Mallory Grimm left a thriving Nashville business to move back to Sewanee and open a restaurant devoted to local food and community. Folks are gushing.
"A masterpiece," one man said.
(She also shares her recipe for mushroom and sweet potato galette.)
"We know everyone that grows everything you’re about to eat."
Yes, the food. We'll definitely talk about the food.
When you visit LUNCH in Sewanee, Tennessee, there's a good chance you'll eat one of the best meals of your year.
But even before the food arrives, something else that happens when you walk inside the intimate one-room restaurant on the edge of the University of the South's campus.
What's that line from Cheers? LUNCH feels like the place where everybody knows your name; walking in the door, you have this exhaling somatic sense of being welcomed, as if even the four walls are glad you're there.
Rich wood, soft colors, local art and people very, very happy to be there.
"It's unbelievable," said Jeff Heitzenrater, Sewanee's assistant dean of admission, who eats at LUNCH two or three times a week.
"A masterpiece," said Luke Gautier.
Once a month, Gautier drives from Nashville for lunch at LUNCH. Gautier operates Gautier and Sons Seafood; LUNCH sources its fish from him.
"I will follow [chef Mallory Grimm] up the mountain to give her fresh food and she'll turn it into a gift," he said. "You’re willing to drive one hour out of the way to eat here."
LUNCH is intentionally casual and casually outstanding. There's a good chance your food – again, very possibly one of the best meals in a long time – will be served with silverware that won't match as you sit on thrifted chairs at handmade tables.
No stuffiness. Not an ounce of pretension.
It's like the Weasley home in Harry Potter. None of the mess, but all of the warmth.
Hmm, what's the best word? Welcoming? Friendly?
"Coziness," said Mallory Grimm.
Grimm, 30, is an unassuming star chef who's redefining the way Southeast Tennessee restaurants can localize not only food, but restaurant culture.
In January 2022, she left Nashville and her thriving catering business, Hen of the Woods, to return to Sewanee, where she graduated in 2015. During COVID, she and partner Trapp Tubbs quietly made a "small country dream list" of traits: access to outdoors, a quiet home with a garden, a tight community.
One place had it all.
"Sewanee," she said.
They signed a lease on the former antique building on University Ave., got the front door keys in Sept. 2022 and LUNCH began serving five months later.
Remember: she was an ascendant chef in the Music City.
And she left it all. No one does that without faith, vision and a hell of a lot of guts.
"She could have stayed in Nashville and made a name for herself," Gautier added. "Instead, she came to Sewanee to work and create a culture."
Here's the culture she's building:
A restaurant that's as local as possible. LUNCH sources nearly all its food from local farmers.
She trains her staff to often tell customers:
We know everyone that grows everything you’re about to eat.
Thirty seats. Only open for lunch, with monthly events or dinners that always sell out. (The next is Jan. 13.) Some catering. No desire to get bigger or expand hours.
She's hired 15 students and community members – "a diversely talented, cohesive, really amazing bunch" – and more 15 would sign on if there was room. Avoiding restaurant hierarchy, Grimm posted an ideas board for everyone on the LUNCH fridge. Ever eaten at a place with unhappy staff? Not here.
Her menu changes constantly. There aren't eight different meats, but one, maybe two. Often, plates sell out. Grimm smiles.
"It's my goal to sell out," she said. "No food waste."
Don't overlook the revelation in her statement. Yes, it's delightfully relaxing, but eating at LUNCH is also an education; we, as consumers, are so used to having all we want, anytime, no restrictions. So, when we are reminded of our limitations – we're out of pork shoulder today – shifts something in us. We awaken a bit more to reality. We become humble, grateful, reconnecting to the reality of local farms where food may be abundant, but not endless.
"We source everything locally," Grimm said. "That means we have what we have."
Grimm was an environmental arts humanities major (and lacrosse player). All of what she's attempting – from the way she treats employees to the menu to the folks who built the beautiful bar and tables – is summed up in her five words:
"A localized vision of sustainability."
