Photos by Justin Fox Burks
Women leading the culinary scene in Memphis include Kaia Brewer from Lunchbox Eats, Karen Carrier from the Beauty Shop, Bar DKDC, and Mollie Fontaine, Felicia Willett from Felicia Suzanne's, Sharron Johnson from Stone Soup Cafe, Lisa Clay from Lisa's...
Edited by Pamela Denney
T he culinary contributions of women to the American food industry are both significant and longstanding. Here in Memphis, women often lead the way, running restaurants, managing kitchens, and building an entrepreneurial network for food products that range from grab-and-go meals to elaborately decorated sugar cookies.
While individual businesses and restaurants vary, the women who own and operate them share a common commitment to the broader community, a sentiment expressed repeatedly in the stories published here and online. A forthcoming fundraiser, for example, titled “Female Warriors: Armed and Delicious,” showcases the altruism of our local women chefs. Spearheaded by Felicia Willett and Kat Gordon, this December 1st event at Brinkley Plaza will raise money for the Women’s Foundation of Greater Memphis to fund a mentoring program for women from women who understand the power of food.
“There are so many women in food doing amazing things who understand that everything starts in the kitchen,” Willett says. “They are in restaurants cooking food; they are writing about food, or are growing food. We want to empower these people to pull together to build a support system that in turn supports the bigger community.” — Pamela Denney
chef/owner of Felicia Suzanne’s
On a recent September afternoon, Felicia Willett of Felicia Suzanne’s ponders how she got from there to here. In simple logistic terms, it’s no more than an hour, door to door, from her downtown Memphis restaurant to her childhood home in northeast Arkansas. Broaden the focus, however, and another story takes shape — one of talent, timing, and incredible pluck. Willett talks in a blur of memories: Her parents divorced but the family was “together apart.” She and her brother, with her mom and stepdad, great travelers and foodies who brought home Memphis menus from the Four Flames and Justine’s. At her dad and stepmom’s, noisier still with five kids and huge cookouts and a pool with the Arkansas State Indian painted on the bottom. Next, she flashes forward to college: Knoxville is too far from home, so there’s the University of Memphis and a major in restaurant management, at the time a subject curiously lumped in with the Home Economics department. Then a culinary degree at South Carolina’s Johnson and Wales University and a job in New Orleans with Emeril Lagasse. She spent her early twenties traveling ten months out of the year with Lagasse in the nascent days of The Food Network, figuring out what she wanted and didn’t want. After seven years and a one-year break, Willett secured a lease on the old Lowenstein’s building for her own restaurant and a $500,000 loan. And finally, a great menu of reinvented Southern staples and impeccable service from a sharp staff, some of whom have been with her since the 2001 beginning. What can diners expect? Friday lunches with those famous 25-cent martinis. Flo’s Homemade Goodness — a line of pickles, chow chow, tomato jam, and pepper jelly. And the pretty patio, serving as sort of a casual offshoot of Felicia Suzanne’s with its weekly Tacos & Tunes.
And today? Willett swears she would take every single exhausting step again. “It’s the circle of life,” she says. “This is very personal to me.” — Susan Ellis
MM: So what about the Emeril legacy?
Willett: I’ve had my restaurant for 14 years, and it’s funny how the first thing anybody says is about my time in New Orleans. My epitaph will read, ‘Felicia Suzanne Willett, former protégé of Emeril Lagasse … ’”
What is your worst idea ever?
Willett: [Early on], I suggested jackets for men at the restaurant. I was ridiculed.
