Maybe you’ve seen him, a bearded, smiling fellow, bustling about Market House Café in a chef’s coat at all hours of the day. A man with a plan, new MHC general manager and de facto head chef T.J. Smith acquired his considerable culinary savvy working side by side with a fellow Chattanooga native with Vietnamese heritage and a flair for French cuisine.
“He had graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in San Diego, and he had done some traveling, working in various places, working as a personal chef,” Smith said of his cooking mentor, Tho Nguyen. “He’s one of my best friends, and he taught me everything I know.”
That’s a lot of cultural cross-pollination — Vietnamese and French flavorings, commingling in the trough of the American South. Smith says those far-flung influences only made his own culinary repertoire more versatile, more eclectic.
“It wasn’t just one style,” Smith says. “When I worked with Tho, we’d range from Vietnamese food to pasta made from scratch. There’s not any one thing I would describe as my specialty.”
A self-described Army brat who came of age in Chattanooga, Smith had built a considerable resume in Chattanooga when he moved to Knoxville a few years ago. “I was dating a girl who landed a job here in town,” Smith says of his relo. “That, and I’d already worked everywhere I wanted to work in Chattanooga.”
His time in Knoxville includes a stint with Bonefish Grill. And earlier this year, working in tandem with former Blackberry Farms chef Jeff Carter, Smith won a Knoxville Iron Chef competition sponsored by U.S. Foods, taking top prize over a handful of other talented chefs in the area.
Having taken over the GM role at Market House Café in April, says he’d like to bring some new ideas to MHC, but that the changes will be gradual, organic, as the still-fledgling market and café finds its footing at the corner of Market Square.
Still, a handful of tweaks and menu additions are afoot, including new cheese plates, a wine list, and a broader selection of locally-produced goods. Smith also cures his own turkey at Market House, and he would like to introduce a broader range of cured meats, as well.
“I want to keep our offerings as local as possible,” Smith says. “I spend a lot of time at the Farmer’s Market, picking around and seeing what we can use.”
In fact, Smith says he spends a good deal of his spare time in his own version of continuing education — cooking is both his vocation and his avocation. “I do a lot of research on my own,” he says. “Looking at the latest in modern techniques. Because things are always changing in the culinary world, and I’m always trying to stay abreast.”
One example is Smith’s interest in something called molecular gastronomy. The term having been coined in 1988 by an Oxford physicist (And thank you so much, Wikipedia), molecular gastronomy (aka culinary physics) is a sort of mad scientist’s approach to cooking. Smith describes it as “doing chemistry in the kitchen.”
“It’s using chemical agents to use create different twists with different food items,” he continues. One such experiment on tap for MHC is a honey caviar dish, created by mixing honey with agar agar, a Japanese vegetable gelatin.
First things, first, though, and Smith says he wants to perfect the Cafe’s current offerings before unleashing the full force of his culinary alchemy on the MHC menu. “I want to make sure everything is working smoothly before I introduce anything crazy,” he says. “Right now, we’re not quite at that point.”