Chef Keri Moser Proves the Great Cuisine is Not Limited to Big Cities.
Sewanee is the most unlikely of rural Tennessee towns, an apparition of academia in the middle of nowhere. Perched on a 13,000-acre plateau between Nashville and Chattanooga, her gothic spires rise high above treetops, the ringing of her carillon bells pierces through blankets of fog.
Home to The University of the South, a liberal arts school founded just before the Civil War, she is a self-made institution dancing to the beat of her own drum (or bells) where professors still don neckties and honors students wear academic gowns—half Hogwarts, half Appalachia.
Each fall, Sewanee springs to action with the arrival of hungry students. But until recently, the dining options were pretty limited: a pizza joint, a couple of pubs, a now-defunct truck stop seven miles away, an artsy café. Residents and students alike mourned the closing of the Hospitality Shop, an intimate lunch spot where blue-haired ladies served up classic sandwiches and spiced tea with a smile. Sewanee eateries were, at best, fresh comfort food. That is, until Chef/Owner Keri Moser turned the town’s culinary expectations on its ear with her restaurant IvyWild.
Moser is herself a Sewanee grad, an English major who felt naturally drawn to food despite being born to “a mother who didn’t really cook and a father who didn’t really eat.” She spent many an afternoon of her Houston childhood watching after-school cooking shows on PBS. She got herself through college by working with the university’s food service and summered as a line cook in Nashville, experiences that initially turned her off from the restaurant industry. After graduating, she tried her hand at cookbook editing before landing a job at Keswick Hall, the luxury hotel near Charlottesville, Virginia, where she learned the art and pressures of a commercial haute cuisine kitchen. When her husband got a job at The University of the South, they returned to Sewanee, where she realized her passion to open a restaurant, noting that “to be a chef/owner, you have to love what you’re doing with every fiber of your being.”
Moser initially set up shop “down the mountain,” opening a little café along the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it intersection of Cowan. She named it The Goat Track after the Mountain Goat railroad line that used to carry tourists up the mountain and coal back down. Business was steady and customers loyal, until the day an out-of-control car plowed through the front door, destroying the entire dining area and part of the kitchen. She took that as a sign and closed soon afterward.
Then opportunity knocked. An old steam laundry building in Sewanee became available, tucked behind a little convenience market. Moser and her husband jumped on the opportunity to buy it. Like The French Laundry, Thomas Keller’s lauded restaurant in Yountville, California, Moser found that an old steam laundry was well suited for conversion into a restaurant, already fully equipped with a water supply and drainage. She kept the décor simple, in the spirit of the building’s urban minimalist white-walled character, focusing diners’ attention onto the plate instead of the walls.
Moser has come full circle to her alma mater, bringing her culinary sophistication and hard work ethic to a town that was salivating for just such an offering. IvyWild’s menu features local produce and meats whenever possible, not simply because of some cultish devotion to locavorism. Per Moser,
“I work really hard to do something I love, and I want to help my neighbors do the same thing. To me, local is more about community than necessarily just sustainability.” She is similarly dedicated to pay her staff a living wage for committing to share in her culinary vision. The name of each of her employees appears on the menu to demonstrate how little turnover the restaurant encounters.
Above all, quality is the most important aspect in her choices of ingredients, and the menu changes often to highlight the freshest and best ingredients delivered directly to the kitchen by area farmers: cheese from regional creameries, stone-ground grits from an old water-powered mill nearby, cattle from pastures within an hour’s drive.
In recognition of her efforts, Moser was named a 2014 Rising Star by StarChefs, a national magazine for culinary insiders. She joins a growing league of talented young Southern chefs who have put down roots and opened restaurants in unexpected locales (i.e., not in cities). Moser’s personal take on New American cuisine from a Southern perspective is informed by a career of working in kitchens around the region, and though she practices her art in a small venue tucked away from most press attention, it is no less remarkable for those who make the journey to experience it. Much like how Frank Stitt’s renowned Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham was only half in jest referred to as “the best restaurant in Atlanta” for years, IvyWild has earned a reputation as one of the most exciting dining destinations from Nashville to Chattanooga.
From beginning to end, the refined presentations of a meal at IvyWild can transport diners away from the tiny mountain hamlet of Sewanee. At the same time, a careful reading of the menu will always remind patrons of where their food comes from and the life story of the talented woman helming the kitchen.