chef/owner of Stone Soup Cafe
In the kitchen of Stone Soup Café at a waist-high table, a bread mixer whirs and Sharron Johnson reflexively kneads and rolls loaf-size balls of dough and lines them up in baking pans. She’s here every morning. The sole proprietor and chef of the restaurant on South Cooper, Johnson never went to culinary school. Rather, she grew up reading cookbooks, watching Julia Child and The Galloping Gourmet , a popular cooking series that first aired in the late Sixties. Johnson started baking when she was 10 years old. “My sister and I were latchkey children,” Johnson says. “Whenever there were any kinds of events at school, where you needed pastries, cupcakes, or things that moms make, that was my job.” A native Memphian, Johnson was the fourth of six children with a single mother. She grew up in a housing project on Lamar and Crump, and she became self-sufficient at an early age. Her mother was the kind to say, “Go make your own egg sandwich,” and she learned a lot about cooking soul food from her nanny, Betty Jones. “You know, peas with meat in them, fried chicken, greens, cornbread,” Johnson explains. Jones’ cooking lessons had a big influence on the menu at Stone Soup, which features such dishes as “Slap Your Mama World Famous Gumbo,” a favorite of Johnson’s husband, Rex Johnson. Johnson wants her guests to feel comfortable when they come to eat at her Cooper-Young restaurant, which feels like visiting a family home with its warm hues and newspapers splayed in the entrance. Tami Thompson, Johnson’s daughter, is the general manager of Stone Soup Café, and Johnson plans on passing the business on to her. Why not? “Legacy,” Johnson replies. “I think when you come from nothing, legacy is a big deal.” — Candice Briggie
MM: Is it harder or more challenging to be a female restaurant owner?
Johnson: I don’t know how other women in this business feel, but it’s hard to be taken seriously. I’ve been called a witch with a “B.” Well, you have to be strong and tough or people will take advantage of you.
What’s with the spoons everywhere?
Johnson: The spoon art is inspired by the soup. I started collecting right before I opened up, and all the customers started bringing in spoons. They’re everywhere now.
Lauren McHugh Robinson
president and ceo of Huey’s
As we sit down at a table near the window of Huey’s Midtown, Lauren Robinson, daughter of the late Memphis restaurateur Thomas Boggs and my new stepmom, gestures to the back corner. “This used to be the game room, back in the old days,” she says, pausing frequently to greet by name the employees who pass by our table. “When I was 10 or 11 we would come to work with my dad,” she says smiling, remembering the mornings spent in Huey’s before the doors opened, the empty restaurant like a personal clubhouse. In the early days, Huey’s had pinball machines, and Robinson and her sisters played until the roll of quarters her father gave them ran out. The mirror behind the bar was the perfect place to practice dance moves and cheers, a sister or two in tow. Today, those same three sisters — Robinson, Ashley Robilio, and Samantha Dean — run Huey’s, a staple in the Memphis food scene for 45 years that now includes eight restaurants in the Memphis area. “It feels great,” says Robinson, who was recently named the 2015 Tennessee Restaurateur of the Year. “I don’t think any of us ever expected where this was going to go.” When Robinson eats at Huey’s —the Smokey Melt Burger is her favorite item on the menu — she stays tuned in to the ebb and flow of the restaurant, almost eerily aware of everything that’s happening. The sound of a timer in the kitchen? Somehow, it finds its way to Robinson’s ears through chatter and music in the restaurant. (If she had married my father when I was younger, I'm pretty sure I would have gotten away with a lot less.) Still, Robinson is self-effacing about her contribution to Huey’s, attributing the company’s success to her employees. “I used to be a worrier, and I don’t worry as much as I used to about things,” she says. “I believe in the good of people, and I believe that if you take care of your employees, they’re going to take care of you.” — Michael Robinson
MM: Do you have employees who worked for your father who still work for the company?
Robinson: Oh yeah, lots. Huey’s Midtown kitchen manager Terry Gant has been with us almost 30 years. And yes, everyone is like family.
What’s it like working with your sisters?
Robinson: It’s so much fun. That’s probably one of the best perks of the whole thing. We get along great, personally and professionally.
