When cooking cornbread dressing, Matt Gallaher uses a recipe from his grandfather Thomas Gallaher of Lebanon, Tenn. (TMP Photo/K. Beck)
Matt Gallaher, the chef in Gov. Bill Haslam’s kitchen, has prepared meals around the globe for touring rock and country musicians, but the Nashville-born, Knoxville-bred culinary expert loves nothing better than cooking up the freshest ingredients grown close to home.
The executive chef of the Tennessee Residence, who now calls Murfreesboro home, uses Pick Tennessee products as a priority in the meals that he prepares five days a week at the governor’s mansion in Music City.
“I interviewed with first lady Crissy Haslam and Christi Gibbs, her chief of staff," Gallaher explained. "They asked everything about my cooking style. At one point, I got goose bumps. I couldn’t believe they were on board with all the things I was interested in, such as planting a garden and harvesting from the garden, forging relationships with local farmers and trying to buy as much locally as possible.
"There is something special about fresh ingredients. I learned from my mom (Rebecca Jackson Williams) and her garden and at Blackberry Farms,” said Gallaher, 35, as he prepared in the kitchen of the Tennessee Residence his grandfather’s recipe for cornbread dressing with Mayo’s Smoked Sausage from Lenoir City, Tenn., and chestnuts harvested from Robertson County.
Gallaher has prepared meals for plenty of picky palates.
For more than four years, he toured with musicians such as Martina McBride, The Eagles, Tim McGraw, Neil Young and The Kings of Leon, keeping them well fed.
As for his current gig, he said, “The Haslams are low maintenance. They show no pretenses and are very kind. The governor loves chocolate desserts. One of his favorite things is to take a chicken and rub it with peach butter or apple butter and roast it. So simple. He likes lamb, too. The first lady is very easy. She likes everything.”
In fact, one of the reasons Gallaher took the job was because the Haslams told him they were not picky eaters.
“They told me I would have free rein," he said. "As a chef, it’s great. I get to express myself.”
But, there were other factors that landed him the job.
“Matt has such an easy-going personality. I thought that he would be flexible having worked on the road with touring musicians, and what better training than working at Blackberry Farm,” said Crissy Haslam, who has similar notions about using homegrown Tennessee foods.
“I wanted to serve locally grown products as much as possible and highlight our Tennessee farmers, dairymen and producers. Matt was on board with that philosophy from the beginning. We are even serving wine made in Tennessee and from grapes grown in Tennessee,” she said.
As for some of the favorite dishes that she and her husband enjoy from Gallaher’s kitchen, she responded, “There are so many things that I thought I did not enjoy eating until Matt prepared them. We have never been disappointed in any of his meals. Some favorites are peach butter chicken, butternut squash soup, lamb, Matt’s version of Goo Goo Clusters, lavender cookies, homemade ice cream and his s’more desserts. Plus, risotto of all kinds.”
So, where did the young man with the deft touch in the kitchen, who never spent a day in a culinary school, gain his foundation for whipping up delicious dishes?
It goes back to his Knoxville raising, when his mother ran a restaurant and catering company.
And come January, Gallaher and David Rudder, his best friend since third grade, will be serving the good eats at Knox Mason, the restaurant they will open at 131 S. Gay St. in downtown Knoxville.
Gallaher said it will be a small restaurant and bar with a focus on seasonal, contemporary Southern food based on local and regional farms and producers.
“When I decided to make cooking a career, I knew that restaurant ownership was my long-term goal," he said. "My path took a few turns along the way, as opportunities presented themselves, and working for the Haslams was one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. When I interviewed, I let them know that moving back to Knoxville to open a restaurant was something I was interested in as my next step."
“Downtown Knoxville has just exploded in the last few years, due in large part to Bill’s leadership as mayor, and though it’s bittersweet to say good-bye to the Haslams, the environment is right to open my own place in Knoxville. I’m hopeful that they’ll be able to sneak away to Knoxville for a visit once we’re open in January.”
