FOR CHATTANOOGA CHEF DANIEL LINDLEY,
COOKING IS BOTH A PERFORMANCE AND A WAY TO GIVE BACK
Daniel Lindley slices a pale green bulb of fennel in half, then follows the natural lines in the herb to cut perfect linear wedges. “It’s a pragmatic thing, but it’s artistic too,” he says, turning up the gas burners under two sauté pans. “Don’t you love it when it’s both?”
For the thirty-seven-year-old chef/owner of Alleia on Chattanooga’s reborn Main Street, cooking is art, much like the painting, singing, and guitar playing Lindley has dabbled in over the years. On this day, he has assembled a palette of textures and hues in small white saucers: chili flakes, salt, pepper, a lone garlic clove, capers, half a red onion, a green apple, cilantro. Clusters of mint, parsley, and arugula await the chopping block and their place in Lindley’s multicolored version of salsa verde. In the oven, red grouper sizzles alongside softening slices of fennel and pumpkin, all of which will soon take their place beneath an attractive fanning of local oyster mushrooms and a drizzle of spicy-sweet salsa.
“Cooking is a live performance,” Lindley says. “There’s margin for error in each and every step, whether it’s pinching salt or ladling something or turning the knob on the gas burner slightly too much, slightly too little. I really love those fine details that come together to make something work.”
Despite his artistic temperament, growing regional rock star status, and six James Beard nominations, Lindley shows no signs of pretense. Modest and easygoing, he speaks with a lazy drawl and often looks a bit disheveled, as if he just woke up. “Yum,” he says, testing the perfectly tender pumpkin with his finger. “I love cooking simply like this.”
The son of a carpenter and a schoolteacher and the middle child of five brothers, Lindley had already started to hone his latent cooking skills (he assumes he inherited them from his great-grandfather, a Philadelphia restaurateur, and his mom and grandmother, both exemplary cooks) in the food service department at Rock City Gardens when, after high school, he volunteered for a six-month stint aboard the Anastasis with Mercy Ships, a nonprofit group that performs free surgeries in third world countries. Because of his commercial cooking experience, he was assigned to the galley as part of the culinary team.
“By the time we got to Africa, I ended up replacing a British woman who was the lead cook,” Lindley recalls. “So at eighteen, I was leading a team of five others and cooking in Africa for four hundred fifty people on the ship.” One day, the chief steward pulled the teenager aside. “I don’t remember his exact words,” Lindley says, “but he basically said, ‘You need to take this seriously.’”
Deeply impacted by the “mob-like desperation” of the people he saw in the Togolese Republic, Lindley instead chose to pursue a sociology degree with the intention of helping inner-city residents. “And then I ended up in fine dining,” he says, almost apologetically. “But service can obviously come in many forms.” After washing dishes at Chattanooga’s Back Inn Café and baking at Chattanooga’s Southside Grill, Lindley moved to New York, where he worked at Harvest on Hudson before landing a job cooking for celebrities and food-magazine editors at the legendary Gramercy Tavern in Manhattan.
His move back to Chattanooga in 2000 was supposed to be temporary—three months, maybe six tops—just long enough to help his brother Nathan kick-start St. John’s Restaurant, the first upscale eatery in the not-yet-revitalized Southside neighborhood. But as the months passed, Lindley realized, that “there seemed to be an appetite from the community for—and I don’t want to sound pretentious—a higher level of dining experience. I remember the first weekends we had and the phone would be ringing off the hook, and we would be booked solid. There was just a lot of excitement and certainly a level of comfort, coming back home.”
At St. John’s, Lindley became one of the city’s youngest executive chefs and one of the first to support local growers, some of whom began raising fruits and vegetables specifically for Lindley’s Wildwood Farm Jerusalem Artichokes in Parmesan Soufflé, Sequatchie Cove Farm Pork with Delicata Squash and Apple Relish, and other dishes. In 2005, he purchased St. John’s and its sister bistro, Meeting Place, from his brother and expanded both.
But before long, Lindley, who never attended culinary school, was antsy to start his own restaurant from scratch. “I will, for better or worse, typically take the road less taken,” he says, grinning. “I’m typically not content doing things the same way over and over.” Spurred by a trip to Italy, in April 2009 he opened Alleia, named for a Pompeian priestess, in a former furniture store and introduced a “simplistic, not overdone” menu featuring authentic, handmade pastas—his favorite is the wide pappardelle served with braised veal slowly cooked overnight—and Neapolitan pizzas baked in a massive, burnt-orange firebrick oven painstakingly built by a local mason and so heavy that the floor had to be cut for a new foundation sturdy enough to support it.
The rustic but regal décor, from the shimmering tiles to the fortress-worthy door (made of 300-year-old reclaimed wood), emphasizes the work of local craftsmen. In the main dining room, cylindrical, beehive-like baskets cast a subtle glow above the communal oak table, which seats more than thirty. Nearby, a mantel of thick melted candles forms a cascade of white; wax nubs lie at the base like imperfect seashells washed up on shore.
In 2014, Lindley sold his interest in St. John’s and Meeting Place to his minority partner and announced plans to launch 5th & Taylor, a new fine dining concept in Nashville. The upscale restaurant, which opens this spring, occupies a near-century-old barrel-roof warehouse, once part of a cotton mill.
The gastro-term “New American” irks Lindley, who laments the absence of a central, standard starch comparable to basmati rice in Indian cuisine and tortillas in Mexico. At 5th & Taylor, each table will feature a refillable bowl of mashed potatoes to share. “I believe there’s a level of accountability that occurs that is controlled by the starch,” he says. “I’m going to do something that, for better or worse, doesn’t exist in the American food world.”
Twenty years after his volunteer stint in impoverished West Africa, Lindley still strives to serve others. “Welcoming customers to your restaurant is no different from a client walking into a spa,” he says. “You hope that they feel better when they leave than when they come in. What a pleasure it is to serve people with those details that hopefully come together in the kitchen and then in the dining room at the table.”
Chef Daniel Lindley’s Recipes
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