Chef Kelly English has called some of the South’s richest music regions home. Born and raised in New Orleans, he attended college in the North Mississippi Hill Country before returning to the Crescent City to start his culinary career. He ultimately put down roots in Memphis, where he helms two restaurants. The first, Restaurant Iris, serves Creole-French fare on white tablecloths. Its little sister next door is the Second Line—named for the informal parades with brass bands and dancing that grew out of segregation. It’s a celebration of New Orleans culture and an acknowledgement of the historical backbone of Southern food: African-American cooking. The restaurant, English says, is as much about music as it is about food. It follows that the chef himself is deeply interested in music, his taste an eclectic gumbo of genres anchored by his interest in meaningful storytelling.
You grew up in New Orleans. Did the city kickstart your passion for music?
For sure. All bands come to New Orleans. I spent every cent I had in high school seeing shows—whether they be at bars I shouldn’t have gotten into or bigger arenas. I grew up as a kid of grunge. I was just in the right place at the right time.
And what about other places you’ve lived?
I went to Ole Miss in Oxford, where you’ll find Hill Country Blues. There’s a very specific beat that goes along with their guitar and bass and snare drum. I love that style of blues. Even though it’s close to Memphis, it doesn’t make it all the way up. Memphis, of course, has a really fun musical history. The Box Tops were here, as were Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. All the Stax albums were recorded here. The Beatles were supposed to record Rubber Soul here, but it didn’t happen. I would have loved to hear how it would have sounded with Memphis horns.
Do you play an instrument?
I was a really bad drum player.
How do you find new music?
Pandora is a great resource. And you can find music on Instagram; you can just find it so many places these days. I do miss the art of the album, though. It’s going away. There’s thought into how albums are woven together, and I love album art.
You have such a diverse taste in music—what attracts you to an artist?
I like songs that sound like that they came from someone’s heart. And I love (politically) conscious music—really good country and hip-hop are back. And I’m sure punk will be back too. It’s just a good time for music.
Do you always listen to music when you cook?
I listen to music when I cook at home—a lot of Sam Cooke. And I listen to Tyler Childers; he is just what country music needed. I also love Steve Earle. I think he’s a lot like Elton John; he’s been twang-y, acoustic-y, and he’s talked about a lot of social issues in his music. But I don’t allow music in my restaurants’ kitchens. Not everything inspires everyone. And I think we cook with our ears, though I do allow people to have one ear bud in.
Do you think there are similarities between music and cooking?
There’s a lot that I’ve learned about Southern history that wasn’t taught in books, because it’s in food. I think music can mirror that, especially in conscious music like hip-hop. If you ask people the lowest common denominator of Southern food, it’s collard greens and cornbread. But history books won’t teach you that was the food of enslaved people. It’s funny to me that we identify so strongly with collard greens and cornbread, but when it comes to talking about that history, we shut down. We can learn a lot about our past through shared experiences with food and music.