owner of Pink Diva Cupcakery and Cuisine
In many ways, the name Pink Diva Cupcakery is a t hree-word description of owner Cassi Conyers’ personality and priorities. Pink is Conyers’ favorite color and the decorating scheme of her new restaurant on downtown’s Florida Street. Cupcakery is the invention of her 11-year-old son, who told his mom one evening when she was baking that she should open a “cupcakery.” And the diva? Well, that is Conyers’ role among her girlfriends, a group she credits for this core belief: “Surround yourself with a good group of women who will believe in you when you don’t believe in yourself.” Good men help too, like DejaVu owner Gary Williams, who turned over the former location of his restaurant to Conyers for her business, open since August. “He had that much faith in me,” Conyers says. “I went in to get tacos, and I came out with a restaurant.” Dressed-up cupcakes at the Cupcakery also continue the diva theme, using vegan ingredients to mimic the rich taste of dairy products. The Best in Black Diva is topped with blackberry buttercream icing with blackberry compote hiding inside. “You can go anywhere and get a chocolate cupcake,” Conyers says. “So I make sure my cupcakes have some type of filling or some crazy batter. It’s a boutique cupcakery. It’s fancy cupcakes.” Conyers’ road to baking was a circuitous one. She earned her degree in education at the University of Memphis, but has never taught in a classroom. These days, her curriculum centers on breaking the vegan stereotype. “I’m still a teacher, but a teacher by trade,” she explains.
At the Cupcakery, the menu features vegan food disguised as familiar American favorites: nachos, ramen, mac-and-cheese bowls, and veggie plates. Most of her customers never know they are eating vegan food, and Conyers likes that just fine. “American vegan is what I offer: normal, everyday foods that are just veganized.” — Destiny Johnson
MM: What do you want people to know about you?
Conyers: I’m pretty much an open book. You never know what to expect, so always expect the unexpected.
What’s the hardest thing about being a baker?
Conyers: Being creative, because anyone can put out a cupcake and slap some frosting on it, but I like my cupcakes to be like me: full of personality.
chef/owner of Beauty Shop, Bar DKDC, and Mollie Fontaine Lounge
Whimsical, piquant, comforting, and artfully,presented. These words could just as easily describe restaurateur Karen Carrier herself as they could one of the dishes at her three Memphis restaurants. That’s because Carrier’s food reflects who she is as a person and a chef. In fact, Carrier refers to herself as a food artist. “What I do is art first and foremost,” she says. A graduate of the Memphis College of Art, Carrier headed to New York City for the master of fine arts program at Hunter College, but changed gears to receive a culinary arts degree from The New York Restaurant School. She cut her culinary teeth in the frenetic kitchens of the New York restaurant scene before opening Automatic Slim’s “One Bar Under a Groove” in the West Village back in the last century. She still owns that landmark NYC restaurant today. Luckily for Memphis, Carrier returned home, where she has been shaking up the scene with inventive restaurant concepts since 1987. The Beauty Shop, which she describes as “gloriously quirky,” is located near the corner of Cooper and Young in the former salon space where Priscilla Presley would get her beehive done. The hair dryers are still in place.Bar DKDC next door shares a kitchen with Beauty Shop but has a vibe all its own. Carefully curated by Carrier, the eclectic space features a global-street-food-inspired menu that changes every five or six weeks. And at Mollie Fontaine Lounge, customers might feel like they’ve been invited into the home of a very stylish friend. They wouldn’t be far off the mark. Carrier lived in this Victorian Village mansion before converting it into a cozy lounge with small plates and tapas.
“They say all good Southerners return home,” Carrier says. “I came back from New York City to give Memphis something a little different, something to be proud of. I wanted to shake things up a bit and to make a difference in my hometown.” — Justin Fox Burks
MM: In what ways do you blur the lines between visual art and culinary art?
Carrier : A cook and an artist are instruments of nature. When you cook, you do more than simply pay attention to the season and place, to the ingredients that are close and fresh. When you cook, when you really cook, you pay attention to your past. You welcome the ghosts, and you honor them. The memories of standing side-by-side with your mother, grandmother, father or mentor, these are the memories that a chef and an artist remember, that inspire us and transform us.
