Fire and Knives: Rebecca Barron on being a James Beard-nominated chef, student and single mom.

"The more I learn," the decorated chef says, "the more I don't know."

Fire and Knives: Rebecca Barron on being a James Beard-nominated chef, student and single mom.
Rebecca Barron at Alleia

She also shares the origins of Alleia's Baked Creste Rigate with Veal Meatballs and a fifth-generation recipe for buttermilk pancakes.

"I spent too much of my adult life not understanding what it meant to love myself. So these days, as a single mom, I’m learning to love and forgive myself.”

Rebecca Barron, culinary director, Alleia 

Not that long ago, Rebecca Barron is standing in a restaurant kitchen in India, overwhelmed and dizzy with joy. Before her are not one, not two, but three clay tandoori ovens, each the size of, well, far bigger than any stove or oven at Alleia, the Chattanooga restaurant where Barron works as culinary director.

One tandoori oven is for vegetarian meals. Another cooks fish. The third, chicken.

Barron – one of Chattanooga’s most decorated and accomplished chefs – is speechless; she’s spent her entire career in kitchens, but this? It is so far beyond her formed definition of what she envisions as kitchen; in fact, Barron wonders if she needs new vocabulary to even hold both this Indian version of kitchen and Alleia’s.

“I can’t fathom how both things can be called restaurants,” she said.

Barron’s with her dear friend and fellow Chattanoogan, Sushma Shantha, who’s brought her to India on a food tour. And all Barron can think is: there is so much I don’t know, so much I don’t know, so much I don’t know.

“The more I learn," Barron said, "the more I don’t know."

Barron, 39, is one of the top chefs in the Southeast, nominated for a James Beard Outstanding Chef (Southeast) award in 2019. The former chef at St. John’s Restaurant, she’s currently the culinary director at Alleia (Main St.) and 5th and Taylor in Nashville, both Daniel Lindley-owned restaurants.

And she’s never taken one single culinary class in her life.

That story from India – the more I learn, the more I don’t know – is a damn good illustration of Barron’s heart and mind. A student first. Then, a chef.

“I was homeschooled,” she said. “That taught me how to think for myself and teach myself.”

Growing up in Milwaukee, Barron worked her way through kitchens, first at Domino’s, then Barnes & Noble, shifting to restaurant line and prep work. The Walden Club, then Table 2. Barron was a sous chef, pastry chef, front-of-house manager. Then, St. John's and Meeting Place. In 2022, Lindley came calling.

Wherever she went, she was learning from those around her. A mentor would always tell her:

Want to be a good chef? Learn to teach yourself.

Rebecca Barron, prep work, red sauce, Baked Creste Regate, Alleia

At six, Barron was already watching Julia Child. Then, Jacques Pepin, Ming Tsai and Anthony Bourdain.

The oldest of five, she often cooked for her siblings – a recipe for buttermilk pancakes has been passed down five generations (she's generously shared it) – and was secretly drawn to the very things her mother warned her against.

“Fire,” she says, smiling. “And knives.”

It was a culinary prophecy. Now, Barron is surrounded by fire and knives. Her body’s so familiar with the heat radiating from flames, broilers and stone ovens that even when she’s not cooking, she wears a hoodie, as if her body seeks warmth.

“I wanted to be a chef since I was very young,” she said. “I couldn't ever envision myself in another profession … creating food makes me happy. Being a chef has allowed me to love what I do.”

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It’s the electric buzz of the kitchen. “You get in the flow,” Barron says, as time moves differently. Eight hours feels like two as work becomes a closed-circle-loop: you create, serve, feed – all of which are sustaining, immersive acts.

“It feels really nice,” Barron said. “To be able to cook for people, to be a part of special times in people’s lives, to be able to teach others how to feed themselves.”

In 2019, she was nominated for a James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef in the Southeast. Of the 21 Southeast nominees, roughly one-third were women.

She was on maternity leave when she heard the news. It was the best of two worlds: being a chef, being a mother. Yet quietly, a question began forming in her mind: can I balance both?

Before her daughter was born, Barron would work long hours yet still feel incomplete, always searching, never done.

“I was working 70 hour weeks. I tried to cut it back to 55, but it felt like I could not get my job done,” she said.

[Gentle reminder to the reader: it’s helpful for us non-chefs to get a little perspective. Think of any nice restaurant and your favorite meal. Just like a song, painting or poem, that meal was created. There were rough drafts, earlier versions, the wrong spice, incorrect plating, missing this or too much that. Someone has to walk through that whole creative process, interpreting, tasting and re-tasting, scrutinizing it all down to the smallest, most delicate and intimate palate. That’s a chef. You don’t half-ass anything.]

Soon, her frustration shifted to a question:

What do I put on myself? How many dishes do I have to create before it’s enough?

