photographs by Jusitn Fox Burks
Andrew Adams and Wally Joe
It’s a warm winter afternoon, and the kitchen windows at Acre are wide open. Even with a breeze, the room is hot, but no one seems to care. “If it’s not hot, we think something is wrong,” says David Schrier, day sous chef at Wally Joe’s posh and popular restaurant in East Memphis.
One of six chefs prepping for a busy Friday night, Schrier is like the positive can-do uncle of an extended family whose members like one another. (Think Love Kitchen, not Chopped.) The compatibility includes Acre’s other culinary stars: Night sous chef Ken Lumpkin cleans and portions the 5-pound belly of a wild striped bass. Andrew Kratzke readies the cold station for the evening run of tomato tartar and warm mozzarella salad. Noralee Bowels debones dozens of chicken legs, the first step in a three-day march to a dish called Truffle Studded Chicken. David Todd slices crispy chicken skin baked in butter into 2-inch squares. He uses a ruler.
In a few hours, Kendra Robinson-Ginibre will orchestrate a flaming gas range, sautéing six different dishes simultaneously with unflappable finesse. But for now she’s focused on a delectable triptych for the dessert menu. “We started this last night, and we’re excited,” she says with a big smile. Then she explains the combination: sage gelato, apples poached in white wine, and Todd’s pastry-like financier, a small molded teacake made with almond flour and brown butter.
Clearly, Acre’s trademark hospitality extends beyond its bright yellow front door, which opened to guests in May after a meticulous two-year renovation of a mid-century home located on South Perkins behind Theatre Memphis.
“This is the calmest kitchen I’ve worked in, because everyone here is so good at what they do,” Todd says. He also credits the affability and expertise of Joe and Andrew Adams, Acre’s executive chef who had left the day before for a getaway wedding in Puerto Rico. Joe, on the other hand, has a more pragmatic explanation for why some of the city’s best chefs landed in his kitchen.
“It was more or less through osmosis or circumstance,” he says. “And then everyone in town knew we were doing this project.”
Yes, indeed. For food lovers in Memphis, the trajectory for Joe and Adams has been a storied tale that began in their shared hometown of Cleveland, Mississippi, where Joe’s family turned small-town fine dining into the first four-star restaurant in the Mississippi Delta. Called KC’s after Joe’s dad, the restaurant was a favorite for Adams, who ate there with his parents while growing up. By the time he was 16, he was working in the kitchen.
“I knocked on the door and asked for a job,” Adams recalls. “I was there for three years, then headed off to culinary school.”
Adams’ next stop was at The Ryland Inn in Whitehouse, New Jersey. He worked with Chef Craig Shelton, a farm-to-table pioneer on the East Coast, before returning to Memphis in 2002 to cook at Wally Joe restaurant on Sanderlin Avenue, a space now used by Interim. The men have worked together ever since, most recently at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. Even with the new restaurant, they still direct food service for The Brushmark, the museum’s restaurant, and coordinate about 70 special events at the Brooks every year.
“We have Sunday afternoon off between 3 p.m. and sleep,” Adams says, laughing. “But we have great staffs, and every week is different.”
From the start, the chefs intended to work with both the Brooks and their own project, according to Joe: “But we had no idea our project would take five years, and we never envisioned a restaurant on such a grand scale.”
Admittedly, Acre strayed afield from the pair’s original concept of a hole-in-the-wall with a kitchen team of two. Memphis investors Frank and Mary Stanley were largely responsible, pushing for a comfortable but elegant setting on par with the great restaurants they knew from their worldwide travels. The Acre team seems to have hit all the right notes. Japanese yew, rosemary, and a stacked stone wall help frame Acre’s charming backyard patio. Inside, oversized prints capture the majestic horses of Nova Scotia’s Sable Island. Add in the merlot patina of the restaurant’s white oak floors and Acre feels like a rustic ski lodge without the snow.
“The words ‘warm,’ ‘inviting,’ and ‘comfortable’ kept popping up,” Joe says about Acre’s development. “We didn’t want a special-occasion restaurant. We wanted a neighborhood restaurant where our guests become our friends.”
To that end, the menu at Acre eschews cutting-edge cuisine (a trademark of Joe’s former restaurant) for a symbiosis of familiar flavors and quality seasonal ingredients. Foods available for short flash seasons also show up on the menu, such as fresh white truffles and Kobe Japanese beef.
“This is the type of thing that inspires us and keeps us excited about our jobs,” Joe says. So do grow lights. In the attic at Acre, micro-herbs and seedlings will be ready for spring when the staff will plant vegetables in the patches of sunshine between Acre’s tall red oaks.
“We work hard, and there is pressure on everybody, but we enjoy every bit of it,” Adams says. “I guarantee you that right now, the people in the kitchen are talking about food.”
They are also tasting what they make, using 250 spoons a day as they work their way through 200 pounds of potatoes, 70 pounds of carrots, 60 pounds of tomatoes, 30 pounds of bok choy, 20 pounds of eggplant, and 10 pounds of shallots in a single week.
By evening, kitchen technique takes over as sous chef Lumpkin in his comfy blue clogs directs dishes, chefs, and servers in a repetitive and precise dance that looks a little like Super Mario World. Happily, there are no explosions.
For Joe, dinner rush begins another push forward to re-create the kind of complete restaurant experience he remembers from KC’s. “We had this grandiose dream to open a great restaurant in the middle of nowhere,” he says about his hometown of Cleveland, Mississippi. “Once we opened Acre, it rekindled my inner desire to build a great restaurant here.”
A Full Plate For chefs, something new is always in the works. Here’s a peek at what might be cooking in the kitchen at Acre this year.
Wally Joe, chef/owner: “I’m doing more simple things that I can cook quickly and easily. I also want to delve into other types of Asian cuisine. Chinese will always be my favorite, but I’m very interested lately in Korean food.”
Andrew Adams, executive chef: “I’m going to focus a lot more on vegetarian and vegan food. It’s always been on my radar, but it’s very needed right now. I eat meat, tons of it, but I love vegetarian food too.”
Ken Lumpkin, night sous chef: “I cut my teeth on French-style cooking, so it’s nice to go back in that direction after doing Japanese cooking at Umai. I also like how Acre is ingredient-driven, so I want to use more organic food.”
David Schrier, day sous chef: “I’m excited about using our acre of land, not just for aesthetics, but to plant a fully functional garden. That’s about as local as you can get, picking herbs and tomatoes from your own backyard.”
Kendra Robinson-Ginibre, sauté station: “I want to get into the smell of things, to pour boiling water into a bowl of ginger or wildflowers so the steam wraps around the food, which is in another bowl. That way, you are tasting the ginger before actually eating.”
David Todd, grill station: “I like to play with traditional childhood flavors that everyone knows and loves, but turn them inside out. That way, people don’t recognize the food, but they recognize the taste.”
Noralee Bowels, sauté station/garde manger station: “I’m fascinated by the natural patterns and textures that food makes. For instance, if I roast a beet and end up with this brilliant, bright magenta oil, I can do so many different things with it.”
Andrew Kratzke, garde manger station: “I like finding a use for everything. Today I essentially burnt the dark green leek tops in a 350-degree oven. Then I spun them in the spice grinder and turned them into ash, which has a nice delicate flavor.”
Bart Mallard, bartender: “I’d like to come up with another type of moonshine for late winter or spring. Moonshine has such a classic, Southern, illegal feel. I also can’t wait to bring back our sugar-snap-pea gin and tonic.”