A Tale of Two Kitchens: Spending the Day with Chef Ryan Trimm

By Melissa Petersen / Photography By Melissa Petersen | January 01, 2014
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There’s a rhythm to a kitchen. The tempo starts out slow as the first of the crew arrives and starts turning on equipment, pulling things out of the walk-in, and beginning prep for the day. The blast of water in the kitchen sink filling a stockpot is actually a harsh sound when the kitchen hasn’t fully awakened.

As I knock on the back door of Southward Fare and Libations at 8:30 on a rainy morning, I expect a sleepy dishwasher to open the door into a quiet workroom where I can watch the day evolve.

But the door opens, and I’m greeted by music, clinking dishes being stacked, the dish machine going full bore and three servers maneuvering around five kitchen crew. Southward — not normally open weekdays before 11 am — is hosting an executive breakfast, and I’ve walked into a kitchen in full swing.

With the guests taken care of, Chef Ryan Trimm is at the stove, churning out a line of frittatas for staff meal. The crew isn’t normally here this early, and they worked late last night, so a bit of protein is needed to reinforce the guys for the remaining 15 hours of their day.

“Did you put salt and pepper in the eggs?” Ryan asks someone who answers “yes” from a distant corner.

It’s 8:45 and Ryan grabs a banana for his own meal and gives his phone a quick scan. He jumps into the background conversation, occasionally, which is centered on today’s lunch special — grilled cheese with tomato soup — and Thanksgiving turkeys. The stories abound about holiday turkey mishaps and bad cooking techniques. Ryan slips into Spanish to give some instructions. I haven’t a clue what he is saying. “Who doesn’t like tomato soup when it’s raining outside?” asks Ryan. “No one,” he answers himself. Conversation closed.

After staff meal, there’s a bit of a lull. The dining room is cleared, dishes are cleaned, and kitchen stations are reset. It’s 9 am and there are a few minutes before it’s time to get ready for lunch.

An executive chef is more like a hands-on CEO. Sure, they can cook, but they have to oversee every aspect of the restaurant, which means that someone like Ryan is also part babysitter, repair guy, walk-in cleaner-upper, drill sergeant, and dad.

Orders, meetings, vendors, maintenance, staff, accounting, happy customers, grumpy customers, and training all chip away at the hours in the day. And Ryan is one of the guys who likes to cook, too. So today he’s in charge of the soup.

A crash sounds from the dishwash area. “Don’t worry,” says Ryan.  “My daughter didn’t want to go to college anyhow.” He shakes his head as the breakage is cleaned up.

Ryan pulls up an email from Woodson Ridge Farms — one of his main farmer suppliers — on his phone. The email was sent at 1 am, and they’ll be delivering by 11 am. He looks over the list and jots an order into a small composition book pulled from his back pocket. “Ohhhhh…they’ve got carrots!”

The composition book is filled with lists, phone numbers, notes, and orders. He’s got a bucket at home with years’ worth of the small notebooks. His on-person toolkit includes his phone, a Sharpie, a Dixon Ticonderoga No. 2 pencil (he’s quite specific about what type of pencil he uses), a vegetable peeler, a pocketknife, and his car keys.

The bakery station is rolling out bread for the day. The first few loaves have already come out of the oven. Nick has pulled candied pecans out of the oven, and Ryan reminds him to let them cool before they’re packaged up. Luis sets up a rondeau to cook off ten pounds of ground beef for tomorrow’s chili. Ryan wants him to roast off spaghetti squash, so there’s an impromptu training session to show how Ryan wants it cut, cleaned, and roasted.

Ryan has set up his own station with an old-school, heavy, heavy cutting board and his own knives. Though a kitchen may have knives that anyone can use, it’s typical for chefs and cooks to bring their own to work. (Insider tip: It is extremely rude to use another chef’s knife without asking, and even then, you must clean it and return it promptly.) The knives go home with the chef each night.

Ryan pulls a large stockpot off the burner and brings it to his station. As he walks to get the large immersion blender, he picks up things from other stations and drops them in the trash or dish area as appropriate. “I hate clutter,” he says.

He purées the soup right in the stockpot, all the while giving instructions for the lunch special and the oyster order (which starts an all-kitchen discussion about oysters), and then giving one of the cooks a bit of grief for coming in late. He slips a spoon in for a taste and decides it’s not smooth enough, so out comes the upright blender.

