Toward the end of October, the editor of Delta Sky magazine asked me to write a story about the culinary scene in Memphis as part of the magazine’s special section profiling the Bluff City. While I was excited about the opportunity, I was even more pleased that she wanted me to write about something besides barbecue. She knew, like so many others in business, tourism, and entertainment, how the culinary scene in Memphis has moved beyond pulled pork.
Not that we Memphians don’t love our pigs, especially if they are grass-fed and raised locally. A month or so later, I heard from Mark Newman, who along with his wife, Rita, raises heritage Berkshire pigs in the Southern Ozarks about 120 miles from Memphis. A tireless promoter of local restaurants and responsible farming, Newman is well-known for his support of Memphis area chefs, who use his flavorful pork to make a cornucopia of dishes ranging from pork-belly carbonara to osso bucco with mushroom jus. “Listen to this,” Newman said, clearly enthused. “Cochon 555 is coming to Memphis.”
If you aren’t familiar with this prestigious culinary event, you will be soon. On the first Saturday in February, five chefs will compete in a nose-to-tail cook-off of five pigs at The Columns at Commerce Square downtown. The winner of the epicurean feast will join other chefs from across the country in mid-June for the Grand Cochon competition in Aspen, Colorado.
While the event raises awareness of heritage breeds in communities nationwide, it also showcases an area’s best culinary talent. For the Memphis event, that talent includes Kelly English of Midtown’s Restaurant Iris and Michael Hudman and Andy Ticer of Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen in East Memphis.
The chefs’ participation in Cochon 555 should come as no surprise to Memphis magazine readers, who voted Andrew Michael the best Italian restaurant and handed English five top wins, including best chef and best restaurant. Participation in the annual poll also illustrates how sophisticated our readers are about the food they love to eat. Readers cast more than 2,000 ballots, twice as many as last year, and their enthusiasm influenced how we reported the winners. Across the board, restaurants were so close in final votes that we listed five winners per category instead of our traditional three. Votes for best chef were even more diverse, so this year we went with a top-10 listing to celebrate them all.
No wonder new restaurants continue to open at a prodigious rate, including Mac Edward’s The Elegant Farmer (the category winner), Wally Joe’s gorgeous new restaurant Acre (don’t miss our cover story), and a reinvigorated restaurant scene in Cooper-Young that includes Cortona Contemporary Italian, Sweet Grass Next Door, Imagine Vegan Café, Stone Soup Café, and Skunx Chef Pub. So many new restaurants opened in 2011 that I asked Susan Ellis, who writes the Flyer food blog Hungry Memphis, to help me remember. “It was a big year for burgers,” she said, rattling off a list that includes Stuffy’s, Burly’s Burgers & Fries, Five Guys, and Slider Inn, Aldo Dean’s midtown answer to his downtown Bardog.
Along with new restaurants, the farm-to-table movement in Memphis continues to grow in unexpected directions. People everywhere are turning patches of lawn into productive vegetable gardens, and church members and community volunteers are helping residents in underserved neighborhoods build and plant gardens for growing food. No better example exists than the midtown neighborhood of Binghampton, where an abandoned corner gas station is now a locally sourced market called Urban Farms, and students at the nearby elementary school are growing seasonal produce all year long.
Speaking of healthy foods, one of the country’s leading advocates for better school nutrition now calls Memphis home. Tony Geraci, a dynamo of energy and expertise, is the new director of nutrition for Memphis City Schools. Geraci, who is also a member of Michelle Obama’s Childhood Obesity Summit, hopes to change the eating habits of the city’s young people by substituting processed foods with more healthy choices. His mantra is “local and fresh,” reminding us that some of the best eating in Memphis begins in our own kitchens.
Pamela Denney is the food editor for Memphis.