Playing With Their Food: Local Chefs Gain Fame For Southern-Meets-Italian Cuisine
Chefs Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman are getting plenty of national attention lately for the Southern-meets-Italian cuisine they serve at their two East Memphis restaurants.
Last week, Food & Wine magazine named the pair among the 10 Best New Chefs in America for the cuisine at Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, their nearly 5-year-old restaurant at 712 W. Brookhaven Circle; and in March, GQ listed their year-old Hog & Hominy restaurant at 707 W. Brookhaven Circle as one of the 12 most outstanding restaurants of 2013, describing the food as an “unceasingly fascinating style of cooking that seems not to have existed until Hog & Hominy came along.”
That’s high praise for the buddies since grade school. They say awards are flattering and bring attention to the Memphis culinary scene, but they just want to have fun with food.
Ticer and Hudman really get to play with their food on the last Monday of every month. That’s when they host “No Menu Monday” at Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen. It’s an opportunity for them to test new flavors and new combinations that might make it on the menu in the future. Only they know what will be served. Diners, who pay $45 for four courses and an amuse-bouche, come prepared to be surprised.
"You come into the restaurant and you have no idea of what you’re eating,” said Hudman during the No Menu Monday in March. “It’s let us come in and feed you. Don’t worry about anything. You don’t have to make any choices, just tell us if you have any allergies. Then at the end of the meal, we always give you a handwritten menu, so you can kind of see what you’re having. It’s been a really cool, very fun environment.”
On that Monday night, March 25, the kitchen at Andrew Michael was humming before 5 p.m. The pasta machine screeched as it flattened dough. Scallops were trimmed and pounded flat.
Hudman, 32, ran the kitchen. He organized the staff, tested dishes, and checked what went out. If you’re used to watching a belligerent Gordon Ramsay berate chefs in the Fox series Hell’s Kitchen, you might expect this process to be particularly loud and drama-filled, but Hudman did it all without raising his voice and his staff at the front and back of the house went about their business quietly.
Patrons began to come in and by 6:45 p.m., the dining room was full of people who had no idea what they were about to eat.
“It’s sort of like live theater in a way, what these guys do the last Monday of every month,” said Zachary Whitten, a web designer at ALSAC/St. Jude. He said he’d missed only one No Menu Monday in almost two years, “The food they put out and the surprises and the playfulness of it, it sort of recharges at least my batteries.”
Laurel Amatangelo, Whitten’s wife and an art director at archer>malmo, added, “We spend, I think half of the meal discussing the ins and outs of, ‘Is that hazelnut? Do I get tastes of leek?’ And it’s fun on our date night to really be able to expand our palatal horizons and try new things.”
Hudman and Ticer are constantly trying new things, but they point to the past as a major inspiration.
“It all started with our grandmothers and our families,” said Ticer, 34. “Cooking with our folks on Sunday afternoons for lunch and dinner really got us into cooking.”
Both chefs come from big Italian families in Memphis, went to cooking school at Johnson & Wales University in Charleston, S.C., moved back to Memphis to intern at Chez Philippe under chef Jose Gutierrez, and then traveled to Italy to study the cooking and cuisine of that country.
Despite their shared history, the two have different personalities. “Andy’s very calming,” Hudman said. “He keeps me calm, and then I keep him wound up pretty tight. And, I don’t know, it seems to work out all right.”
But they have the same philosophy when it comes to food. While they were in Italy, they adopted the concept of cooking with regional ingredients. The chefs make their own pasta, they grow vegetables in plots behind the restaurant, and deliveries from local farmers dictate their menus.
“We try to stay in the season,” Hudman said. “The farmers put in so much work to make their ingredients sing, and our job is to really not screw ’em up.”
Kate Krader is the restaurant editor at Food & Wine, which just handed Ticer and Hudman one of its most-coveted awards. She said the duo stands out because of the way they work their Memphis roots into their food, “They take Southern ingredients, but then they execute this fantastic Italian food.”
Memphis chef Kelly English was a Food & Wine Best New Chef in 2009. He owns Restaurant Iris in Midtown and said “you can taste the passion” in Hudman and Ticer’s food.
“We opened our restaurants right around each other, I think six months apart,” English said. “It’s been a lot of fun to kind of grow up together as restaurateurs and chefs and to see each other’s menus evolve and see each other’s philosophies on food really come out.”
At the No Menu Monday in March, Hudman and Ticer tested spring flavors. Patrons got handwritten menus with their bills and learned the night’s fare: asparagus with egg yolks, horseradish and trout roe; scallops with Campari, watercress, puffed rice and citrus; cappelletti stuffed with beets and topped in tarragon butter sauce; Newman Farms Lamb tartare with lemon ash oil, sun-dried tomatoes and pea tendrils; and a brownie with bananas and peanut cream.
If you’d like to cook like the chefs, you’re in luck. Ticer and Hudman are coming out with their first cookbook Collards & Carbonara: Southern Cooking, Italian Roots in September. Said Ticer, “It’s just kind of an explanation of what we do at Hog & Hominy and Andrew Michael, of combining our Southern regional ingredients with our Italian background and influences from our families.”