Editor's Note: Kelly English is the chef/owner of Restaurant Iris in Memphis, Tennessee. English was named one of Food & Wine magazine's Best New Chefs in 2009. In 2010, he was named a James Beard Award Semifinalist for Best Chef: Southeast.
At three o'clock on a Friday afternoon, like clockwork, my phone starts to ring. It is one of my friends from college; he forgot his anniversary and needs a table tonight. I am forced to tell him one of my least favorite things: No. It's not in a chef's DNA to tell people "no" - we hire front-of-house people for that.
“We have known each other for years, you must be able to put me somewhere,” he said.
I really wish I could.
“Would backstage passes help?” he said.
I really wish they did.
My restaurant is located in a turn-of-the-century Victorian home in Memphis, Tennessee, and has thirteen tables. There is nary a string hanging from anywhere in the building that can be tugged. I have been fortunate to hire incredible people in every position, and that has translated into a table that is pretty hard to come by. I have disappointed my friends, parents and even my wife by being booked solid, but we choose to honor the reservations we have.
There are people who come through town that I would die to cook for, but having a certain stature will not magically make a table appear. That person will have to eat elsewhere, and we're happy to help direct them to one of the many other excellent choices in town.
I have heard nearly every type of criticism and suggestion regarding our seating capacity. People tell me to expand, but to me, that would change what we are and how we do it. People tell me to find a new location, but part of where we are is part of who we are. What many people see as an opportunity to change who we are, I see as a chance to reaffirm our commitment to our guests and locale. I love everything my restaurant has turned out to be, and I wouldn't change a damn thing about it.
Being in the business of fine dining isn't about the money; a few months' work in a fancy restaurant will tell you that. It is about the connections. The bonds with the people who grow the food and the people who consume it should be extremely meaningful to any good chef, and it is not something that should be jeopardized for a few extra seats.
As a chef, I would love to cook for everyone; as a business owner, I would love to seat them all too. However, owning a small restaurant in a town that isn't New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, New Orleans or San Francisco means that I simply cannot afford to keep a table in my back pocket in the off-chance that someone "important" comes to town and wants to come in.
My mission has never been to cook for celebrities anyway, but to cook for regular people as if they were celebrities.