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VOL. 124 | NO. 215 | Monday, November 2, 2009

Though New Place Not There Yet, Wally Joe Still Working It

By FREDRIC KOEPPEL | Special to The Memphis News

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If the truism in the restaurant industry is it takes twice as long to open a restaurant as you plan, try this: Wally Joe left his eponymous establishment on Sanderlin Avenue, which opened in May 2002, in December 2006.

At the time, he announced he would open a new rest-aurant within six months, but that, as they say, was then. Now, says Joe, the new place may open in the spring. 

Joe was eating lunch at Grace, a new restaurant in the Cooper-Young district that opened far more quickly than his as yet nameless restaurant has, as he talked about his latest endeavor. (Chef Ben Vaughn left River Oaks in Aug-ust and opened Grace Sept. 18, a near miracle of speed, efficiency and problem-solving in industry terms.)

“The problem,” said Joe, forking up a portion of rosy rare tuna followed by a tiny pink heirloom tomato and a drop of basil gelato, “is that we spent so much time on the first place we found, and then negotiations broke down, and we didn’t get it. Then we spent more time looking, even in shopping centers, which we really didn’t want to do. Finally, this one fell into our laps.”

He was referring to a heavily treed property at 690 S. Perkins Road, near Theatre Memphis, that encompasses .876 acres and a one-story house built in 1941 that Joe said has been gutted. “They even moved the fireplace. It’s going to be a total transformation.”

Also slowing the process is the fact Joe’s partners didn’t like the designs the initial architect submitted for the renovation, an architect Joe declined to name, though on his blog, porkbellyheaven.blogspot.com, he alludes several times to his rapport with local architect and exhibition designer Reb Haizlip and the plans Haizlip produced for remodeling the house.

“Personally," said Joe, “I like contem-porary designs, but my partners hated everything the architect did, and they were writing the checks, so we had to start over. They wanted something more conservative, like Grove Grill,” the popular restaurant in Laurelwood.

The new architect is Doug Enoch, noted for his residential work in the French country manner.

“His designs are nice,” said Joe, “eclectic but classic.”

“We wanted the restaurant to fit into the neighborhood,” said Joe’s partner, Frank Stanley of Southeastern Assets Management. 

Joe, 47, grew up in Cleveland, Miss., working with his brother, Don, in his parents’ Chinese restaurant, K.C.’s. As the brothers grew older, read, traveled and learned more about contemporary American cuisine, they persuaded their father to let them add items to the menu.

By the time Wally Joe was in his late 20s, K.C.’s had two menus, his and the traditional Chinese items; Don gradually took over the managing and wine side of the business.

When K.C.’s burned in 1992, the brothers built a modern Mission-style restaurant on the same property. Soon, the restaurant’s innovative fare and magnificent wine list won national acclaim.

Wally Joe was invited to cook at the James Beard House in New York in 1994, and in 1997, he was featured on “Great Chefs of the South” on the Discovery Channel.  

Despite these successes, he wanted to bring his talent and culinary style to a wider audience, and he finally found a partner in Fred Carl Jr., founder and CEO of Viking Range Corp.

“I learned a lesson at Wally Joe,” the chef said. “Memphis wasn’t ready for the cutting edge in cuisine.”

He said his parting from the restaurant was “on good terms. Fred asked me to stay long enough to help find a new chef.”

That was Jackson Kramer, who had worked under Joe and his chef de cuisine Andrew Adams.

“I knew Jackson would do a great job,” Joe said. “He was one of the best young men that ever worked for me.”

Asked, though, if he had even eaten at Interim, as the restaurant was renamed, Joe said, simply, “No.”

Kramer recently announced that he is moving to East Tennessee but intends to stay involved with Interim. Sous chef Josh Belenchia will take over the kitchen.

Wally Joe plans an ambitious menu for the new restaurant, which will have 70 seats compared to his previous restaurant’s 350.

“There will be a basic, sort of meat-and-potatoes menu,” he said, “and then a seasonal market menu, and then the more cutting-edge menu of the stuff I’m known for.”

Joe and Adams will continue to run The Brushmark at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.

At the new restaurant, Joe will be chef and general manager, clearing the way for Adams to be executive chef, giving him first responsibility for the menu and kitchen.

As for Joe’s estimate that the restaurant would open next spring, Stanley said, “That’s too optimistic. It won’t be until the summer or maybe fall. The architect said that's how long the changes to the building will take."

PROPERTY SALES 59 59 4,335
MORTGAGES 48 48 4,862
BUILDING PERMITS 100 100 10,251
BANKRUPTCIES 45 45 3,194