owner of Muddy’s Bake Shop and Muddy’s Grindhouse
A native Memphian, staying in the city was always part of Kat Gordon’s master plan. But owning a bakery? Not so much. “I made a really intentional decision to stay in Memphis: This is my place, this is my home,” says Gordon, the owner of Muddy’s Bake Shop in East Memphis and Muddy’s Grindhouse in Midtown. “I want to live here and die here.” After graduating from the University of Memphis with an English literature degree, Gordon became the self-proclaimed “worst realtor in the city.” On a leap of faith, she decided to open a bakery without any business experience or culinary-school training. She has named each of her bakeries after her late grandmother, Muddy. “I wish I could tell you that I grew up baking with my grandmother, but she died when I was really little and wasn’t the super sweet grandmotherly type,” Gordon recalls. “She was a pretty sassy broad.” Gordon’s grandmother always made food to share at places like hospitals and nursing homes, a generosity Gordon herself has emulated. Her employees, for instance, are paid to volunteer 90 minutes each week. “I can never fully repay what I got from the people of our town, so I try to pay it back going forward,” she says. Along with an emphasis on giving back, both Muddy’s locations have a comfortable, retro feel that Gordon works hard to ensure. “We want an upbeat, friendly vibe,” she says. “We make everything in small batches from scratch, so I want the atmosphere here to reflect that.”
Gordon says customer suggestions inspire her and her staff to bake whatever they are hungry for. Keeping an open and curious mind is also a key, she says. “I get inspiration even from going to a museum and looking around and saying to myself, ‘I love those colors. How would that work as a cake?’” — Callie Compton
MM: What advice do you have for aspiring small business owners?
Gordon : When you feel like everything is crumbling around you, don’t feel like it’s a failure. That is going to happen. You are going to work your ass off, and it will be amazing.
Are there any challenges specific to being a woman in your industry?
Gordon : Food service is one of the hold-out industries where there are a lot of double standards. It can be hard to reconcile the public persona of being super fun and super cute with, yes, I know what is going on with my business and with my finances.
owner of The Little Tea Shop
Suhair Lauck, affectionately known as Ms. Sue to her longtime customers, has been running The Little Tea Shop downtown on Monroe for over 33 years. Her favorite part of the job is creating bonds with her customers. She calls them all her friends. “Meeting influential, smart women and men from all job types and everything in between is fascinating,” Lauck says. Fueling Memphis with wholesome food since 1982, Lauck has put her own spin on the menu. She does not cook with pork for health and religious reasons. Instead, she makes healthy substitutes that most customers don’t even notice. “I love to create; the menu is my creation,” Lauck says. “It’s like an artist, and you have a painting. I like to cook with colors and textures and herbs and spices.” After years in the restaurant business, Lauck has overcome several obstacles in her time. She says owning a restaurant as a woman was not easy, especially since she is Palestinian by birth. “I vote, I campaign, I pay my taxes, but it’s still hard to survive being a woman and a foreigner, even though I am a Memphian, and an American heart and soul. But if you’re smart, have patience, motivation, and believe in what you’re doing, you will succeed,” Lauck says. Lauck calls herself a “downtown girl.” She is a member of the Downtown Memphis Commission’s design review board and a diehard Grizzlies, Redbirds, and University of Memphis Tigers fan. (A signed Pau Gasol poster is part of the Memphis paraphernalia that adorns every corner of the restaurant’s green walls.) Lauck is especially passionate about the homeless and is proud of the contributions she makes to the Mid-South Food Bank.
“If everyone did their share and took care of their families first, then their next door neighbors, and then checked regularly on the elderly or homeless, nobody would be hungry,” she says, “especially in this town.” — Christine Cabrera
MM: What is it like being a woman running a business?
Lauck: Male or female, you have to be a multitalented person to be able to run a restaurant. You have to know how to do everything, change the filter, or fix the oven; it’s not just cooking.
And the biggest obstacle in running a restaurant?
Lauck: A delivery will be really late and you don’t have a product, but it can’t be the end of the world. I have to tell people, “Sorry, I didn’t have a delivery today.” If they don’t understand, you just have to say sorry and keep on going.
