Erling Jensen’s chef de cuisine Keith Clinton. 

Drumsticks — not the edible kind — were part of Keith Clinton's passion as a teenager.

Clinton, 30, chef de cuisine at Erling Jensen: The Restaurant, began playing drums as a high school freshman. "I was horrible," he says. "I remember some kids walking by. I opened the window and I thought I could impress them. They were some older kids. I remember playing whatever beat I knew how to play, and they just laughed and laughed and laughed."

But he kept at it. He eventually helped form the Infidelles and the Incredible Hook rock bands.

click to enlarge Keith Clinton - MICHAEL DONAHUE
  • Michael Donahue
  • Keith Clinton

Prior to drumming, Clinton was an avid artist. He excelled at painting and clay molding in middle school. "I liked to put my hands on something and mold something or create something out of a very small thing. I got to kind of do that with playing drums. I got to use my hands. I got to use my body."

So, cooking was a natural step. Clinton grew up watching his mother make dinner every night. "I don't know if I was more interested in the food or if I was more interested in how she was doing it."

Clinton realized the importance of cooking to him after he got a job with a caterer. He thought, "This is what I was made to do."

He worked saute at Flight Restaurant and Wine Bar before he heard about an opening at Erling's. "I didn't know much about this place or what it meant to the Memphis dining scene. I was very ambitious, and I thought, 'Oh, I can do that. That's not a big deal. It's just a restaurant. I work at Flight.'"

Clinton got the job. "I was young, and I thought I knew everything. But I remember the first day I walked in thinking, 'I don't know anything about cooking.'

"Everything was so detailed. And everything was so laborious. Everything took so long to make something so perfect. There were so many factors that went into all of it on a level that I had never experienced before."

Jensen "was riding me a lot and he was very tough."

The other chefs said, "'He's trying to mold you. He's trying to shape you. He's trying to make you better.'"

That added "fuel to that passion I already had. I always want to be better. But having someone so predominant and so intelligent and so capable of their craft encourage me in that way, I felt really accelerated. I thought, 'I've got someone who's got my back on this.'"

Clinton quickly caught on. "It wasn't just making food. It was creating something truly perfect and beautiful. And it was innovative. It was classic preparation to things. Like all this French cooking style I had no idea about."

Erling Jensen's is where Clinton wants to be. "I want to change the way fine dining is being done in a sense that I want to present it in a different way. I want diners to experience a more immersive experience. It's dining. It's fine. It's detailed. It's not just consuming food."

Dining is "changing your silverware for you. Changing everything out every course. Bringing you all these extra little amuse-bouches and intermezzos and petits fours. Classic dining is so sexy to me. We have that opportunity here to continue to present that sexiness, that fine aspect of enjoying and eating a meal. But we also have a chance to explore."

Jensen is "a very classic chef who can make any classic preparation of any dish, but he can also employ these people who have their own visions and their own goals and they're able to push dining in a different area. Do their own thing.

"It's like a 50/50 dining experience. You get to stick to tradition 50 percent of the time, and then the other 50 percent of the time, you get to push the boundaries."

He also enjoys getting to work at Erling's with his partner, sous chef Meredith Gardner. "We get to do something beautiful together."

Clinton hasn't forgotten about music. "I haven't stopped playing. But I'm so in love with this. They're very similar, you know. Making food for someone and having someone enjoy something you've created is the same as recording a song and having someone listen to it in their car on the drive home from work or on a long road trip. It's almost the same experience."

Erling Jensen: The Restaurant, 1044 South Yates, 763-3700

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