Chef Daniel LindleyChef Daniel Lindley Photo by Lesha Patterson
Every spring the fooderati gather for the Academy Awards of the food world, the James Beard Awards. This year’s list of nominees include celebrity chefs such as Michael Chiarello, Wylie Dufresne, Hugh Acheson and Chris Consentino, but Chattanooga’s eyes were on the “Best Chef: Southeast” category where Daniel Lindley, chef and owner of St. John’s Restaurant, St John’s Meeting Place and Alleia Restaurant, received his third nomination. While he did not advance to the finals, Lindley handles his nomination with classic Southern politeness and modesty. It is a huge honor not just for him, but for Chattanooga as well. ¶ When I first met Lindley, he emerged from the kitchen with a genuine but tired smile, his blond hair and black chef’s jacket beginning to show signs of a chef at work. His demeanor is casual yet collected and he is comfortable but passionate when he talks about his work and the dishes he creates. As I spoke to him about his background, the Chattanooga food scene and the upcoming James Beard Awards, I immediately sensed that this is a chef who is on his game and couldn’t be happier.
“Cookery is not chemistry. It is an art. It requires instinct and taste rather than exact measurements.”
To capture the attention of the James Beard Foundation requires both an artist’s eye and a well-developed palette. From a very young age Lindley had an interest in painting, drawing and music, but it was a humble grilled cheese sandwich that set him upon a different path.
“Grilled cheese was the first thing I made as a teenager,” Lindley says. “I loved them and I tried to make them better every time, slipping some pepperoni or garlic salt in there.”
After graduating high school, Lindley worked in some of Chattanooga’s best-known eateries, washing dishes at the Back Inn Café and working as a baker at Southside Grill in the mid 1990s. He had intended to go to art school, but by then the kitchen had sealed his fate. The culinary sirens played their seductive song and the 20-year-old took his artist’s eye to the highly competitive world of New York restaurants.
Lindley initially moved to Westchester County, N.Y., with a friend and worked for Chef Terry Harwood at the beautiful Harvest on Hudson restaurant on the banks of the Hudson River. In 1998, he landed an enviable position working under Tom Colicchio at the legendary Gramercy Tavern, then spent a season cooking in the Hamptons on Shelter Island before returning home to Chattanooga for the opening of St. John’s Restaurant in 2000.
While he has great respect for what a culinary education can do, Lindley didn’t attend culinary school. “When I moved to New York, I thought I might, but I ended up at some great restaurants,” he says. “It’s one of the few occupations that you don’t have to have a piece of paper to practice.”
Just take one part natural talent, one part hard work, add a touch of opportunity and you have a recipe for a James Beard Award nominee. If only it were that easy—this year alone there were a record setting 57,000 nominations for the coveted prize.
The James Beard Foundation Awards were created to honor the highest levels of achievement within the food world. Naturally, the process is done as furtively as possible, but there are essentially four steps to becoming a James beard winner.
Nominees are first recommended by a respected food critic. A group chosen by the foundation then visits the restaurant to evaluate the food, service and presentation. Five finalists are selected in each of the 20 categories by a panel of restaurant critics, food and wine editors, and previous award winners. From those five finalists the winners are chosen and announced during an elaborate ceremony, complete with celebrities, paparazzi and a green carpet walk. This year’s awards take place May 7 in New York City’s Lincoln Center and are being hosted by the ubiquitous Alton Brown of Food Network fame.
In spite of the attention the awards bring, Lindley says he never really sought the spotlight, focusing instead on cooking food he loves and setting standards for quality that could hold up regionally as well as locally. “I’m definitely my hardest critic,” he says. “I want the experience people receive at my restaurants to stand up to the standard people experience in other great restaurants in the region.”
Eat any of Lindley’s culinary creations and you’ll immediately understand why he is a three-time nominee, starting with the care he puts into sourcing the best ingredients. Lindley has been a proponent of using locally sourced foods since his days in New York. Gramercy Tavern was just a few blocks from Union Square Greenmarket, so he was quickly exposed to how successful farm-to-table eating can be for a restaurant.
“Conceptually and ideologically we’ve been pushing that idea here since we started,” Lindley says. “That’s been our desire since the beginning, when we began working with Crabtree and Sequatchie Cove Farm. Now there are too many for us to buy from them all. The growth in the availability of locally produced foods is very exciting to see.”
That excitement about food is still evident, even when Lindley talks about cooking at home. “At home, more often than not I end up exploring different ethnic foods that I’m excited about,” he says. “Indian food is probably my favorite, but I like most food.” Then a huge smile breaks across his face. “My son’s favorite food is sushi, so we make sushi at home pretty often too.”
Asking a chef his favorite ingredient is like asking a parent to pick their favorite child. Lindley says he prefers to think about it more in terms of seasonality.
“We’re about to get ramps,” he muses, offering another big smile. “The coolness of ramps coupled with the touch of spring—that experience of tasting something seasonal in context is what makes it so special. But summer is my favorite season, not only food-wise but in general.“
Then Lindley hints at a possible contender for a favorite: “Heirloom tomatoes are one of the most exciting things to me. There is so much you can do with them.”
As our conversation winds down Lindley pulls out his phone and begins to excitedly take me through pictures of a new dish he’s been experimenting with.
“It’s a twist on a Vitello Tonnato,” he says with more enthusiasm than I had seen throughout the rest of our conversation. “It’s a veal dish with a sauce made from pureed tuna. It uses Tombo ahi tuna from Hawaii, part of which is confit while the rest is pureed with veal liquid, eggs, capers, Dijon. Served with minced asparagus and other veggies with veal shortribs on top.”
It’s a brilliant and beautiful dish that made me want to immediately add it to my catalog of taste references. That reaction is exactly what makes a chef a James Beard Award-nominee and makes Daniel Lindley one of Chattanooga’s finest culinary artisans.