This article was originally published on timesfreepress.com.
Tony Bethune mans the kitchen of a restaurant that may have the most-commanding view of the Tennessee Valley. Top of the Rock is perched high atop a ridge of the Cumberland Plateau, towering above Jasper, Tennessee, at the entrance to the gated community known as Jasper Highlands. The restaurant seats nearly 200 people, with a bar and outside dining overlooking the Tennessee River Gorge and mountains beyond.
Before becoming executive chef at Top of the Rock, Bethune, a native of Atlanta, worked at The Chop House in Chattanooga, as well as Firebirds Wood Fired Grill at Hamilton Place and SideTrack in North Chattanooga.
He didn’t go to culinary school. Instead, he learned from a man who, he says, sparked his interest at a young age — his granddad.
Q: Do you consider your grandfather to be your mentor?
A: Yes, but my father and uncles also liked to cook. And I try to use the information from chefs in my past who have helped me to grow and become a better chef.
Q: Is the menu at Top of the Rock inspired by those chefs?
A: Yes, I would describe the menu as chef-inspired. We also have craft beer. Our recipes are made from scratch using the best ingredients we can get our hands on.
Q: What are some of the favorite dishes on the menu?
A: It’d have to be our shrimp and grits — sauteed shrimp over cheese grits with bacon, mushrooms and green onions.
Q: You mentioned you love to teach budding chefs. Why?
A: I believe knowledge is power, and I like to pass that on. I also like to see people — like my team members — grow as cooks and chefs.
Q: As an executive chef, your hours are long. With three kids at home, how do you balance your career with your home life?
A: My wife is amazing at planning things for us to do on my days and time off.
Q: Top of the Rock is open to the public, but it’s located right outside a private neighborhood two miles up a road at the top of the mountain. What’s it like working in that scenario?
A: It’s rewarding to see the faces of the regular residents in Jasper Highlands, as well as the locals because they have been a crucial part of feedback in helping the restaurant grow, both in the front of house, with the servers, and in the kitchen.
Q: Professional kitchens can be a hectic place with many cooks stirring the pot, along with servers and bartenders. How do you keep things running smoothly?
A: We keep our team informed on the volume expectations and reservations that we are expecting. That, combined with the structure and systems that we have already put in place.
Q: What is the tool you couldn’t live without in the kitchen?
A: A sharp knife. A dull knife is my pet peeve.
Q: What’s the one spice you couldn’t live without?
Q: What food is your guilty pleasure?
A: Milk and cookies — Chips Ahoy — when I get home from work.
Q: Besides you, what three people would be sitting at the table for your dream dinner?
A: [Celebrity chef] Guy Fieri, chef Roy Choi [a founder of the gourmet food truck movement] and [comedian/actor] Jim Carrey.
Q: What do you like to do in your spare time?
A: I love the outdoors and riding motorcycles.
Q: Complete this sentence: If I hadn’t become a chef, I would have been …
A: A motorcycle mechanic.
This is the perfect quick dinner to prepare that reduces time in the kitchen and gives Bethune more time with his three daughters, Emily, Layla and Lilly.
Spinach Mushroom Chicken With Dirty Rice
2 (13.5-ounce) cans of spinach
1 (28-ounce) can of tomatoes
1 (10-ounce) can Rotel tomatoes
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 cup diced onions
1 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced
3 pounds chicken tenderloins
3 bags instant rice
1 pound shredded mozzarella cheese
Heat oven to 350 degrees.
Open all canned goods, and put into large saute skillet with butter, minced garlic, onions, mushrooms and 1 cup of water; simmer until hot and onions are translucent.
Place chicken in a 9- by 13-inch glass baking dish
Drain juices off the veggies, and reserve juices. Return juices to a large pot, adding enough water into which to submerge rice bags. Boil rice until soft.
Meanwhile, place drained veggies on top of the raw chicken and bake for 30 minutes. Remove from oven; spread mozzarella on top and bake for an additional 5 minutes. Serve with rice, and enjoy.
Email Anne Braly at [email protected]