"There's energy in the kitchen that's not in the dining room that people enjoy," says Chip Apperson, managing partner of Grove Grill. "When you have a party at your house, people congregate in the kitchen."
This is the reason Apperson and co-owner and Chef de Cuisine Jeffrey Dunham open the Grove Grill kitchen to guests for dinners.
At first, the events were sporadic since they were scheduled only after there were enough people to fill the seating in the kitchen. "I keep a list of people who have expressed interest and then call when we have enough people," Apperson says. "We place three tables in the kitchen, and each table seats eight."
Through word-of mouth and repeat business, the kitchen dinners have become so popular that they are held about twice a month during the cooler seasons of the year. The next one is scheduled for April 19th.
"We only do them until about May, because it gets too hot in the kitchen during the summer to be comfortable," Apperson says.
The Grove Grill, located in Laurelwood shopping center, opened in 1997. Both Apperson and Dunham wound up in Memphis 10 years after they first became friends as students at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. In an interesting twist of fate, they met for lunch at a little restaurant called Cena to talk about going into business together. A month later, Cena closed, and Apperson and Dunham leased the space for Grove Grill.
The two transformed Cena. Now the space features a mahogany bar that runs nearly the length of the restaurant. The dining area features an open, upscale design with rich colors and a rotating selection of local artwork from the neighboring David Lusk Gallery.
For the kitchen dinners, tables are set up behind the equipment and preparation line so that guests are isolated from the fast-moving pace of the staff and are able to enjoy a five-course menu accompanied by a variety of wines. Before each event, Dunham sits down with Ginger Wilkerson, a representative of Athens Distributing, to choose wines suitable to the $75 prix-fixe menu.
"The advantage of having the kitchen dinner [is that] you know the food is going to go above and beyond the restaurant experience," says Verna Turner of Memphis, who has attended several kitchen dinners over the past three years. "You know going in that it's going to be a special pairing of food and wine that wouldn't normally be available on the menu. The pairing is done by two professionals. Jeff is one of the finest chefs in the city, and Ginger is so knowledgeable about wines."
Those who attended the March 8th dinner started out with duck liver paté and grilled chicken satay, followed by stuffed Gulf white shrimp with ginger crawfish tails and Kaffir lime-coconut nage.
"The Gulf shrimp was excellent," Turner says. "Matter of fact, I called Chip over and suggested that it should be added to the menu. But that's what makes the kitchen dinners unique. They can serve items that might be a little extraordinary for the average person to order from a menu, or an ingredient might be too expensive or rare to be able to offer it all the time."
The entrée featured roast Peking duck followed by braised beef short ribs with spicy venison, chorizo, and Yukon gold potato ragout with roasted garlic cream. Dessert was raspberry-chocolate icebox pie with passion-fruit coulis.
"We have a fantastic time," says Wilkerson, who also serves as the dinners' hostess. "I talk about the wines and discuss why we selected a particular one, but it's mostly just a unique way to enjoy dinner out."
"It's not an education-oriented night. It's more of an eat, drink, and be merry evening," Apperson says. "There is no participation or demos with these dinners, but Jeff will come over and discuss the menu and answer any questions."