owner of Lisa’s Lunchbox
The name for Lisa Clay’s restaurants derives from the time when she handled the daytime bar shift at Houston’s restaurant in East Memphis. Her regular clients used to call the bar “Lisa’s Lunch Counter,” so when Clay opened her first independent location off Ridgeway Center Parkway, the name Lisa’s Lunchbox just made sense. Nine years later, Clay opened a second location on the busy Poplar corridor in East Memphis, near Whole Foods, where a smoothie bar uses molasses instead of sugar, and customers can try freshly squeezed juices or a healthy shot of ginger. “We shoot a lot of ginger here,” Clay says. The focus of her restaurants has always been the business lunch, providing freshly made-in-house food served quickly. To make this happen, Clay walks in at 7 a.m. every morning to start sizzling bacon and prepping chicken breasts. Shortly after, customers start strolling in the door. For Clay, it’s important to know her customers, a mantra she instills in her employees, whom she affectionately calls her “girls.” “It’s like a bar without the alcohol,” Clay says. “I know your name, and I know you like a chicken club panini.” The menu, rooted in traditional American deli food, has never remained stagnant. Along with salads and sandwiches, daily specials priced under $10 offer a cornucopia of favorites: hot fish tacos and Philly cheesesteaks, along with soups like roasted red-pepper bisque and chicken noodle.
After a group of women brought pans to be filled with chicken spaghetti over the course of several weeks, Clay decided to start selling frozen food. She now offers a selection of entrees such as juicy bacon-wrapped pork loins, Mexican lasagna layered with chicken and cheese, and poppy-seed chicken.
Clay says that her home kitchen had always been her laboratory; her three boys were the guinea pigs. She recalls that one of her sons came up to her one day, tired of trying casseroles, and said, “Mom, can we please just have a steak?” — Josh Tucker
MM: Have you been influenced by other chefs?
Clay: Not really. But I think Paula Dean is close to anyone in the South. Butter makes everything better.
What is your favorite thing to eat at the stores?
Clay: A pimento cheese BLT sandwich, but it is not on the menu!
owner of Bedrock Eats & Sweets
On the corner of South Main Street and Vance Avenue, in an original brick storefront, Brandi Marter hurries out of the kitchen of Bedrock Eats & Sweets hauling a box bigger than she is.
“Sometimes,” says Marter, “I start freaking out and complaining, and I have to stop and say, ‘Shut up. You own a restaurant. Quit being a baby.’”
Marter opened Bedrock this summer, offering protein-rich and gluten-free foods in keeping with the popular Paleo diet. The restaurant, located in the former Frank’s Deli, offers space for guests to sit and eat, along with packaged foods for grab-and-go dining.
Educated as a chemist, Marter left a high-paying job after college for a short stint in sales before making cakes for Cold Stone Creamery. “After baking a few simple cakes, I started getting more creative,” Marter says. “That’s when I started thinking that I might want to do this for a living.”
Next, she applied for a position as an assistant pastry chef at a local nursing home. “But when I started, they informed me that I would be the head pastry chef,” Marter recalls. She spent the next few months learning how hard chefs and bakers work, describing it as a “freaking boot camp for food service. Every day I would leave work and sleep in my car,” she says. “It broke me.”
From there, she headed to YoLo Frozen Yogurt, working as a baker at the company’s Midtown store. She discovered Paleo when she started taking her health and diet more seriously. At the YoLo location, she started cooking meals-to-go with low-carb ingredients like meats, fruits, nuts, and vegetables. Her business grew quickly, and she decided to move into her own store.
She said Bedrock’s Main Street location is the best fit for what she hopes to accomplish. “I want people to be able to eat healthy,” Marter says. “And healthy food can taste good, too.” — Robbie Porter
MM: When is the best day to stop by Bedrock?
Marter: Fridays on Main Street are great. There are tons of art shows, and this entire street is full of people. But Saturday is Waffle Mania, where I make waffles as unhealthy and delicious as they can be in the Paleo diet.
What do you do best in your line of work?
Marter: I’m not necessarily great at any one thing, but I am really good at working hard. If I just keep scratching and swinging, I know I can claw my way out of any situation.
Betty Joyce (“B.J.”) Chester-Tamayo
owner of Alcenia’s Southern Style Cuisine
The black wrought-iron doors of Alcenia’s restaurant in downtown Memphis remind me of arriving at my grandmother’s house for Sunday dinner. I almost want to knock first, but then I remember it’s a restaurant.
When I walk in, I smell fresh cabbage perfectly seasoned, the sweetness of candied yams, and the enticing aroma of fried catfish. I see walls painted orange, purple, yellow, and green, chairs decorated with brightly colored zigzags and swirls, and a massive Mardi Gras mask sitting above the juke box.
