Chef Neal Smith has only been at Boones Street Market for a few short weeks, but he just can’t stop talking about the food.
“There is no reason to go anywhere else. It’s phenomenal,” Smith said. “The quality of the meat is unreal. There are probably Japanese chefs that are mad at the quality of waygu meat I’m getting. It’s ridiculous.”
It’s the kind of “ridiculous” on which Smith thrives.
A native of Stoney Creek, Tennessee — “the Hunter community,” he said — Smith traveled a number of miles to end up back here, close to his roots and in a situation of which he had only dreamed.
“At the risk of sounding trite, because everybody is doing it, I miss what my grandmother made,” he explained. “My grandmother was an amazing cook. My mom was and is an amazing cook. And I miss, like when I was a little kid, going out in the garden with my grandfather, and coming back home and canning with my nanny. I miss that taste…”
Yet in the beginning, Smith admits he had no idea that recreating that experience for others would become his passion and his career.
He was first bitten by the culinary bug as a teenager at the local Waffle House.
“My first cooking job was I was a night shift lead at the old Waffle House on Roan Street,” Smith said. “This was the summer before I was a senior and the summer after.
“I really liked it though. The guy I worked for over there, his first name was Ed, he was the manager…He was really cool and he had all these pictures of him in the toque blanche, the tall white hat, of him cooking on cruise ships and such in the little Waffle House manager’s office.
“I guess he just got burned out and came home.”
The gentleman was a great teacher, however, Smith said, helping to lay a groundwork that this chef would rely on his entire life.
“Honestly, I will say this,” Smith added. “if you can work at a night shift at a busy Waffle House, you can work at any commercial kitchen. You might have to learn technique. You might have to learn a lot of other stuff, but as far as speed, you’re set.”
For example, in a Waffle House, they don’t use a ticket system. “It’s all call and heard. They call and there is never a ticket for you to look at. So no matter how busy a Waffle House gets, you have to memorize what’s coming in.
“So hats off to the guys that work at the Waffle House.”
Of course it’s been many years since Smith was in a Waffle House kitchen. After training and a guide for river rafting, Smith established a pattern of working as a guide in the summer and sometimes acting as cook as well, then getting a cooking job in the winter months.
Smith attended some college and some culinary school, but got much of his training working under what he considers some of cooking’s great master chefs.
“I fell in love with it,” he said. “I thought ‘this is what I’ve been missing.’ ”
Smith went on to work at several executive chef positions, mostly in Ohio, until he and his wife decided to return home to Stoney Creek to be close to Smith’s family.
Someone told him about the opening at Boones Street, and he was immediately interested.
“Cooks and chefs usually have a one- to two- year span in a restaurant. They just get burnt out,” Smith explained. “It ain’t the kitchen stuff you see on TV. You’re going to work six days a week. You’re going to work 70 hours a week.
“ You’ve got to love it to live it.”
At Boones Street Market, he was offered the chance to work with real farm-to-table ingredients, all while getting to meet the farmers and have creative control.
“Yes please.. I don’t know a better way to put it than that.”
Now, Smith is part of a project that still has its challenges, but offers so much promise.
“We’re still in development in the kitchen itself,” he said with a shake of his head. “You know what a camel is, right? A horse made by committee. That’s our kitchen right now.”
He also likes what Jonesborough Locally Grown executive director Shelley Crowe says.
“What Shelley and I are doing — with the help and support of a lot of people — is we’re building the airplane while we’re trying to fly it.”
But he believes it is all worth it. It simply comes back to the food, and the chance to bring back some of his grandma’s cooking, with a bit of a modern twist.
“A lot of times when you get something from the grocery store, the flavor’s not there,” Smith said. “It doesn’t taste like what it is. .
“Here, it tastes like spinach is supposed to taste like and it looks like spinach in a picture book. The same thing for the beef and the lamb.
After all, he concludes, “where else can you go where you call a guy and he’s going to pull something out of the ground and bring it to you?
“Everything I have here is like that.”
Boones Street Market will be featuring Chef Smith’s dishes at hot lunches and weekend brunches. Set hours are still in progress. Visit Boone Street Market’s Facebook page for continued updates.