Onto the food. Oh my, where to start? We'll let others go first.
"This may be the best soup I've ever had," the folks next to us said over a bowl of cauliflower soup.
We ordered a warm carrot salad with farro, halloumi, dried cherries and citrus.
And the Cove Creek kielbasa sandwich with mustard, apple relish, braised cabbage on a brioche bun.
And, for good measure, a slice of sweet potato cake with cream cheese icing. Somehow, cookies ended up on our table, also.
Grimm grew up in New York and, watching her mother and grandmother in the kitchen, can't remember a time she wasn't drawn to food.
"Since birth," she says, smiling. "I've known I was going to cook since forever."
As an undergrad at Sewanee, she'd spend summers cooking at A Bar A Ranch in Wyoming. Soon, she was named head chef, running the kitchen at 25, feeding 100 guests and 80 staff.
"I have busy hands," she said.
At LUNCH – open Wednesday through Saturday – she and sous chef Elizabeth Chandler create the menu each Tuesday. Even though there's a defined rotation – soup, salad, frittata and a lunch plate special – it's changed by Saturday morning.
We have what we have.
Every decision she makes returns to two main beliefs:
- "It’s all about the relationships. One to another. Building relationships with farmers and customers. Everyone knows each other."
- "I knew food had to be different and high caliber, but still feel welcoming no matter what."
This winter, they're already canning like crazy, creating menus out of local carrots, cabbage, mushrooms — her friends at Midway Mushrooms are the focus of an upcoming Food as a Verb feature – and kale.
We pushed away from the table, smiling and full, with only one question left.
"The name?" she said. "It's simple, direct. People know what they are getting walking in and feel comforted by being here."
Grimm's recipe for Mushroom and Sweet Potato Galette is below.
All photography by Sarah Unger. Visit SarahCatherinePhoto.com.
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Mallory Grimm, who writes a newsletter called Late, Late Summer, shares her recipe for Mushroom and Sweet Potato (or really any veggie) Galette.
2 cups of heavy cream
Handful of garlic cloves
Handful of herbs - parsley, thyme, rosemary, sage, bay
1 sweet potato, sliced thinly on the mandoline
1 onion, julienned
1/2 pound of mushrooms - oyster, shiitake or lion's mane
Grated cheese - Parmesan, Gruyère, or similar
Salt and Pepper
1 batch of your favorite tart / pie crust
Begin by placing the cream, shallots (whole), garlic (whole cloves) and herbs in a sauce pan. Add a pinch of salt and pepper. Turn on medium heat and boil until the liquid is reduced by half.
Strain through a mesh sieve. Cool to room temp.
Meanwhile, in a skillet over medium heat - sauté the onion in a tablespoon or two of olive oil until softened and taking on an amber color. Add in the mushrooms, season with a bit of salt and pepper and cook until soft and caramelized. Set aside to cool for a bit.
Preheat the oven to 400. Line a sheet tray with parchment paper. Roll your tart crust out to about 1/4" thick, 10" diameter in a rough circular shape. Place the dough circle onto the sheet tray. Ladle a few tablespoons of the reduced cream onto the center of the dough and smooth out with the back of the ladle, leaving a 2" border around the edge.
Shingle the sweet potato slices in concentric circles on the crust, maintaining the 2" border. Once you’ve done one layer, ladle on more cream.
Top with a thin layer of the mushroom-onion mixture and a sprinkle of cheese.
Repeat these layers until you run out of potato, ending with mushroom-onion mixture and topping with cheese.
Fold the 2" border of Dough edges over the filling to form a nice border and seal in the filling.
You should have an organic circular tart.
Beat the egg with a fork and using a pastry brush, brush the tart crust/border with the beaten egg.
Bake the galette at 400 degrees until golden brown, bubbling and crisp on the edges. 25-35 minutes.
Serve warm. It's also delicious at room temperature.