I also see Betty Joyce “B.J.” Chester-Tamayo, who greets me with her signature welcome: “Give me a hug, baby.”
For almost two decades, Chester-Tamayo has run this popular soul food restaurant and made it her duty to hug every customer. She credits the power of love. “I became blessed, not successful, because of God,” says Chester-Tamayo. “I always tell people that I am the best because I have love.” The death of her only son motivated her to open the restaurant, and her mother’s recipes inspire the cooking. “I didn’t want my mother’s recipes to die with her,” she says. In turn, Chester-Tamayo named the restaurant Alcenia, in honor of her mother.
Chester-Tamayo aims to feed each customer’s heart, head, and stomach, but understands that every day isn’t easy. For B.J. herself, being a black woman in business brings its own struggles. “Memphis is a very hard city for small businesses,” Chester-Tamayo says. “I’ve been here 18 years, and a lot of people still don’t know about me.”
Writers and broadcasters from national media, however, have managed to find their way to Chester-Tamayo’s welcoming establishment, not far from the convention center. The Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives , for example, featured the restaurant in a “Traditional Dishes” episode. For her part, Chester-Tamayo says Southern hospitality and, of course, the restaurant’s food, inspire media recognition. “Soul food brings people together,” she says. “I hope they taste the love.” — Kitaen Jones
MM: What do you enjoy most about coming to work?
Joyce: The people. I have the world’s greatest customers.
Can you offer any advice for future entrepreneurs?
Joyce: If it’s not in your heart, don’t do it. You have to be dedicated. You have to love what you’re doing. A lot of people have a good product. Having a good product is not enough. You have to be self-motivated. You can’t take no for an answer.
owner of Lunchbox Eats
Lunchbox Eats owner Kaia Brewer pulls custom ers back to grade school, combining love and education in tasty and innovative ways. “Love is what Lunchbox is all about,” says Brewer, who opened her restaurant in 2010 on South Fourth Street not far from FedExForum. “My staff and I love what we do, and we especially love the smiles and joy we bring to people. It’s the key ingredient in our food and customer service.”
The restaurant itself, with its eclectic school theme, is a tribute of sorts to Brewer’s parents, who were both career teachers for Memphis City Schools. “My mother always told me: If you can read, then you can cook,” Brewer explains.
Indeed, many of the restaurant’s specialty sandwiches, served on red lunch trays straight out of your least favorite school, mimic foods traditionally found in paper-bag lunches. One in particular, the Homeroom Chicken and Grits, is an inventive way to reimagine fried chicken and waffles. Brewer deep-fries chicken to perfection, smacks the chicken in between two flakey, golden waffles, and dresses the dish with cheddar, syrup, and succulent honey mustard.
For Brewer, who left a job at the Double Tree hotel to start her own business, her restaurant is well worth the hard work. “This place is my baby,” she says. “Sometimes, I just want to hold and nurture it, and other times I just want to knock it out. But in the end, I love what I’m doing.” — Brady Boswell
MM: What made you want to open Lunchbox?
Brewer: I’ve always enjoyed cooking. Whether it was working at the hotel, with my family, or at Lunchbox, I always love seeing the smiles on people’s faces when I bring them their food. The joy it brings to people of all ages, and my love for the culinary arts, was a definite driving force .
Who inspired you the most to open the restaurant?
Brewer: My father was very political. Unfortunately, he passed away, but he definitely had an impact on my cooking. He would have cocktail parties where I helped cook for the guests, and they always said how good the cooking was. All I thought was, if they only knew who was cooking it. Most of the guests wouldn’t have even guessed it was me.
