Chefs to Watch 2017: Trevor Stockton, RT Lodge, Maryville, Tenn.
I was introduced to Trevor Stockton and his food during a genuine moment of despair at a conference last spring. We had just wrapped up a fairly sterile presentation about modern cooking techniques that was all science and no flavor, and I was desperate for food that was real, with soul that matched its technical aspirations. Setting aside a quick fantasy of running out to a taco truck, I sat down to lunch in front of a plate of house-cured ham with pickled strawberries. Suddenly, I felt saved—food-wise at least.
A good ham will do that, and the one Stockton cured at his restaurant and served us changed the day’s mood for me. As did the thoughtfully prepared dishes that followed: pan-roasted squash with a bright, punchy chimichurri made with first-of-the-season ramps, a sunchoke gnocchi lent slight smoke and spice by aged-ham broth and watercress, and braised pork cheeks whose richness was offset by the shishito peppers that accompanied them.
When we spoke later, Stockton told me his aim is to elevate classic Southern dishes, while staying true to the traditions behind them. I was surprised to learn that he’s not a Southerner—he’s from Detroit—but his family is from Tennessee, and his father and brother are chefs, so he comes to the cuisine honestly.
“Every year at Easter and Thanksgiving, we’d visit my dad’s family on their farm in rural Tennessee,” he recalls. “They had a canning house and a smokehouse dug into the mountain. They grew everything they needed, from tomatoes to tobacco. I remember having meat that was cooked in coffee cans. Pork rillettes are French, but a lot of the preserving techniques we use in the South are from farming regions all over the world.”
Those family visits, plus a childhood in the restaurant world, made a strong impact on Stockton from the start.
I remember walking into the kitchen: the smell, the feel. It’s crazy and chaotic, but in the dining room, everything was quiet, beautiful, calm and controlled.
“I didn’t go to daycare; I went to a kitchen,” he explains. “At this Italian restaurant, the owner’s mother was a baker, so I would hang out with her and make cookies. I remember walking into the kitchen: the smell, the feel. It’s crazy and chaotic, but in the dining room, everything was quiet, beautiful, calm and controlled. I didn’t understand then that the chaos was controlled. The difference between front and back of the house fascinated me when I was six, even if I didn’t understand it.”
He’s brought those experiences to RT Lodge in eastern Tennessee, featuring ingredients from the area, taken a step further.
“Everyone in the summertime is eating tomato sandwiches, and we can do more with that,” he notes of dishes like pickled green tomatoes that are breaded and fried, served with fresh buttermilk cheese. He takes the same approach with his country-fried steak buns, chicken-fried steak served on steamed rye bao buns ($12, recipe).
“I like ingredients that are welcoming to people, that they grew up on, done in a way that they haven’t seen before. When you see the plate in front of you, it’s not unfamiliar or going to scare you away. But there’s a lot of love and technique that go into it.”
Q&A with Trevor Stockton:
How do you describe your food?
I like to preserve things the way they used to be done. Every piece of pork we cure comes from my parents’ farm. If you make bacon the proper way, you use a lot of moisture. It isn’t the way to make the most money, but you get the best product. We get a pig every two or three months, on a Sunday. The staff comes in, and we cure coppa, bacon, salami, pancetta and make ’nduja with peppers from our garden.
What is your pet peeve in the kitchen?
People who aren’t clean and organized. Not showing the respect to the food you’re preparing. If you spend three hours on prepping a corn soup and you don’t scrape out the pot, then you threw it away, just because you were too lazy to get a spatula.
What is your favorite ingredient?
I really like working with peppers; there are so many different types, and not all are spicy. I use seven types of bell peppers in multiple ways in one dish, plus I make all our hot sauces and smoked chili powders.
Where do you find inspiration for your menu?
I keep up with what’s going on around the world with different cuisines, but I don’t like trying to mimic food. People want to cook new Nordic, but they don’t understand it. I think it’s important to understand the food before you cook it.
What would you do if you weren’t a chef?
The only other thing is farming, or agriculture in some way. Working in the garden, seeing the plant from the beginning, helps you figure out how to use it better. You think about the varieties of plants, what the weather does. How you have to rotate tomato plants with new crops so the soil replenishes. All of it.
I like working on my parents’ farm. Helping my dad build fences for the pigs, and then slaughtering them, gives me an appreciation for the animal. Understanding agriculture and the work that goes into it has made me more respectful of the ingredients. But I always wanted to be a cook. That is fascinating to me.
What cookbook is most important to you?
The Professional Chef. I didn’t go to CIA—I was about to go, but my brother convinced me to move to Tennessee to work with him at a restaurant instead. One of the first things the chef did was sit me down and tell me that he would teach me what he could, but since he couldn’t teach me everything, he was giving me his copy of the Pro Chef. The basics for what any chef should know are all there. Also, Culinary Artistry gets the juices flowing for me, when I’m writing new menus or coming up with a new dish. If I’m missing a component, it helps me think.
How do you find calm in your restaurant?
I stared doing yoga six months ago. If you told me five years ago that I would do yoga, I wouldn’t have believed it. But I want to do this for a long time, and taking care of myself is important. Yoga has helped my body feel better.
What restaurant is your dream stage location?
Blue Hill at Stone Barns; what they do is in line with what I want to do. Not just picking tomatoes, but growing them yourself and understanding the soil. Understanding why butter tastes different in March than in June, and why it depends on what the cows are eating. They place a great emphasis on all those details, so it would be a great experience.
Or I’d like to go to places that aren’t well known, like a small shop in Buenos Aires to learn to make a proper sausage. Sometimes you can learn more at the lesser-known restaurant than anywhere else. I do want to find time to go stage somewhere. I make plans every year, but there’s always something to do in my own restaurant.
What’s your bucket list restaurant to visit?
The chef I first worked for when I came [to Tennessee] now works at Café Boulud in West Palm Beach. He was a big influence on me, so I’d like to go to Restaurant Daniel. I like the idea of the classics; the ridiculous attention to detail on how the food is cooked, how the kitchen is run, all of it.
What is the next cooking challenge or technique you want to try?
I want to work more on our dry-cured charcuterie program. It’s challenging, because you age a ham for two years, which means you're screwed if it doesn’t work.
What do you like to cook on a day off?
I love to have people over, but also be more low-key. Last night, I was about to cook a rib-eye for my wife and me for our date night. But we were playing poker and having drinks, and she was like, ‘Don’t cook, just hang out.’ Sometimes, that’s better.