Insider Interview Memphis: Kelly English

By: Samantha Crespo

January 29, 2014

Consider Kelly English Memphis’ chief culinary ambassador. Since 2008, his Restaurant Iris has elevated dining in the city – and held the attention of Food & Wine magazine, the James Beard Foundation and the like – with a French-Creole palate that refines local and seasonal. Taste it in signatures like Brussels sprouts tossed with Allan Benton’s Tennessee-made bacon or his lobster “knuckle sandwich” (below).

You can infer from this plating that Restaurant Iris further involves impeccable wine and service – and, of course, a reservation (for weekend dinner, book at least two weeks in advance to command one of the restaurant’s 13 tables). Or, queue up at The Second Line, English’s new concept located right next door.

Where Restaurant Iris is exclusive and reverent, The Second Line is everyman and raucous. It exposes the grit on English’s chef whites, accumulated growing up in Louisiana and surviving college on kitchen jobs and cold leftovers. Expect first-come, first-served seating; a cosy chaos of warm colours, televised sports and conversation at close-packed tables; Memphis-made beers to complement food so disarming, dishtowels stand in for serviettes – and some surprises from the chef.


Insider Interview Memphis: Kelly English

Chef Kelly English © Justin Fox Burks

Is The Second Line an anti-Iris?


I love Restaurant Iris and it’s exactly what we want it to be – it’s where we get to stress over every little detail. But there are a lot of things that carry over [to The Second Line] – we just present it in a much more casual way, like the Besh barbecue shrimp [named for English’s mentor, Chef John Besh].


Perhaps it’s more a manifestation of your mantra: “You’ve got to cook the food that speaks to you.”

l wanted to make The Second Line indicative of how people eat where I grew up. We eat soulfully – really honest things like po’ boys and roasted meats.


The Second Line | Kelly English

The Second Line’s roast White Oaks pasture beef po’ boy with gravy and Swiss cheese is English’s favorite item on the current menu © Justin Fox Burks

It seems such honesty would sate hungry off-duty chefs.

[Chef and Louisiana native] John Currence and I share this love for a hot ham and cheese po’ boy with gravy. The Johnny snack on The Second Line menu is named for him. It has a really homey flavour.

If authenticity unifies dishes at The Second Line, thier influences are certainly free-ranging – presently swinging from enchiladas to oysters, as an example. Where else might that go?


I can’t wait for soft-shell crab to come in – all the seafood we serve is from the Gulf Coast, and I taste home when I eat it. I can’t wait for a boudin hot dog. We’re building a foundation for this house. I don’t think there’s any restaurant we’ve ever opened where we’ve said, “We’re done.” We want to keep using our ingredients in a better way.


Memphis Interview | Chef Kelly English

Outside The Second Line in Memphis’ Overton Square district © Justin Fox Burks

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Have you ever eaten at Restaurant Iris or The Second Line in Memphis? Do you have any favourite restaurants in Memphis? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

Written by Samantha Crespo


Samantha Crespo

Samantha Crespo is a native of Florida, which she believes set her up to be a career tour guide. (It helps that she’s keen on playing tourist in her own town and beyond – Ensenada, Mexico, and Nafplio, Greece, are favourites – though she feels most at home in the American South.) Since 2005, Samantha has mixed pleasure with business as a travel writer and editor. She admits to squealing when assignments call her to listen to live music in her adopted hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, or to discover new campgrounds with her husband and daughter. Get her insider's perspective on exploring Memphis in her book, 100 Things To Do in Memphis Before You Die.

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