Bleu Restaurant & Lounge at the Westin recently introduced Kevin Rains as their new executive chef. The launch of his first menu coincided with the second anniversary of the restaurant's opening.
Bleu is the latest challenge in a culinary career that spans over 20 years. Everything started at home, though.
"I always enjoyed cooking. I had an older brother. He followed after my dad; I stayed at home with Mom. She always cooked from scratch in the kitchen, and I just sat up on the counter. I started with her recipes. I've always known this was what I wanted to do," Rains says.
Rains started as a bartender, working at the Half Shell at a time when Ben Smith of Tsunami was the fry cook. He eventually went to culinary school in Denver. After graduation, he worked at the city's Ritz-Carlton before being hired at another prestigious restaurant in Denver.
"I got an offer from Noel Cunningham, who had been Hugh Hefner's personal chef. I didn't know why they chose me, but I found out when I got there. It was because they had all Hispanics and no gringos, and they needed someone to place orders, and I could gab on the phone. It wasn't because I could cook or anything like that," Rains says, laughing.
Rains returned to Memphis after a prominent local chef called to offer him a job.
"Erling Jensen called and said he wanted me to run EJ Brasserie. I knew Erling because I trained his dogs. I also train dogs, Great Danes especially," Rains says.
After EJ Brasserie, Rains spent seven years at Equestria Restaurant & Lounge before opening his own place, Roustica. From there, he took a job teaching at L'École Culinaire. Now, Rains is looking forward to his time at the Westin.
"We'll be adding a touch of freshness to the menu and doing things they've never done here," he says.
Rains has introduced new locally sourced items like a Dickey Farms lion's mane mushroom with his three mushroom risotto. He is also staying true to Bleu's tradition of fresh seafood with dishes that include an ahi tuna tostada.
And this far into his career, Rains is as passionate about food as he was in his mother's kitchen.
"It's been about a 24-year run in the kitchen, and I'm still learning every day. I love the feeling of making people happy. It makes me happy," he says.
Bleu, 221 S. Third (334-5950), downtownbleu.com
Blind Bear Speakeasy also has a new chef. David Scott Walker is a native Memphian whose culinary career took him to New York initially.
Walker studied at the International Culinary Center and went on to work at Les Halles, Anthony Bourdain's old stomping grounds, as well as at a restaurant in the West Village.
"It was a good experience. My cooking is based in French. It's the most refined of any cooking techniques, but you can take it into any cuisine and do extremely well," Walker says.
Walker's return to Memphis started with a visit from Jamie and Jeanette West, owners of the Blind Bear. Walker and Jamie West have been friends since they were both 17.
"They were vacationing in New York and had dinner at my restaurant. We were talking, and they said they wanted me to come down here and do this, and I was like, 'Yeah, that will actually happen,'" Walker says.
Walker loved New York, but family played a big part in his decision to return to Memphis. Family is also playing a big part on the Blind Bear menu.
"My mom is my pastry chef. She always dreamed of opening a baking company. We were talking about serving great classic desserts from the '20s and '30s here, so I told her, 'If you ever want to start your company, now is the time.' And she's doing wonderful stuff. We call it Aunt Mac's Bakery, because everyone calls her Aunt Mac," Walker says.
The desserts, such as lemon ice box pie and strawberry cake with a layer of homemade strawberry jam, are only one part of Walker's plans. He plans to elevate the entire menu.
"This is a great bar with great classic cocktails, but now we need to take the food to the next level to make the food match the cocktails," he says.
While the cocktails and desserts will hearken back to the Prohibition speakeasy era, Walker will be taking some of the food into the future with dishes like a ball of mozzarella inflated with tomato-basil-scented air, a play on a traditional Caprese salad.
"I'm a science nerd. It's a passion of mine. I love that aspect of cooking, knowing why certain things react certain ways. I'm not doing a lot of molecular gastronomy here yet. I want to get a good solid menu before we start sneaking in these fun things," he says.
Blind Bear Speakeasy, 119 S. Main (417-8435), blindbearmemphis.com