The top chef’s other main influence was his grandfather, retired optometrist Dr. Thomas Gallaher, 89, of Lebanon, Tenn., who fixed fabulous breakfasts and Thanksgiving meals for the family, bestowing upon Matt a yearning to concoct sumptuous feasts himself. (By the way, the chef gets Thanksgiving off as a holiday just like other state employees.)
“My grandfather is a brilliant cook. It was always such a treat to go visit in the summer and on holidays. He and my grandmother (the late Elizabeth Gallaher) always took care of us in their own way,” Gallaher said, of nourishing times at “Ma” and “Pa’s” Wilson County home.
“Pa” Gallaher, who practiced optometry in Lebanon from 1951 to 2008, recalled that Allied Chemical offered Gallaher "big bucks after he graduated, but he took a job cooking for a lot less money."
"So, I know he’s doing what he loves to do: He loves cooking," he said.
The Tennessee chef’s parents divorced when he was young, and his father moved to Chicago, where Gallaher and his brother visited regularly and were exposed to exotic dishes not commonly served in Southern restaurants.
“But beyond that,” he said, “my mom opened a catering company and restaurant when I was about 9. I loved to eat and really enjoyed going to work with her. At age 12, I began working in her restaurant five days a week, bussing tables and earning a weekly salary of $7.50 a week.”
The chef’s mother began her business with a tea room, Miss Emily’s Fine Foods. As it expanded, she relocated from Morristown to Jefferson City, Tenn.
“It was a little delicate but really delicious,” said Gallaher, who grew up on his step-father’s parents’ 170-acre farm.
“There were no kids nearby to play with, so it was really exciting for me to get up in the morning and go to work and be around people,” he said.
He worked for his mother’s catering company during his teenage years, and after graduating from Carter High School in 1995 still had not considered cooking as a career. Gallaher studied chemical engineering at the University of Tennessee and worked at several Knoxville restaurants across the semesters. While employed by Lord Lindsey Catering, he met a talented cook who turned him on to the possibility of becoming a chef.
“Holly Hambright was the chef and the catalyst who propelled me into this as a career. She agreed to treat me as an apprentice and hired me and put me on salary and taught me for about four years. I really got a broad taste for cooking and techniques,” Gallaher recalled.
“I’ve worked with lots of people who have gone to culinary schools. Some are amazing and some of them aren’t. I think hard work and humility maybe help you out a little bit more than just having a culinary school degree,” said Gallaher, who voraciously read cookbooks and gleaned information from watching a wide variety of cooking shows on television.
With more than 15 years of experience in the kitchen, the young man approached Blackberry Farm, one of the top resort hotels in the U.S., in Walland, Tenn.
“I applied as a prep cook and figured I would start at the bottom. I got hired as a line cook and put on the line right away. It was pretty intimidating, kind of sink or swim. It was very difficult. The first six months was some of hardest work I’d ever done in my life, but I stuck it out,” Gallaher said.
“I was there for four years, my last year as sous chef, which is kind of second in command in the kitchen. It was just an amazing place. Some of my best friends are still working there. The food is certainly the best in Tennessee, and it was a magical experience on l,900 acres that border the Great Smokey Mountains.”
In 2007, Blackberry Farm planned a major expansion, and the chief chef had decided to leave. About the same time, Gallaher received a job offer to cook for country music singer Martina McBride and her crew.
“I thought I was going on tour for five months. After that, I was planning on helping a friend open a restaurant. That never happened. I signed up for another tour, and a five-month gig turned into a four-and-a-half year job that took me around the world with a bunch of different bands,” said Gallaher, who also cooked for Sugarland, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Keith Urban, The Eagles, Neil Young and The Kings of Leon.
It was a great experience, he said.
"The majority of my work with The Kings of Leon was international," he said. "We did two long tours in Europe and went to Australia and South Africa, and I got to cook, which I love, and be around music, which I love, and I got to travel."
The band (Kings of Leon) is all family, three brothers and a cousin, Gallaher noted.