This question burns for many of us. How much fire needs to burn inside? Just how sharp do our knives need to be?

The kitchen feeds the sense of self, too. Barron calls it an “ego-driven profession” that can, frankly, hurt.

“When we fail. When someone isn't happy with their food. When we aren’t happy with our own food,” Barron said. “When we work too much and don’t make enough time for loved ones.”

Once in a committed relationship, Barron recently became a single mother, living most of the month in Nashville near 5th and Taylor and coming back to Chattanooga for one or two days at a time.

“Now when it’s 5:45 and school is about to close, I have to go get her. It’s hard as a mom and chef. This can’t be as important as it used to be,” she said. “I have to put it down.”

Rebecca Barron, James Beard nominee, Alleia 

These days, Barron works to collect and document all of the institutional recipes at both restaurants. At every restaurant, she always adds fried Brussels sprouts to the menu. Her favorite secrets are fennel pollen and orange zest. In the summer, she searches for local produce – peaches, tomatoes – by shopping markets and talking with farmers.

“I can’t tell you how many chefs can’t wait to make you a peach pie or blackberry cobbler or an heirloom tomato salad,” she said, echoing Lindley's mantra: "Seasonal and delightful."

“It starts with touching it, tasting it, thinking about how I want to eat it,” she said. “I can plate a dish and try it five or six ways. Maybe 10 different times. With the chicken liver mousse, it took weeks. And that’s part of the fun.”

Last winter, Alleia’s head chef Nehemias "Nemo" Hernandez, Barron and Lindley were meeting outside on the Alleia porch to talk about ideas and possible dishes. Lindley had seen something on Instagram about adding gelatin to meatballs so they don’t dry out.

So, they begin to create: taking veal stock and adding gelatin so thick you can grate it.

“It firms it up so much,” said Barron. “You are grating it like cheese.”

So begins the story of Alleia’s popular Baked Creste Rigate with veal meatballs, three cheeses and pomodoro.

“It’s a macaroni noodle with a little crest on it,” she says. “And small veal meatballs. We add three different cheeses and herbs. It’s really pretty.”

On a recent weeknight, before the dinner crowd settled in, Barron and Hernandez are in the Alleia kitchen, assembling this very dish.

Head chef Nemo Hernandez, Rebecca Barron, Alleia

There is none of the hellish kitchen atmosphere you see on TV. Nemo is smiling, deeply enjoying himself; there is an easy camaraderie and friendship between the two chefs, who move alongside one another like practiced dancers.

The prep begins. Rich, creamy red sauce. The pasta, made just hours ago. A tray of meatballs. The dense, fresh, creamy white Mozzarella. Fresh and smoked. Parmesan. Some deep green basil and parsley.

Barron still repeats to herself the same game-time mantra – hair up, wash hands, apron on, sharpen knives, sanitize station, drink water and go! – but now, even after the kitchen-joy-buzz ends for the day, there’s something even more special waiting at home.

“Teaching my daughter how to cook is pure magic,” Barron said. “Watching her sweet little hands squish pizza dough or knead biscuits is my greatest joy.”

These days, Barron, ever the student, is now learning a precious, nourishing lesson, perhaps the most important of them all.

“Learning to love myself. I spent too much of my adult life not understanding what it meant to love myself,” she said. “So these days, as a single mom, I’m learning to love and forgive myself.”

Rebecca Barron, Alleia

Rebecca Barron can be found most days at Nashville’s 5th and Taylor and some days at Alleia on Main Street, open Monday through Saturday.

All photography by Sarah Unger. Visit

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Rebecca Barron’s fifth-generation recipe for buttermilk pancakes

My mom was named after her grandma Katherine who used to make these for her. My aunt Carla and cousin Cassandra also make a similar version of them. Growing up, whenever I had pancakes at a friend’s house, I thought theirs were wrong because these are so different from regular pancakes. This recipe makes about 19 oz batter. Enough for about 8 thin pancakes, which is perfect for our family of 2. My daughter usually eats 2 or 3 before school.

Use a ladle to spread out the batter in your pan. Think halfway between crepes and a regular pancake.

Make sure you have plenty of butter on hand and 100% real maple syrup.

4 large eggs

9 oz buttermilk

Pinch of fine sea salt

1 tsp lemon juice

Whisk eggs together first, then add the buttermilk, salt and lemon juice.

Then whisk in:

1 cup unbleached all purpose flour (I like King Arthur.)

Let sit for at least 10 minutes before using. (You can also make the night before.)

Preheat your pan (I use a cast iron pan that I’ve had for years, but a nonstick pan works great too) over medium heat, and melt a little butter. Then pour your batter in and spread it nice and thin. Pan should not be so hot that it sears them. These should cook gently. They do cook very quickly, about a minute or two on each side. Top with a pad of butter and lots of maple syrup.

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