Once the soup is blended and seasoned, Ryan sets up a plate with a grilled cheese sandwich (“When you cut it in half, you shouldn’t see unmelted cheese.”) and a bowl of soup. He snaps a photo to post on Twitter and Facebook, and then invites the staff to take a taste. “Soup. There it is,” he says, getting a chuckle out of a few within earshot.

Ryan disappears into the walk-in for a bit and comes out with a few empty boxes.
He fields a phone call and replies to an email as he answers questions from the crew. Ryan responds with a mix of patience and dry wit. His crew calls him “boss” or “chef” and their respect is evident, even accounting for the best behavior they’re probably on with me in their kitchen for the day.

As Ryan calls in an order to a supplier, he picks up some cutting boards and drops them at the dishwashing station. He runs out to his car to pick up some recipes he wrote up last night.

The crew is peeling shrimp, making bread, slicing lemons, and filling butter cups.
The Woodson Ridge Farms delivery truck arrives, so Ryan darts out the back door to shop. Looking over the list in his comp book, he calls out poundage for carrots, chard, and squash. The delivery guy also has apples and invites Ryan to try before he buys. Out comes the pocket knife.

The crew is slicing ham, cutting up cornbread, sweeping the floor, restacking pots, and lining up water pitchers.

It’s almost 10:30 am. As servers dart in and out and the kitchen tempo jumps up a few notches, Ryan’s pace is constant. He reviews the breakfast tab, answers another email, and starts to talk about the next menu changes here and at his other restaurant, Sweet Grass. He’s missed five calls — two sales calls, one food vendor, one from the electrician, and one personal.

It’s 10:35 am and the entire front-of-house stops for “line up.” Ryan stops, too, and they have a quick rundown of what to expect today, reservations tonight, and the executive lunch special. As he returns to the kitchen, Ryan notices a gap in the cabinets behind the large farm table. Calling for plates, he stacks them up so the cabinet again looks full.

The kitchen crew is cutting potatoes, peeling sweet potatoes, trimming chicken, and making candied pecans.

The buzzer on the convection oven sounds, and Ryan pops the door open as he texts a supplier. He tastes some butter beans for doneness before straining them in a colander.
Ryan starts making ketchup. The discussion moves to this weekend’s catering. Bread comes out of the oven. Silverware gets polished.

Arlie Walters is Ryan’s sous chef at lunch. She’ll take the reins as Ryan transitions over to Sweet Grass for the rest of today. Jake Behnke is the Southward sous chef in the evening. They are responsible for executing the lunch and dinner menus, which range from venison tartare and shrimp pirlau to smoked beet salad and Claybrook Farms tri-tip. The menu at Southward differs from Sweet Grass, but there is a Ryan-esque quality to both. Ryan’s fondness for game meats, house-made charcuterie and pickles, and local sourcing permeates both menus. But while Sweet Grass has a low-country vibe, Southward is balanced, classic Southern, with twists on the traditional and regular nods to Southern staples.

Depending on the day, after meetings and errands, Ryan might return to Southward or finish the evening at Sweet Grass.

It’s 11 am and the first lunch guests arrive at Southward.

After lunch service, Ryan heads to a meeting about a fundraiser, then he arrives at Sweet Grass at 2 pm for a manager’s meeting.

In the kitchen, Adam, Luis, and Nick have arrived from their shift at Southward and are setting up for the dinner shift along with the rest of the crew.

With Sweet Grass chef de cuisine, Brady Bryan, Ryan digs through the coolers, asks about a hog that was fabricated earlier, and makes a list of what they have in stock that’s not on the menu. Then, he and Brady sit down to discuss the upcoming specials. Brady has worked with Ryan since the two started cooking in Memphis. They worked in Charleston together, and Brady is now Ryan’s right-hand guy. Their conversation is peppered with stories of mishaps, outfitting Sweet Grass (they sanded, finished, and assembled the tables themselves), and frustrations with vendors. There are two, unscheduled salespeople waiting to talk to whichever emerges from the meeting first.

