What will it take for our town to become a top food destination?
It’s easy to find things to like about Chattanooga. The mountains are beautiful, the people are friendly, and the internet is fast. But if you want to fall in love with Chattanooga—I mean really fall in love with Chattanooga—go out and get some food.
Eating has always been central to everything that happens in the Scenic City. Cutting the ribbon on a sunglasses kiosk in the mall? We’ll all bring a covered dish. Just got a divorce? We’ll throw a potluck to help you swallow those sad feelings right down. We don’t eat every time we get together just because it builds a feeling of community or because the common act of eating is a social unifier bridging all generations, religions and classes.
One of the main reasons Chattanoogans eat every time we get together is because we have really good food. Whether it’s a fine-dining restaurant downtown or a home-cooked meal with ingredients carefully selected from the local farmer’s market, your average Gig Cityite has options available that far exceed what the poor, food-suffering citizens of so many cities our same size have to choose from.
But even with the explosion of local farmer's markets and home cooks seeding Instagram with titillating food-porn, Chattanooga is still better known for the gigabytes of data flowing under the city than the stunning array of spectacular foods that flow out of our kitchens. Local food geeks are certainly passionate about Chattanooga’s food scene, but does Chattanooga have what it takes to become one of the country’s next great food cities?
There are four things a city must have in order to be considered an amazing food destination. First, you must have food artisans. For a city’s food culture to thrive and grow, it must have people and businesses dedicated to producing the finest, obsessively crafted foods they can offer. Artisans have a profound understanding of the craft involved in making the product(s) they have devoted themselves to and they possess a deep love for their craft, their food, and for those who eat that food.
“Chattanooga is putting a lot of energy into making it an attractive place for creative individuals to put down roots here,” says Milton White, head butcher at Main Street Meats. “We don’t need more food that’s overly simplified so it won’t offend anyone. I don’t need another piece of food covered in cheese, deep-fried just for the sake of it, or hidden behind mayonnaise. I want to eat food that’s an expression of creativity, resourcefulness, integrity, history, adventure, research, and exploration.”
Andrea Horton, of Sequatchie Cove Creamery, has seen a willingness on the part of Chattanoogans to also accept the costs associated with this artisan approach. “People here don’t seem to mind that a good quality cut of pastured meat or an heirloom radish costs more because they know it’s good and it’s worth it.”
Chattanooga has a growing cadre of exceptional artisan food producers, but there is so much more room for growth. For the city to earn its stripes as a food destination, the value of artisanal crafted foods will have to be felt beyond the bearded post-hipster and disposable income-laden urban professional crowds. It will have to be felt in the suburbs with the average BiLo shopper as well.
The second factor that makes a city a great food destination are local markets that make high-quality, local ingredients accessible. In recent years, Chattanooga has seen a renewed interest in farmer’s markets and locally produced foods. Local farmer, owner of Tant Hill Farm and regular farmer’s market vendor Mark Tant says, “We are encouraged to see such an outpouring of support from people that want to get reconnected to the land, nature and source of where their food comes from—a trusted source. That there is a farmer’s market every day of the week, sometimes two or three in the same day, says a lot about the heart of the Chattanooga community.”
Every great food city is populated by chefs and home cooks that are not only skilled, but are also innovative and serious about their craft. This third aspect of destination food towns is vital and Chattanooga is beginning to see the light. Granted, the Scenic City has always had a handful of highly skilled and forward-thinking chefs, but the past few years have seen a steady increase in the number and skill level of local culinary artists.
“We are overwhelmed and inspired with the young culinary talent that exists in Chattanooga, and believe that there’s a strong future ahead of us for our food scene,” says Erik Niel, chef/owner of Easy Bistro and Bar. “What’s more important than ever before is that we provide opportunities and a community that will foster the talent that exists here. We want to make sure that Chattanooga is a place where people will want to stay and make stronger, as opposed to heading elsewhere.”
But the reality of owning and growing a restaurant in a town that is just beginning to stand on wobbly, newborn foodie legs can be challenging. Chattanooga’s fledgling food scene creates a plethora of opportunities, but also poses some very real challenges. Mark Oldham, owner of TerraMae, has been grappling with the demands of succeeding as an innovative restaurant in a town that has only just begun to appreciate the value of culinary innovation.
“Chattanooga has come a long way in a few short years in terms of having a more aggressive food scene,” Oldham says, “but still has a long way to go. Chattanoogans seem to be more and more appreciative of the difficulty with continually innovative menus, which in itself, is a major improvement from when we [TerraMae] started nearly three years ago. The bottom line is that it’s expensive to create fresh food, so therefore it’s expensive to eat at really good restaurants. Chattanooga is slowly adapting to the reality.”
Even in a town full of artisans, markets, innovative chefs and restaurants, the most important ingredient in the recipe for a great food city is people that have a passion for the food that’s unique to that city. Without a passion for its own food, no city can be called a great food city.
This is where Chattanooga has a real opportunity to step up to the table, but it will mean some adjustment to current attitudes and the general culinary zeitgeist. In short, Chattanooga has to find its own culinary identity. We have an opportunity to come into our own and celebrate the foods and talent that are unique to this area. Bashing our city because it’s not Atlanta or Nashville is like hating cornbread because it’s not a croissant. Just because you can’t get a fresh New Mexico green chile tamale or a Maine lobster roll like the one you had at Bagaduce Lunch in Maine doesn’t mean Chattanooga can’t be a great food town.
Quit bitching, get outside your comfort zone and discover all the things our city does right. We are the ones who can help define Chattanooga’s food identity and this is our moment. Don’t blame Chattanooga for being Chattanooga. Instead, let’s celebrate what Chattanooga can become—one of the country’s newest and greatest food cities.