Emily Lenn, mother of chef/owner, tells the J. C. Holdway back story

Susan EspirituDowntown

If you live in Knoxville and haven’t eaten at J.C. Holdway, don’t admit it. The restaurant was even mentioned as the go to place to eat in last Saturday’s broadcast of UT’s football game in Nashville.

September will mark the seventh anniversary of JC Holdway, and I was fortunate to learn some of the story behind Joseph Lenn, chef and owner, from his mother, Emily Lenn.

Emily, a longtime friend, gave me a mother’s view of Chef Joseph and what follows for the most part are her direct words.

Joseph and Emily Lenn at home in the kitchen

“For as long as I can remember, our family gatherings have been centered around food. My grandmother and mother were both very good cooks, and I learned a lot from them. When Joseph was born, we were members of a dinner group called the Gourmet Club. Each month, the host couple designated a country, and each couple contributed dishes indigenous to that country. Joseph no doubt was influenced at an early age by those dinners.

“When Joseph became a teenager, he earned money by mowing lawns in the neighborhood and by working first at Food City and then at Butler and Bailey Market, where he ultimately worked in the meat department; there he became familiar with various cuts of meat and their preparation.

“Following graduation from Bearden High School, Joseph continued to work at Butler and Bailey, and he and Tom Butler became friends and fishing buddies. One afternoon I was working in my office as principal at Farragut Primary School, and I vividly remember Joseph coming to visit me. He announced to me confidently, ‘Mom, I know what I want to do. I want to be a chef.’I advised him to research where he wanted to attend culinary school and told him that his dad and I would completely support his decision.

“Even though I was not certain that he would follow through, he decided to attend Johnson and Wales University, in Charleston, South Carolina, at that time. From that point on, Joseph set high standards for himself and met or exceeded them. Joseph excelled at JWU, and during his summer break, he interned at Blackberry Farm.

“During Joseph’s second year of culinary school, he began working for Chef Robert Carter at Peninsula Grill, a high-end Charleston Restaurant. He worked there for a few years before moving to Nashville to cook with Sean Brock at The Capitol Grill in the Hermitage Hotel, another high-end restaurant.

“Prior to finding his own place to live in Nashville, Joseph lived with my Uncle Joe, J. C. Holdway, for whom Joseph is named. Uncle Joe was a lifelong bachelor who ate all his meals in restaurants, was an accomplished duplicate bridge player, and was chief accountant for South Central Bell. That was undoubtedly a special time for both bachelors.

“After a few years in Nashville, Joseph accepted an opportunity to work at Blackberry Farm alongside Chef John Fleer, who served as a wonderful mentor. Eventually, Joseph became executive chef of the Barn, and he earned the Best Chef Southeast award from the James Beard Foundation in 2013.

“In 2015, after 10 years at Blackberry Farm, Joseph decided it was time to open his own restaurant. Jerry and I were terrified by that thought because of the risk involved, but we supported him throughout the long, challenging process.

“We are extremely proud of all that Joseph has accomplished in his career, not the least of which was how he and his team pivoted when Covid forced restaurants to close. He quickly developed carry-out meals that were fantastic and were a welcome break for his patrons including mom and dad. He made homemade ice cream to include as dessert, and I became addicted to the peanut butter/chocolate chunk flavor!

“One of the specials during this period was fried chicken, which typically sold out within minutes of being offered online. I was determined to order some one day, but I wasn’t quick enough entering my credit card information. Confession: I sent Joseph a text and told him I missed out on the fried chicken and was very disappointed. He kindly told me that he thought he might be able to find one more chicken to fry for us.”

Mama Emily gave me favorite stories, advantages, disadvantages, and the special advice she has given her special chef son.

One of her favorite stories about being the mother of a chef happened several years ago, when they had invited Joseph over for dinner. Before he came, Emily had put a pork loin in the oven to roast, and then ran a quick errand. When she returned, with time to spare, the meat was sitting on the counter. She asked Joseph why he had taken it out to which he replied, “Mom, I do this for a living!” She says she often reminds him of that remark.

Emily says there are definitely advantages to having a “chef son.” For example, Joseph does most of the cooking when they are all together, either at home or on vacation together. In addition, it has given Jerry and Emily many fabulous experiences. They have been able to attend numerous special events for which Joseph has cooked, both locally and in other cities and states. Twice they have attended dinners he has cooked at the James Beard House in New York City.

The disadvantages to having a chef in the family result because of the workload. Joseph misses holidays because he is working and he is extremely busy most of the time. As parents, they worry about all the challenges that come with owning a restaurant.

What advice would Emily give her son? She says she tells him to always appreciate those who helped him attain success and pay it forward by mentoring others; remain humble, kind and generous; continue making others happy through his cooking and his kindness. Those qualities the community sees in Joseph every day.

Oh, and Emily says for him to be sure to call and visit his mom (and dad) often!

J.C. Holdway is open Tuesday-Saturday with reservations starting at 5 p.m. at 501 Union Avenue, Knoxville. Info: 865-312-9050.

All of us have a story and I want to tell yours! Send them to susan@knoxtntoday.com


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