Sweet Grass and the more casual bar Next Door — which share a kitchen but not a menu — have the capability for more daily specials. And this week, Sweet Grass is in the middle of a menu changeup. The Frogmore stew is being replaced with oyster stew. A confit of pork shoulder, which Ryan developed for St. Jude’s Garden Harvest, will replace the Rabbit Hoppin’ John, paired with dirty Brussels sprouts. Out goes the asparagus. In comes the autumn squash. I’m worried about the Badass Nachos disappearing again, but am assured that they’re still on the menu — for now.

The menu rolls with produce and farm changes. Ryan is in constant contact with many farmers, so he knows what’s coming up and has time to plan. The servers say people are looking for more beef right now. As Ryan rattles off what he knows Claybrook Farms has stocked  at the moment, they decide on hanger steak for the next few days, then maybe a move to tri-tip.

Creating a menu isn’t just about having fun and being creative. Ryan likes to use the best, which means a high percentage of local and organic. But the best product isn’t cheap. So creating a menu is a balancing act of flavor while considering price and availability. Working with the seasons helps, but some things will never make it on the menu because prices are too high, and Ryan refuses to use sub-par material.

Ryan manages to sidestep the salespeople and heads into the kitchen. It’s 3 pm and time for tunes. When Ryan is in the kitchen, it’s Creedence, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Taj Mahal. Brady likes Parliament. When Ryan isn’t around, the crew cranks up dubstep (a genre of techno-dance music that Ryan describes as “horrible”). The music sets the pace as the kitchen begins fabricating fish, setting up stations, sautéing vegetables, and cooking grits.

Brady and Ryan talk about tonight’s specials concurrently with the upcoming menu change — crab cakes, wahoo, then red snapper with grilled white anchovies, pork chops with demi glace replacing the short ribs, butternut squash bisque, and an autumn squash salad with toasted walnut vinaigrette.

It’s 4 pm, and I’m terribly hungry listening to the conversation.

The kitchen tempo is interrupted by a visit from the plumber. There’s a wet spot on the floor, and no one can track down where the leak is coming from. The plumber finds the leak behind the dishwasher, and you should see the relief on Ryan’s face: He wasn’t looking forward to tearing up the kitchen floor.

Again, Ryan sets up his station, unrolls his knife kit, answers a few phone calls, eyeballs a delivery, and signs a check for a vendor.

The rhythm is escalating again. You could set a watch based on when the pace of the kitchen kicks up.

It’s 5 pm and Ryan has yet to step into his office at either restaurant. A few early guests sidle up to the bar at Next Door. The phone rings frequently as people call to request Sweet Grass reservations for the weekend ahead. Both the temperature and the tempo pick up in the kitchen.

You can tell that Ryan’s favorite place to be is on the cooking line. As the orders come in, the crew cooks and moves with their senses. There are no timers, no recipes, and no microwaves. The preparation earlier in the day ensures the success of each dish at night.

“We’re not perfect,” says Ryan. “We’re not going to get it right every time. I wish we could. But we’re going to do everything within our power to make it the best we can.”
An order of shrimp and grits heading to the dining room looks about perfect to me. But I could be easily convinced to enjoy any of the dishes that roll past — sea scallops with a pumpkin seeds and cauliflower purée, stuffed quail, wahoo with carrots, fennel and salsa verde.

As orders for deep-dish sour cream apple pie and chocolate peanut butter pie outpace entrées, the kitchen tempo changes again. Things slow down ever so slightly. Stations are closed down. The dishwashing machine doesn’t stop.

It’s about 10 pm when Ryan leaves Sweet Grass. He’s still got a few hours of computer work to finish up.

His alarm is set for 7 am.

Sweet Grass
937 South Cooper Street • 901-278-0278
Tuesday–Sunday 5 pm until… • Brunch Sunday 11 am–2 pm

Next Door
937 South Cooper Street • 901-278-0278
Monday–Friday 3 pm until… • Saturday–Sunday 11 am until…

Southward Fare and Libations
6150 Poplar Avenue • 901-767-0100 • www.eatsouthward.com
Lunch Monday–Friday  11 am–2 pm;
Brunch Saturday–Sunday 10:30 am–2 pm;
Dinner Monday–Saturday 5:30 pm until...

Melissa Petersen is the editor of Edible Memphis. She has threatened to picket the restaurant if the Badass Nachos or Shrimp and Grits ever go off the menu.

Article from Edible Memphis at http://ediblememphis.ediblecommunities.com/eat/spending-day-chef-ryan-trimm
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