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VOL. 126 | NO. 55 | Monday, March 21, 2011

Former Interim Chef Kramer Back in Charge

FREDRIC KOEPPEL | Special to The Memphis News

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“Interim” – a pause or interval in a succession of events

Chef Jackson Kramer, who once served as "interim" chef of Interim restaurant, has taken permanent possession of the head kitchen job.

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

When the restaurant Wally Joe closed in January 2007, owner Fred Carl Jr., founder, president and CEO of Viking Range Corp., decided to keep a restaurant going while looking for a buyer for the space in the shopping center at South Mendenhall Road and Sanderlin Avenue. Appropriately, the temporary restaurant would be called Interim.

Ha-ha, four years later Interim, 5040 Sanderlin Ave., is still open and seems as permanent as a restaurant can be in this precarious world of cares and woe.

And let it be known here and now that Jackson Kramer, who was Interim’s executive chef from its “temporary” beginning in January 2007 until November 2009, is back running that spic-and-span open kitchen, replacing his former sous chef Josh Belenchia (who had taken Kramer’s position), who left Interim this January to open his own restaurant, Buon Ciba, in Hernando, Miss.

All right, let’s back up and straighten all this out.

Far fewer than six degrees separate many of the personnel that populate the restaurant business in Memphis. For example, Kramer, Ryan Trimm (chef and co-owner of Sweet Grass), and Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman (owners and chefs of Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen) were in the same class at Christian Brothers High School. Kramer and Trimm cooked at The Grove Grill. Kramer and Belenchia cooked at Wally Joe.

“I worked at Café Society briefly,” said Kramer, 31, who has a degree from the Western Culinary Institute in Portland, Ore., “but my first real kitchen job was at Grove Grill.” Like many young cooks, his peregrinations were wide. “I did an externship at (now closed) Criolla’s in Florida. I was Fred Smith’s private chef for a year. That was fun but challenging. I never knew if there was going to be one person for dinner or 30. I spent two and a half years at Richmond Hill Inn in Asheville (N.C.), but that town is so seasonal.”

Back in Memphis, Kramer got a job in the kitchen at Wally Joe but left about nine months before that fine-dining restaurant closed and went to Hawaii.

Andrew Adams” – Wally Joe’s chef de cuisine – “called me and said that the restaurant was closing and that Fred Carl was looking for a chef for this temporary place,” Kramer said. “He recommended me and Wally talked to Fred Carl, and that’s how I got the job.”

Kramer saw the kitchen at Interim as an opportunity but had no real expectations.

“Some nights the room was full and some nights we had almost nobody,” he said. “And then came Valentine’s 2007 and it blew us away and after that things never stopped. We knew then that Interim was not going to be an ‘interim’ restaurant.”

So why leave a popular, successful restaurant with a loyal East Memphis base?

Kramer was sitting in the dim bar at Interim late in the afternoon one day last week.

“Well, I don’t like to talk about this much,” he said, “but I was diagnosed with cancer early in 2009. I’m fine now, there’s no problem at all, but it really put a new perspective on things for me. You know, chefs work a lot. It’s a hard job. Counting the time I had worked at Wally Joe, I had been in this kitchen for most of five years.”

Kramer and his wife Amanda moved to East Tennessee.

“I got a job as a consultant for a restaurant in Johnson City,” he said. “That part of the state is gorgeous, and I love the outdoors, trout fishing, hiking and kayaking. I needed time to do some things I enjoy instead of working 70 or 80 hours a week, but then I ended up doing the same thing, though at least the place was closed two nights a week. I helped the restaurant turn around, sales were up 15 percent and then I was ready to move on.”

Meanwhile, Belenchia, who had become executive chef at Interim in October 2009, had departed from the restaurant early this January.

“I had always wanted my own restaurant,” he said in a telephone interview from Hernando, “but I needed the experience in running a restaurant before I took the plunge. Thus place just kind of fell in my lap, a restaurant that had been closed for two years. We must have driven by it a thousand times without ever thinking about it, but we” – Belenchia and his wife, Katie – “stopped and looked at it last summer, and everything was there, tables, chairs, coffee filters.”

Buon Ciba, which was scheduled to open March 15, is a very different restaurant from Interim, whose casual fine-dining menu reflects some ingenuity and sophistication. Belenchia’s new restaurant, on the other hand, is a family-style establishment that serves soups, salads, sandwiches and pizzas. It’s open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday and closes at 9 p.m. It serves beer but no wine.

“I came back to Interim as an interim chef,” said Kramer. “I would be in the kitchen until they found someone permanent.”

But as Interim’s manager Lisa Franklin said, “It didn’t take long to realize that Jackson wasn’t going to be ‘interim’ at all.”

“It’s a great restaurant,” Kramer said. “We can always improve things, and I have some ideas that I don’t want to talk about now because there are owners and partners” – Kramer was given a partnership in the restaurant in August or September 2007 – “and we have to discuss these things. But it will be fun.”

PROPERTY SALES 97 418 8,253
MORTGAGES 112 508 9,293
BUILDING PERMITS 194 1,059 18,126
BANKRUPTCIES 46 208 5,367