executive chef at Bleu Restaurant and Lounge
Chef Ana Gonzalez’s culinary career has been an international journey that started in South America and has continued through Miami, Holland, and Memphis, where she is now the executive chef for Bleu at downtown’s Westin Hotel. In Colombia, where she spent most of her childhood, she learned the value of using fresh foods. “I like fresh, flavorful, and healthy foods,” Gonzalez says. “My family had a farm so I appreciate fresh foods.” At 12, Gonzalez moved to Miami and lived there for 12 years with her mother, whom she credits for her core work values and attention to details. “I definitely have to give that to my mom; she made sure I was doing the right things,” Gonzalez says. “That was a big influence on me becoming a chef and the person I am right now.” Gonzalez remembers visiting Diego’s in Miami for her 15th birthday, a meal she credits as the start of her love affair with food. “I was so happy with my food, even my mom was happy for me.” The same year, she started working in a commercial kitchen for a Haitian French chef. She spent the first six months cutting onions and peppers. A year and a half later, she was a sous chef. After attending the University of Miami (where she played soccer), Gonzalez chose to study at Johnson and Wales Culinary School; later, she won a scholarship to study pastry in Holland. All of this has contributed to a lengthy career in the industry. “I think I would go crazy if I had to do something else,” says Gonzalez. “I still enjoy it and still have fun after 20 years.”
At Bleu, the signature restaurant in the Westin, Gonzalez supervises about 20 people in her kitchen, and is responsible for breakfast, lunch, and dinner in her restaurant and service at the hotel’s two bars. “I’m the architect in the kitchen,” she says. — Connor McKenzie
MM: What do you hope to bring to Bleu at the Westin?
Gonzalez: I would like to educate our clientele, to try different things outside the box so Memphis can see that there is more to our cuisine than barbecue, fried chicken, slaw, and pecan pie.
What was your favorite traditional Colombian dish?
Gonzalez: Bandeja Paisa, the farmer’s dish. It is a mixture of red beans, rice, plantain, chorizo, avocado, and a fried egg.
founder of Caritas Village
Caritas Village, which means “Love for All,” is nestled tightly in the heart of Binghampton and in the heart of its founder Onie Johns, who left a comfortable home in Germantown for a less privileged community to build relationships between people with trust, friendship, and food.
“We want to break down walls of hostility between and among neighboring cultures, build bridges of love and trust between the rich and those made poor, and provide an alternative to the street corners for the neighborhood children,” Johns says.
A place for both young and old, Caritas works to give the less fortunate creative outlets in the form of art classes, tutoring, knitting lessons, and a variety of different workshops offered throughout the week.
But what really stands out at Caritas Village, apart from the bold artwork and warm atmosphere, is the food. A small café serves lunch seven days a week, offering a smorgasbord of favorites such as chicken pesto Paninis, salmon quesadillas and Greek beef with feta and olives. On most days, whiffs of freshly baked goods waft through the air.
“The food is a means to get people to the table to build relationships,” says Johns, who moved to the Binghampton neighborhood six years ago. She explains how she grew up on a farm in Mississippi. “It was very community oriented,” Johns says. “You were responsible to the community, not to yourself.”
Johns’ son-in-law, Erik Waldkirch agrees. He is one of the volunteer chefs and is known for his killer veggie burger and the Osho burger, topped with crispy bacon, soft mushrooms, caramelized onions and provolone cheese. “Food is what brings patrons at Caritas together and stands as a constant that all else revolves,” Waldkirch says. “Take away the food and see what happens.”– Sara Harrison
MM: What inspired you to take on a non-profit such as Caritas Village?
Johns: I had a moment of insanity. But no, really, I was in a spiritual formation group and we were studying prayer and privilege, and I had a hard time where I was living reconciling it.
What is your favorite part about working at Caritas Village?
Johns: Building relationships and meeting people and connecting on a mutual level despite backgrounds.”
Laurie Suriff and Collins Tuohy
owners of Whimsy Cookie Co.
Playing sous chef was simply a hobby for young Laurie Suriff. As a child in Dallas, she honed her culinary skills alongside her mother, baking cookies in their kitchen with a top-secret recipe – the same one that would help build her business, Whimsy Cookie Co., into today’s signature pink brick bungalow on Poplar Avenue.
The frosted sugar cookies, available in a colorful array of fanciful shapes, first gained popularity with her husband’s coworkers. At the time, baking a dozen or so cookies each week didn’t seem like much work for a stay-at-home mom, but more orders began pouring in. Soon Collins Tuohy, a Whimsy Cookie enthusiast, jumped in to help, and the women became business partners.