When I started, they said, ‘Welcome to the family.’ I felt like working for them was like hanging out with your friends all day. We had so much fun, but we took our work seriously,” Gallaher said.
“When I got a call totally out of the blue in February of 2011 asking if it would be OK for the first lady to contact me, I said, ‘Sure.’ I’m a big fan of Bill and Crissy," he said. "I didn’t know them, but he was mayor of Knoxville for four years, and he really turned Knoxville around. He did so much for the city and seemed such a genuine great guy, so, of course, I interviewed."
Gallaher said the Haslams decided that hiring a chef was a way to save money.
"They really do entertain a lot and catering is expensive. So, their decision for a chef was a financial one, being that they are stewards of the state’s money,” Gallaher said.
“The touring job was the dream job," he added. "I thought I would interview and maybe there would be a chance I would accept an offer.”
Sure enough, the Haslams invited him to waltz into their kitchen.
But before accepting, he insisted the governor and first lady sample his food.
“A chef’s resume is as much in his hands as it is on paper. I did a chef-y version of a Goo Goo cluster for their dessert,” he said, of a sweet treat that included dark chocolate terrine, homemade marshmallow fluff, milk chocolate and peanut crunch and caramel sauce.
“The Haslams were very complimentary after the meal. I’ve since learned that the governor is a chocolate enthusiast, so I should probably thank Goo Goo for helping me land the job,” he said.
They host guests quite a bit, he said, adding they generally do two special events a week.
"But, I’ll do a lunch maybe twice a month with the first lady hosting,” he said.
The dining room of the Tennessee Residence seats 22, which, if that’s the case, Gallaher can handle the chores solo.
“They really feel that getting around the table with people is a great way to interact. You may think it’s glamorous to have a personal chef, but they’re working all the time,” Gallaher said, in reference to the Haslams. “I take a lot of pride in that they’re using the table to advance the business of the state, and I do play a role in that. I come out between each course and chat briefly and just let them know what they’re eating. It’s nice. The governor really enjoys letting his guests have a little break even if it is only 30 seconds.”
During his brief spiels, the chef allows guests to know what farms supplied the foods they are enjoying.
“People are so far removed from having their own garden. People don’t really think about their food anymore,” he said.
Galas take place in Conservation Hall, which holds 160 for a sit-down meal. For those occasions, reinforcements pitch in with the workload.
Besides Gallaher, 14-year-veteran Shirley Timberlake, who has fixed breakfasts for three administrations, assists the chef at lunchtime. She’s renown for her delicious peach butter.
“For a 16,000-square-foot home there are two housekeepers, two maintenance men, two horticulturists and me and Shirley,” he said. “With that small staff, there is so much we’re able to do.”
Gallaher plans the big dinners several weeks ahead, building his menu around what’s available.
A favorite place for him to purchase vegetables is Delvin Farms, the largest and oldest organic farm in the state, located in College Grove.
One of his more memorable feasts was a salute to the folks who grow or produce Tennessee vegetables, dairy products and meats.
“We did a meal for Pick Tennessee’s 25th anniversary and invited 25 farmers and their spouses, and we incorporated those farmer’s products in the meal,” said a-pleased-as-punch Gallaher.
At the end of the day, whether it be 6 or 9 p.m., the executive chef of the Tennessee Residence winds up in the same spot, washing dirty dishes, pots and pans and putting them back in their place.
“I think to be a good chef at some point you’ve got to be a good dishwasher. You got to be able to do everything,” he said.
Summing up his time in the Haslam kitchen, Gallaher, a product of Tennessee as much as many of the fresh ingredients he uses, said, “Being a personal chef is such a different experience than any other cooking job due to the close relationship that you have with your employer. If it’s not a great fit, I’m sure it is miserable.
“After one of my first dinners here, at the end of a 14-hour day for both of them (the Haslams), they got up from the table and helped me wash dishes," he recalled. "It was a simple gesture but speaks volumes about their character and is something that will stick with me forever. I’d say it’s been a great fit.”