the end of the project. It’s also why I like the grill because there’s less dishes at the end of it.
Dr. Hall: [laugh]. Not as much to clean up. This has been a lot of fun. Where can people learn about you? Learn about your restaurant? Websites, social media, things like that?
Chef Lenn: Sure, jcholdway.com. We keep that website up to date daily, so the menu that you see on there is what we will be cooking that night. Our social media, I run that so it’s not the greatest, [laugh] but we try to keep it pretty up-to-date as far as, like, if there’s a new dish we’re excited about is on there.
But jcholdway.com, the website is the most up-to-date. We literally keep that up to date daily. You want to see the menu that we’re going to be preparing that night, it’s on there. It has all the information about how to make a reservation, when we’re open, all the hours, parking suggestions, all of that stuff. And we’re located at 501 Union Avenue in downtown. You know where Pete’s coffee shop is or Union Avenue Books? We’re on the same block.
Dr. Hall: Excellent. Well, I can give him a ringing endorsement. He’s got a five-star review from me on Resy already because we’ve eaten there a number of times in the recent couple of weeks. So, Joseph, thanks a bunch, man. It’s been a lot of fun.
Chef Lenn: Thanks for having me. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s been fun hearing about your world and look forward to having you again as a guest.
Dr. Hall: Awesome. Thank you.
Chef Lenn: Absolutely.
Dr. Hall: Thanks for listening to The Trillium Show. You can keep up with the latest on the podcast at jhallmd.com. Be sure to follow us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to podcasts. If you want to connect with us on social media, you can find us at@jhallmd on Instagram and Twitter and@DrHallPlasticSurgery on Facebook. Remember, be the change you wish to see in the world.
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