It's the Friday after Thanksgiving, and Memphis chef Kelly English isn't repurposing turkey leftovers. Instead, he's raising a glass as his second restaurant, the Second Line, officially marks its one-year anniversary. "I just can't believe that it's been a whole year," English says, reminiscing about the Second Line's debut during Thanksgiving weekend 2013. It's been a busy year for English. In February, the chef received national attention for vocally opposing a homophobic bill in the Tennessee State Senate. This summer, he opened a restaurant in Biloxi, Mississippi: Magnolia House at Harrahs Gulf Coast. Just yesterday, the chef confirmed to the Memphis Business Journal he would help develop the menu for a new restaurant inside the beloved Memphis dive bar Earnestine & Hazel's. (English is not an owner in the project, called Hole in the Wall; he notes that he'll act as the "Director of Taste.")
And since October, English has been working a second location of the Second Line: The casual restaurant will open an outpost next spring in Oxford, Mississippi, the college town known for its burgeoning food scene. English, as a University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) alumnus, has strong ties to the region. "Oxford has always been a dream of mine," English says. "I went to school here and it's a really special place. It's a special community."
"Oxford has always been a dream of mine... it's a really special place. It's a special community."
The upcoming Oxford location plays into what English jokingly calls his "split personality," equally influenced by his New Orleans childhood, Ole Miss experience, and time cooking in fine-dining restaurants alongside chefs like John Besh. English's fine-dining Restaurant Iris (not to be confused with the identically named restaurant in New Orleans) opened in 2008, bringing French-Creole, multi-course tasting menus to downtown Memphis. At Iris, Kelly says, "we cook the food that the people who settled in Louisiana would have cooked had they settled in Memphis." (That translates to a menu of pan-fried veal sweetbreads with gnocchi and pork jus; duck confit fritters with leek fondue; and a surf-and-turf that stuffs a New York strip with oysters and blue cheese.)
But when the building next door to Iris became available last year, English "jumped" on the opportunity to branch out with a second concept. "I always wanted to do a restaurant just like Second Line," English says. "In fact, if you were to talk to my friends, they would tell you that Second Line is probably more 'me' than Iris is 'me.' It's more the restaurant that I grew up in or the bar that I grew up in in New Orleans." The Second Line menu features nine iterations of po'boys, platters of fried Gulf seafood, and sides like grits, skillet cornbread, and an admittedly "fancy-ass" cole slaw. The caveat comes as English stresses authenticity and tradition in the Second Line's food. "Sometimes when you get outside of New Orleans, the casual side of New Orleans cooking gets ruined because people try to put their take on it or put their spin on it or make it their own," Kelly says. "To me, that type of food doesn't belong to anybody. It is what it is."
Inauthentic spins on New Orleans cuisine, Kelly says, create food that "doesn't belong to anybody."
At the Second Line's Oxford location, which has only a handful more seats than its Memphis counterpart, Kelly participates in a different, more local tradition. English has purchased the 127-year-old building that will house the Second Line, and during his college days, English remembers it was home to an un-categorizable restaurant called Smitty's. "It wasn't a greasy spoon, but it wasn't a diner; it wasn't a casual restaurant," English says. "You could go in for breakfast or lunch and you could have country-fried steak and all kinds of stuff." The beloved Smitty's restaurant closed in 1999 after 27 years operating under that name; in its previous incarnation, called Grundy's, celebrated author/Ole Miss alum William Faulkner was a known regular. English will acknowledge that history and the building's unique sense of place on the Second Line menu. "We will have a Smitty's country-fried steak on the menu," he says. "We'll play around with that a little bit, for sure."
The Second Line also follows in the footsteps of another New Orleans-born, Mississippi-based chef: English calls chef John Currence, whose Oxford flagship restaurant City Grocery opened in 1992, an inspiration. "John Currence is one of my best friends on Earth, and he has built the food in this town like I've never seen anybody build food in a small town," English says. Currence currently operates four concepts in the town of 20,000 residents: His flagship City Grocery, the "Southern brasserie" Snackbar, Big Bad Breakfast, and the Creole restaurant Bouré. "What he's done is crazy impressive and really inspiring," English says. "You can't overstate how important John is both to food and to culture, not only to Oxford but, in my opinion, to the whole state of Mississippi."
As the Second Line builds out, barreling toward a projected spring 2015 opening, English he doesn't rule out the possibility of more locations in the future. "We're going to nail the second one first, but it's definitely... I'm really proud of this," he says. "I'm really proud of the way it's all come together and I think that you could put a Second Line almost anywhere that isn't named Louisiana." For now, he'll make the hour-long drive from Memphis to Oxford, as both the Second Line and Hole in the Wall aim for spring openings. "I'm just glad to come and be a part of [Oxford]," English says, adding, "and be able to come to football games whenever I want."