Success came quickly, and Whimsy soon outgrew its original space. In early 2014, the partners uprooted the business to the current high-profile spot on Poplar. “The move really set us on another level,” says Suriff, who fills dozens of orders each week for an array of special events ranging from football tailgates at Ole Miss (Tuohy’s alma mater) to birthday parties in Dallas.
The bakery’s signature bubble-gum pink dominates the store – from the walls and furniture to the custom-made cookie boxes – and may take first-timers by surprise. “Our biggest challenge,” jokes Suriff, “is trying to make men feel comfortable when they walk in here.”
Thankfully, there is no gender bias in a sweet tooth, easily satisfied with almost anything inside the store’s tastefully arranged glass case: classics like chocolate chip cookies and oatmeal cream pies and artfully decorated sugar cookie shaped into footballs, unicorns or bright green frogs.
Suriff and Tuohy receive new franchising offers daily, from local husbands who want to open their Whimsy bakeries for their wives to businessmen who want to take the company national. However, the co-owners want Whimsy “running like a smooth ship” before expanding. In the meantime, Suriff and Tuohy can still be found behind the store’s kitchen, getting down in the dough while testing new creations.
For both women, uniting food and family is a favorite by-product of Whimsy’s success. They recall a customer who insisted that Whimsy cookies be present at all her daughter’s major life events. “It’s not just sweets,” Tuohy says. “It’s growing up with Whimsy.” ─ Eric Bourgeois
MM: What’s busy season at Whimsy look like?
Tuohy: It’s like that airport scene from Home Alone where everyone’s running around to frantic music.
What should be the biggest takeaway for Whimsy?
Suriff: If you’re not as happy here as you are at Disneyworld, we’re not doing something right.
owner of Cooper Street 20/20
When you walk through the door at Cooper Street 20/20, you’re greeted by the friendly and spunky Kathy Katz, who describes her typical day as “drink coffee, smoke cigarettes, and then freak out.”
More specifically, Katz spends her days preparing grab-and-go food items ranging from lasagna to pimento cheese with the help of Chef Stephen Sciara. The duo prepares five to seven new batches of food daily, using locally sourced ingredients when possible, before packing and freezing individual dishes.
Before opening Cooper Street 20/20, Katz spent 25 years running 20/20 Diner at the Southern College of Optometry near downtown Memphis. “I finally just woke up one day and said, I’m never cooking another chicken sandwich for a college student as long as I live,” she said.
Originally, she intended to use her space at 800 S. Cooper St. to prepare the 70 or so dishes she makes for the weekly farmers market, which she has been attending for eight years. But she decided to open the doors to customers, as well.
From the looks of her kitchen, you’d never expect that Katz puts out as much food as she does. The place is organized and spic and span and runs precisely to Katz’ specifications. “I know that one pound of cheese makes 26 pimento cheeses,” she said. “I know how many pushes it takes to seal the dish.”
One of her customer’s favorite dishes is from a now closed restaurant on Madison Avenue called Harry’s On Teur. Her version of the Chicken Newport uses roasted chicken thigh and mushrooms sautéed in spices and lemon juice. She then mixes feta cheese into mixture, before placing it in its packaging to cool.
“It’s just like your mothers kitchen,” she said, as she sprinkled shredded mozzarella over the Chicken Newport. “Except I make you pay before you leave.” --- Alex Gillespie
What is your most popular dish?
“Hot tamale pie or shrimp and grits right now. I’ve had to make it four weeks in a row.”
Are most of your recipes ones you’ve made forever or that you’ve picked up over the years?
“There’s a lot of forever’s, like my European chicken salad, which is a no mayonnaise chicken salad I’ve been making for 30 years.”
Editor’s note: In the spirit of mentoring, M emphis m agazine’s editors worked with journalism students at the University of Memphis to produce this story on culinary entrepreneurs. Student journalists who wrote stories for both print and online versions of Contemporary Media publications include Brady Boswell, Eric Bourgeois, Candice Briggie, Christine Cabrera, Callie Compton, Zoe Dickey, Alexandria Gillespie, Sara Harrison, Destiny Johnson, Kitaen Jones, Connor McKenzie, Robbie Porter, Michael Robinson, and Josh Tucker.