Top Chefs

Eight elite chefs entered the arena at Lighthouse Knoxville to compete in the city’s premier food competition.

Nearly 300 guests braved a chilly, rainy evening in late March to arrive for the 11th annual Top Chefs event. The wine was flowing, the food was prepared to perfection, and silky jazz from the Larry Vincent Trio filled the venue. For the diners’ pleasure and ultimate judgement, eight of Knoxville’s finest chefs had each prepared an entreé and dessert. As the evening progressed, acclaimed artist Robert Tino completed a painting that was featured in a live auction, with proceeds going to Second Harvest Food Bank.

Curtis Bates

BLUE COAST GRILL & BAR

What brought you downtown to Blue Coast?
Passion for food. I like a challenge, and downtown is a huge challenge compared to West Knoxville, where I worked for 18 years. I was out fishing when my friend Jorge put my name in a hat and they called and asked if I wanted to come in for an interview.

Have you always liked to cook?
Oh god yes. Since I was little.

What was your reason for going professional?
I really loved the mindset of learning new techniques and what you could do and how you could make food not only taste good, but look good. A chef I knew when I was 19 or 20 said I had a knack for it, so I went with it.

What advice would you give an aspiring chef?
Never forget where you came from. I started out as a dishwasher, and I’m not better than anyone else. When I come in, I put my shoes on the same way as everyone else.

What’s the one piece of equipment every cook should have?
A spatula.

What’s your guilty pleasure?
Sugar cookies.

Where would you like to go out to eat?
French Laundry in Napa Valley.

Chilean sea bass and lobster over fresh thyme gnocchi with a balsamic drizzle.
Yellow cake filled with honey-cranberry jam, dipped in vanilla glaze, with a buttercream surprise topping.

Deron Little

SEASONS INNOVATIVE BAR & GRILLE

What is your background?
I started in Yakima, Washington at 15, then traveled all over the country working for hotels and country clubs. I came to Knoxville to open Gettysview Country club, and 24 years later, I now own Seasons and Kitchen 919.

Have you always liked to cook?
My mom put that love and passion in my heart, as did a master chef I worked for when I was 15. He was one of only 18 master chefs in the world, and it was such a blessing to work for him.

What advice would you give an aspiring chef?
You really have to get involved in the American Culinary Federation, the professional organization for chefs here in the U.S. You can get certified, which exemplifies a level of professionalism.

What’s the one tool every cook should have?
I’ve been asked this, and I say it’s your heart. It’s not a knife, not a spoon—but you have to have heart. It’s your passion, and you’ve got to love people.

What’s your guilty pleasure?
I love ice cream.

Where do you like to out to eat?
That’s a hard one. I like Connor’s. It’s a good, approachable restaurant.

Sous vide quail breast, with cappuccino custard, goat cheese, morel mushrooms, and caramelized leeks on a thyme natural jus reduction.
Toblerone mousse with dark chocolate fondant and a white chocolate almond crumble.

Jeff Carter

SUNSPOT

What is your background?
I’ve been working for Randy Burleson for about three years. I’ve been at Bistro by the Tracks and Crown and Goose. I came to Sunspot to help revamp the menu and get back to what Sunspot was known for.

What have you always liked to cook?
I love doing braised items. Stews, gumbos, a lot of seafood. Braising and stewing has been a passion.

What was your reason for going professional?
It definitely wasn’t the hours. But I have a passion for cooking, and cooking at home fills some of that passion, but the fast pace and the environment of professional restaurants and kitchens just appealed to me.

What advice would you give an aspiring chef?
Find an incredible restaurant with a talented chef and learn from them, work with them.

What’s the one piece of equipment every cook should have?
It’s gotta be a knife.

What’s your guilty pleasure?
French fries. Salty food.

Where do you go out to eat?
I don’t really have a favorite, but if I went for a particular cuisine, it would be Mexican. If I don’t know where to go eat, I always find a good Mexican restaurant.

Heritage Farm Cheshire pork cheeks, with brussels sprouts kimchee, scallion grits, and shaved radish.
Cardamom spiced carrot cake, with bourbon-date caramel and ginger-candied walnuts. (Plant-based.)

Anthony Ploof

THE TENNESSEAN

What’s your background?
I went to culinary school at the CIA and spent most of my time in New England. I had an opportunity to move south and have been learning as much as I can about the culture and cuisine ever since—and I absolutely love it.

Have you always enjoyed cooking?
Ever since I was a kid. My dad cooked in the army, so that’s where I got my interest.

What was your reason for going professional?
I get to play around with techniques such as smoking and curing, and make beautiful, eye-catching, artistic plates. It’s something different every day.

What would your advice be to an aspiring chef?
Find what your passion is, and keep following that. You’re going to be working long hours, and you’re going to be tired. But as long as you love what you’re doing, the rest is going to follow.

What one piece of equipment do you think every cook should have?
A sharp knife.

What’s your guilty pleasure?
Cheese, in every shape and form.

