Home Cooking 

Chef Jimmy Phillips offers diners a tremendous evening out without having to go anywhere

Chef Jimmy Phillips offers diners a tremendous evening out without having to go anywhere

When Dr. Phil Kregor invites friends or colleagues out for dinner, he doesn't call a restaurant for a reservation. Instead, with one call to Jimmy Phillips, he gets his own chef, a personal sommelier and a waiter, all completely dedicated to serving the every need of Kregor and his companions, who just happen to be seated at a table for eight in his own dining room.

"I work long hours and travel frequently," says the director of the Division of Orthopedic Trauma at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. "I really like my house and I don't get to spend much time there. When I am not at the hospital or out of town, I prefer to eat at home."

Particularly when the food is of the caliber prepared by Phillips, whose résumé includes some pretty top-notch kitchens and demanding bosses: he apprenticed in several acclaimed Chicago restaurants before coming back home to Nashville, landing first at The Wild Boar under Bob Wagoner and Guillaume Burlion, then at Loews Vanderbilt Plaza under Josh Weekly, and finally at Sunset Grill under Brian Uhl. In July 2002, Sunset owner Randy Rayburn sent Phillips over to Midtown Café—the 15-year-old restaurant Rayburn had purchased a few years before—with a clearly defined assignment: broaden the scope of the menu, but don't scare off any of the longtime customers.

Phillips accomplished that by perking up some of Midtown's life preservers—lemon-artichoke soup, the crab cakes, the garlicky Caesar salad, the veal Oscar, the linguine with shellfish—then setting sail for uncharted waters, reeling in more adventurous diners with imaginatively conceived seasonal dishes. Just six months after he took over the kitchen, Midtown's business was up 40 percent, a marker of success that allowed Phillips to stretch even further, instituting a multicourse daily chef's menu that whetted the appetites of the most discerning diners.

Alas, Midtown's tiny kitchen proved a little too confining for Phillips, and in August 2003 he left the restaurant, intending to take a breather. For 20 years, he says, "I had been cooking nearly every day of my life for someone else, and at that point, I felt like the next restaurant I worked in would be my own."

He and his girlfriend, Seema Prasad, who sold wines to independent restaurants for Best Brands, took a vacation to Seattle. "Two days after I left Midtown, [contemporary Christian music bigwig and renowned epicure/oenophile] Billy Ray Hearn called me on my cell phone. He asked where I was, and I said I was in the Seattle fish market. He said that explained why I wasn't at Midtown that day and asked me if I would bring back some ahi tuna and come over to teach him to make the tuna app from the menu."

Aside from Billy Ray's tuna tutorial, Phillips mostly avoided cooking once he got back to Nashville, painting houses instead and getting his real estate license while Prasad also got hers and continued working for Best Brands. A call from chef Paul Ent, whom he knew from their simultaneous stints at Sunset, got him back into a kitchen again—actually, a series of kitchens.

"Paul had been doing some personal cheffing in Nashville, but had taken a job at Pearl's in Monteagle. He had a pretty big job [back in Nashville] for a client's father's 80th birthday dinner and asked me to help. That's how I met Dr. Kregor."

Phillips made an impressive debut, and with Ent's departure for the mountains, Kregor asked Phillips to take over his in-home cooking, which might mean dinner for friends before a night on the town, professional dinners for colleagues and potential new hires at VUMC, or family celebrations.

As Phillips' own personal chef business grew, Prasad left Best Brands to work with him and study for her Masters of Wine; she provides the wine expertise required of such high-caliber dining. Though their working nights vary from week to week, Phillips guesses they average about two dinners a week, for anywhere from two to 20.

The menus are as collaborative as a client wishes. Most have some dietary specifics—no nursery rhymes (duck, lamb or cow), no bread, all-organic—or a special request to re-create a memorable dish enjoyed on past travels. But other than some general guidelines, many are happy to let Phillips take the lead. "He is very innovative, yet sensitive to the fact that some tastes might lean conservative. I trust him completely," Kregor says.

Architect Manuel Zeitlin received a gift certificate for a Chef Phillips dinner from his employees for Hanukkah last year, and Phillips has been back to Manuel and Janice Zeitlin's state-of-the-art Belmont-neighborhood kitchen several times since. Recently, he created a one-night-only menu for a group of 10 friends in the Zeitlin home. Thankfully, in this highly charged presidential campaign season, all diners were of the same persuasion, making for some spirited though hardly contentious discussion. But not even heated political discord could have diminished the pleasure of this divine meal.

The repast began with hors d'oeuvres passed by Larry Ferry, who did a superb job all night. Three temptations were artfully arranged on a large white platter: cucumber cups filled with salmon mousse, gingered carrot ribbons wrapped around an avocado puree, and deviled quail eggs topped with caviar, so teeny you could pop one in your mouth without a pause in conversation.

Because both table and chef were reserved for our exclusive use, we had no need to rush through the evening. We enjoyed every last bubble of the exquisite champagne—Prasad chose Gruet Brut from New Mexico—for some time after the last quail egg had disappeared. But the lively talk eventually worked up an appetite, and at Janice Zeitlin's gentle prodding, we segued to an elegantly set and warmly candlelit table.

Phillips had snatched up the last of the fresh yellow and red heirloom tomatoes at the Produce Place that morning, slicing them with fresh mozzarella, a subtle balsamic glace and a variety of basils—a wistful goodbye to summer's most blessed fruit. Then fall made a grand entrance via the creamy pumpkin soup, enlivened by a dollop of sage-hazelnut pesto, with a handful of curried pumpkin seeds for crunch. Ferry continued to pour a mellow 2002 Shafer Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay from Napa Valley.

The main course was without doubt the star of the night, momentarily silencing our exuberant chatter as we all allowed the lush flavors of seafood flown in the day before from Hawaii to linger on our tongues: seared diver scallops, large prawns and a thick slice of hamachi (the foie gras of tuna, seared just long enough to crisp the edges), all mounted atop a base of fingerling potatoes on a sinfully rich Marsala demi-glace.

A banana and dark chocolate tart with a ball of coconut hit the sweet spot, but the intense dark-chocolate-cardamom truffles, especially made for the Zeitlins and distributed like party favors, were the grand finale, particularly paired with 2001 Shafer Relentless, a Napa Valley Syrah.

A five-course meal runs $75 per person (not including wines). Regular clientele receive special surprises when Phillips sources something unique: live uni, hamachi from Japan, the highest-grade Hawaiian tuna, Tennessee-raised squab and free-range chicken, home-cured foie gras and, of course, those delectable dark-chocolate-cardamom truffles.

"If money were no object..." is one of my favorite expressions—amusing because it's so unlikely for me. After being treated to a meal by Jimmy Phillips, I can complete that sentence by saying: ...Chef Phillips would be as at home in my kitchen as he is in Phillip Kregor's and Janice and Manuel Zeitlin's. Of course, if money is no object for you, then by all means contact Chef Jimmy Phillips and allow him to show you that one path to heaven runs from his hands to your table.

For information or to contact Phillips, visit www.ChefPhillips.com.

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