Big Break: How one meal put chef Kelly English on the map

Published: Feb. 6, 2020 at 11:08 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - He’s the man behind the menus at some of Memphis’ top eateries -- Restaurant Iris, the Second Line and the reinvented Fino’s from the Hill.

Chef Kelly English made a name for himself in the Bluff City, not only for his food but also his hospitality.

Creating a successful restaurant is no easy task, so how did he succeed when so many others have failed?

If you feed them, they will come. It’s a phrase that certainly holds true at his midtown gem, Restaurant Iris.

With national acclaim, English makes everything he does in the kitchen look so easy.

In a sit-down with WMC Action News 5′s Joy Redmond, English shares his secrets. What is it about Restaurant Iris that keeps it packed every time the doors open?

“The fleur de lis is the symbol of New Orleans, the Iris is the state flower of Tennessee. A fleur de lis is a shadow of a drawing of an iris, so this is kind of where Memphis and New Orleans come together,” he said.

That NOLA-901 fusion has been a recipe for success for almost 12 years now with write-ups in the New York Times and features on the Food Network’s “Best Thing I Ever Ate.”

But this Louisiana native didn’t experience success overnight. In fact, there was something fishy about his first job in the food industry.

“I was a bus boy and catfish fillet guy and dish washer at this restaurant called Cedars in Oxford, Mississippi,” he said. “So I would get there, we’d fillet all the catfish, we’d go clean up the front of the restaurant and then we’d start washing dishes.”

When English wasn’t busting suds, he was studying to be a lawyer like his dad.

But a juris doctorate wasn’t the meal ticket this Ole Miss grad really wanted, so he went to culinary school in New York and went on to work at top restaurants in New Orleans before opening Restaurant Iris in Memphis.

So we asked him: How did you get your big break? Turns out, it all started with one very special meal.

“Uh, you know my big break was, was for sure when ‘Food And Wine Magazine’ named me ‘A Best New Chef’ in 2009,” said English. "They came in from New York to have dinner with us. We didn’t know that they were coming. I’m so glad they enjoyed what they had.

“But looking back, for sure, I mean that’s a career-changing thing that would happen for any cook. For it to happen to us in our first year is something that makes us really proud,” said English. "You know, you get five years to get that once you open your restaurant. And the first year we were open they came in and said this is one of them. So, that’s something that we really, we really are proud of.”

Now he’s really cooking with three restaurants in the Bluff City and a fourth in Biloxi.

“To watch somebody taste something and enjoy it and to see that look on their face, there’s not much that you can substitute that with,” said English. “It’s really a powerful moment.”

Despite all the awards, English hasn’t forgotten where he was the day he decided to jump from the frying pan into the fire.

“The day we opened, I had to make a decision on whether I was going to get a toothbrush or toothpaste that day 'cause I only had enough money for one the day we opened,” he said. “We put everything into this place.”

Twelve years later, his dream is still in full bloom.

“Being able to come here and that has just really been a special thing,” said English.

Do you know anyone who’s had a big break? Maybe it’s you!

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