Where do you go out to eat?
Going to J.C. Holdway was a great experience; that’s one of my top favorites.

Tennessee braised short ribs, with Carolina Gold rice purloo, pickled tomato relish, chive oil, and fried leeks.
Blackberry Linzertorte, with poppyseed buttermilk ice cream, burnt honey, and bee pollen.

Charles Boyd

HILTON KNOXVILLE

What led to your position at the Hilton?
My wife’s family is from here. When I arrived, I  worked for a company managing restaurants on offshore oil rigs. When I tired of that, I decided to get back into hotels.

What inspired you to cook?
My grandparents had a housekeeper named Miss May, who was the best southern cook I had ever met. My brother and I hung out with her and I learned to cook that way. I ended up going to a French culinary school because I had cooked my whole life.

What was your reason for going professional?
I worked at a mom and pop Mexican restaurant starting at age 15. I got my first taste of fine dining at a private club. I put myself through college by cooking. After college, I went to culinary school and have been doing it ever since.

What essential tool do you think every cook should have?
Patience.

What’s your guilty pleasure?
Nathan’s hot dogs.

Where do you go out to eat?
In New Orleans, I love K-Pauls. I also love the mom and pop places, like Huntsville’s Big Bob Gibson’s BBQ, where white barbecue sauce was invented.

Lamb noisettes, with dandelion pesto, balsamic glazed carrot, and lamb demi-glace.
Marble City Kitchen ice cream sandwich, with mint avocado kulfi, pistachio tuile, berry jus, vanilla cream, and locally-sourced honey.

Danny Wilhoit

BISTRO BY THE TRACKS

What brought you to Bistro by the Tracks?
Being born in Knoxville, I had a desire to come back to my roots. I grew up working in gardens and dealing with animals. Every year, my family had a tradition of harvesting and processing the vegetables we were going to use and that were going to feed us for the rest of the year.

Have you always liked to cook?
Being around food all of my life led me to a love of food.

What was your reason for going professional?
I wanted to make money from my love of food.

What advice would you give an aspiring chef?
Practice as much as possible. When you think you’ve done it as good as you can, do it again. At the restaurant, we work together to learn from mistakes and move forward. If you can do that, you can become a chef.

What’s the one piece of equipment every cook should have?
A sharp knife. Other than that, a good stainless pan and a stock pot.

What’s your guilty pleasure?
Peanut butter.

Where do you like to out to eat?
Everywhere I can. I seek out lesser known, hole-in-the-wall places.

Duck Ramen—duck broth, with duck confit, Circle V Farm egg yolk, cilantro, TN chili and garlic, and Mossy Creek mushrooms.
Strawberry “shortcake”—white chocolate scone, with strawberries and English tea meringue.

Michael Gallostra

CLUB LECONTE

What is your background as a chef?
Having grown up in South Florida,  I developed a deep appreciation for Carribean food. I began my culinary career there in the mid-90’s.   

In  Miami, there are a lot of country clubs, and I  worked as a line cook in many of them. From there, I went to school at Johnson and Wales University and started my lifelong journey to becoming an Executive Chef, the position I now hold at Club Le Conte.

What inspired you to cook?
As long as I can remember I have loved to cook. I just love the feeling you get after a really good meal. That made going pro a really easy thing for me to do.

What one piece of kitchen advice would you give?
Attention to detail is everything. Stay focused!

What essential tool do you think every cook should have?
I would say the dishwasher is the best piece of equipment in the kitchen.

What’s your guilty pleasure?
Brownies.

Where do you go out to eat?
Nama’s, because I love sushi!

Chinatown—lobster tail, shrimp, scallops and Asian vegetables; sauteed with garlic, shallot, and ginger; and finished with oyster and plum sauce on a bed of Jasmine Rice.
Ancho chocolate mousse served on a bed of crushed Oreo cookies and candied pecans, topped with maple whipped cream and fresh berries, cocoa powder, and mint.

Steven Manolopoulos

MERELLI’S ITALIAN CUISINE

What is your background as a chef?
Having grown up in South Florida,  I developed a deep appreciation for Carribean food. I began my culinary career there in the mid-90’s.   

In  Miami, there are a lot of country clubs, and I  worked as a line cook in many of them. From there, I went to school at Johnson and Wales University and started my lifelong journey to becoming an Executive Chef, the position I now hold at Club Le Conte.

What inspired you to cook?
As long as I can remember I have loved to cook. I just love the feeling you get after a really good meal. That made going pro a really easy thing for me to do.

What one piece of kitchen advice would you give?
Attention to detail is everything. Stay focused!

What essential tool do you think every cook should have?
I would say the dishwasher is the best piece of equipment in the kitchen.

What’s your guilty pleasure?
Brownies.

Where do you go out to eat?
Nama’s, because I love sushi!

Slow-cooked osso buco in a rich country vegetable ragu, served over a polenta cake infused with Asiago cheese and roasted garlic.
New York style cheesecake with a rich graham cracker, chocolate chip crust topped with a Blood Orange coulis.

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