VOL. 126 | NO. 148 | Monday, August 1, 2011
A story from The Memphis News
On newsstands throughout the city
Roth Forges Own Path with Alchemy in C-Y
FREDRIC KOEPPEL | Special to The Memphis News
Ben Vaughn has some advice for Karen Roth:
An all-star team of local chefs and restauranteurs will be opening Alchemy at 938 and 940 S. Cooper St. From left are Karen Roth, formerly chef of Erling Jensen's, Bert Smythe and John Littlefield, operating partners of McEwen’s, Soul Fish’s Ben McLean, and Stewart Wingate of McEwen's Oxford.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)
“Stay in the kitchen. Get people who can take care of the business end and let them do it.”
Roth, until recently the chef de cuisine at the fine dining Erling Jensen: The Restaurant, is moving into the two spaces that Vaughn vacated after closing Grace and Au Fond Farmtable at 938 and 940 S. Cooper St.
Alchemy, as the restaurant will be called, is a collaboration among Bert Smythe and John Littlefield, managing partners of McEwen’s on Monroe, Ben McLean of Soul Fish and Roth, who has been named executive chef and managing partner.
“Being a managing partner in the restaurant gives me more responsibility, and that’s the way I work best,” Roth said. “My father was a CPA, and I grew up learning about money. If Ben had had the backing that I’m getting, Grace and Au Fond would probably still be open. I mean, I hate to trade on someone else’s bad luck, but we’re going into a great space.”
The next two months will be busy for Smythe and Littlefield and another partner, Stewart Wingate. A branch of McEwen’s is opening in Oxford, Miss., in a prime location right on the Square, and then Alchemy in Cooper-Young, whose target date is the end of August or mid-September or – the “drop-dead date” as Smythe said – Oct. 1.
“Opening two restaurants within 60 days is insane,” said Smythe, “but both of these opportunities fell into our laps. The people in Oxford came to us, and we thought that it was far enough away from Memphis not to be shooting ourselves in the foot but close enough in the sense that Oxford has a lot of ties with Memphis.”
Smythe and his partners had been talking to Roth for what he called “quite some time” when the Grace and Au Fond spaces became available. One of the challenges facing the new enterprise is the size: 5,200 square feet.
“That’s big,” Smythe said, “maybe about 25 percent bigger than we need, but James” – James Rasberry of Rasberry CRE – “didn’t want to divide the two bays. We feel we can work with the space, though.”
Ask Roth how she feels, having left one of the region’s best-known white-tablecloth establishments and about to leap into a casual bar-restaurant at an intersection crowded with eating places, and she says, “Fantastic. It’s hard to put it into words. I’m excited at the prospect of creating a menu and cooking the way I think people want to eat today. I don’t believe that fine dining is dead, I don’t want to put it like that, but I think most people want smaller portions and more choices. Not just more choices but more eclectic choices. That’s the way I like to eat, three or four appetizers, a taste of everything.”
The concept is small plates at prices ranging from about $5 to $14. Not a few small plates or appetizers; 30 or 40 of them. The south bay of the restaurant, where Vaughn’s Au Fond was, will hold the bar, while the north bay, formerly Grace, will have more conventional seating.
“We’ll divide the spaces into four different areas,” said Roth, “and open the kitchen. If some people don’t want to sit in the bar, they can sit at tables in one of the other areas. Or they can sit near the open window into the kitchen and talk to me.”
One doesn’t want to say that 938 S. Cooper is a jinx, but Sweet Bistro didn’t last long there and neither did Grace.
“We don’t have any trepidation because that space has been the site of failures,” Smythe said. “I mean, we know that we’re taking a chance, nothing is for certain in this business, but we have a great idea and we’re willing to take the risk.”
And what about the fact that Cooper-Young may have reached a saturation point for restaurants and bars?
“Saturated to a degree,” said Smythe, “but Downtown is saturated too. The point is to have a wide enough scale with a lot of diversity. Every place falls into its niche and its price point. And we’re adding to the fact that Cooper-Young is becoming a destination.”
All chefs, of course, want their own restaurants or at least to be executive chef and partner.
“Bad as I hate to say it, this came up with perfect timing,” said Roth. “I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. You have to try and make a name and a success for yourself.”