Chef Ryan McCarty on moving on, moving back, and Ronnie Grisanti 

Hats off to the chef — Ryan McCarty talks food and family.

Hats off to the chef — Ryan McCarty talks food and family.

Ryan McCarty saved the pocket from the first chef's jacket he wore when he worked at Ronnie Grisanti's restaurant.

He was very proud of the jacket.

"It's a badge of honor, I guess," says McCarty, 31, executive sous chef at Ronnie Grisanti's Restaurant in Sheffield Antiques Mall in Collierville. "You work very hard for it. The kitchen is not a place for somebody who just wants to give up easy. It's 'grind or get out.'"

Why just the pocket? "I'm sure with all the work and everything, the pocket's probably the cleanest spot."

McCarty remembers when Grisanti gave him the jacket and said, "Son, get back to work."

The jacket was "the first one he gave to me, one given from a chef to another chef. Well, I was still a cook then."

A native of Orange County, California, McCarty, who grew up in a Mexican-American family, began playing ice hockey when he was 5 years old. "I played all the way through high school."

When he was 9, his family moved to the Memphis area, where McCarty attended Cordova High School.

When he wasn't on the rink, McCarty loved to be in the kitchen. "Every holiday, I was making tamales, pozole. It was just all the smells in the kitchen and always helping out. Making the masa. Just making taquitos and empanadas. I just wanted to hang out in the kitchen when I was a kid. I didn't want to leave."

McCarty also helped his dad on the grill. "I was grilling the steaks because I could do the perfect medium rare."

He flirted with the idea of going into sports medicine in college, but he decided it was boring. "I always knew I wanted to cook."

McCarty began working with a catering company. "I would do prep or whatever. And I was like, 'Oh, wow. I dig this.' Then I worked in the kitchen, and I just liked it. I get my knives. I can wear my chef's coat. I was like, 'Yes!'"

He got a job as a cook at Grisanti's restaurant after his buddy, Travis Tungseth, told him Grisanti was looking for some help.

McCarty, who began making pasta and "infusing the rosemary in the meat sauce," says Grisanti was very patient. "He just wanted to make sure you did it right, and the way he does it. Very patient and great with that, but super stubborn. You mess it up, then it's going in the trash."

About two years later, McCarty took a job at the old Chiwawa in Overton Square. "That's when Midtown started booming. That's when they started doing all that renewal stuff. Then the opportunities started coming and knocking, and a bunch of buddies started doing the 'journey to Mecca.' That's what I called it."

Grisanti wasn't angry when McCarty told him he was leaving. He wanted his chefs to grow and "go to the next thing," McCarty says.

After two years at Chiwawa, McCarty moved to Salem, Oregon, where he became a catering chef. He stayed two years in Oregon, where the emphasis was on seafood and baking artisan breads.

He moved to Memphis after his dad died. McCarty's son, Zayden, 6, also lives in Memphis.

McCarty had some restaurant offers, but he went back to work for Ronnie Grisanti. "I didn't think twice about it because I missed Ronnie and the family and all that. I just came straight here. I didn't care about pay. I didn't care about anything. I just wanted to work in a cool kitchen again."

And, he says, "I'm a 'son.'"

The first thing Grisanti said to him was, "Come here, son."

McCarty answered, "Yes, sir, Cap."

McCarty creates specials at the restaurant. "I love doing soups. Especially being out there at the Pacific Northwest. Chowder soup and all that."

Grisanti died June 30th. McCarty and the other chefs from Ronnie Grisanti's Restaurant sat together at his funeral. The chefs and kitchen staff are family — even if some of them have gone on to other restaurants, McCarty says. "It was like a brotherhood back there. I guess that's why all the guys who worked there — we're still friends to this day. I still hang out with these guys."

Porcini Crusted Scallops from Michael Donahue on Vimeo.

Ronnie Grisanti's Restaurant, 684 W. Poplar, 850-0191

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