Savory Sound Bites from the Second Line with Chef Kelly English

Chef Kelly English. Photo Credit: Justin Fox Burks

Chef Kelly English of Restaurant Iris and the Second Line gives us the succulent scoop on why Memphis cuisine is some of the best in the country. Photo by Justin Fox Burks.

Chef Kelly English putting the final touches on a dish; Justin Fox Burks

Kelly English shows what makes him the best chef in Memphis. Photo by Justin Fox Burks.

Restaurant Iris. Photo Credit: Justin Fox Burks

Fine dining at Restaurant Iris in Memphis. Chef Kelly English. Photo by Justin Fox Burks.

Interior dining area at Restaurant Iris

Restaurant Iris was named Best Restaurant, Best Service and Best Chef in Memphis. Photo by Justin Fox Burks

Ask any Memphian, or anybody who has visited Memphis in recent years, where the best place is to have a nice dinner in town, and chances are, Restaurant Iris will be at the top of the list. Not only is the food absolutely spectacular and the service beyond compare, but New Orleans transplant, Chef Kelly English, is a prominent ambassador for the growth of the culinary scene in Memphis. We spoke to him about The Second Line (his third restaurant), running an empire and some of his Bluff City faves.

You’re not a native Memphian. Why did you choose Memphis as the location to start your restaurant empire?
I went to college at Ole Miss in Oxford, MS, which was my first real exposure to this region, and then I attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. After school, I ran a restaurant for Chef John Besh named N'awlins at the Horseshoe Casino in Tunica, MS while living on Mud Island. That is when I met the girl of my dreams in Angela Brignole. We moved back to New Orleans to help John expand his empire, and then we decided to chase our own dreams in Memphis, Angela’s hometown, a year later. We came back to Memphis because we wanted to share our unique perspective on food with the awesome people that make up the community. 

You’re opening a new eatery right next door to Iris called the Second Line. How will the cuisine differ from that of your flagship restaurant?
Iris is exactly what I want it to be... and the Second Line will be, as well. Both the super refined and the super rustic cuisine of my birthplace are very celebrated, but that middle range typically gets lost in the shuffle. These are the places I grew up eating in, much more casual environment with food that is just as thought out...po’boys, seafood plates, roasted meats, all served in a bar. 

What is your favorite dish at Restaurant Iris? The Second Line?
Come on now! I'm proud of it all; there is nothing at any of my restaurants that I wouldn't serve to my wife or mother. I will say that I can't wait to eat a dressed hot roasted ham and cheese po’boy with roast beef gravy as well as the oyster beggars purses that will be at The Second Line.

What is your idea of comfort food?
I find comfort in food of all types. The common thread is always the passion with which the cook prepared it. 

What do you cook when you’re at home?
My wife cooks some killer food at home...I dirty too many pans to cook at home a ton. 

What are some of your favorite Memphis restaurants (other than your own)?
There are so many favorites we have here in town with some of our best friends at the helm. A few standouts are Las Tortugas Deli Mexicana, Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, Hog and Hominy, and Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken

If someone is coming to Memphis for the first time, what attractions do you suggest they visit?
The National Civil Rights Museum, Sun Studio and the restaurants I listed above. 

We believe that Memphis is a great culinary city. What makes the food of Memphis special?
What makes the food so special here is that we have truly organic diversity in our population, with people who care about each other and are passionate about life. This is a truly inspiring place to call home. 

You have received national recognition from the James Beard Foundation, Food & Wine, CNN, USA Today, Open Table and many others. What does it mean to you to garner so many accolades from respected media outlets?
It is always nice to get recognized, but our goal was never to get recognition. Our goal was to enrich and be a part of this community. I guess, if anything, it says that anyone can achieve their dreams and whatever they set their minds to right here in Memphis, TN.