Memphis doesn’t ever let you forget it’s Elvis’ city, especially any time close to Elvis Week, surrounding his death day. But we certainly weren’t there for “The King,” as the 5 hour drive north from NOLA brought us to the cozy home of our good friend’s mama, Karen. Beyond being a successful businesswoman and amazing chef, Karen is, above all else, an amazing spunky and kind human being. Karen has started a handful of restaurants in the Memphis area and a few in New York, and was named one of Memphis’ top most 25 influential people. She had invited us to spend the weekend trying her delicious food at her main hub, The Beauty Shop. The building itself used to be a beauty parlor and the gold ornamentation, bubble glass fixtures, and pastel color pallet really gives the restaurant a 1940’s take on 2014. Barber sinks and hair dryers add to the aesthetics; they are truly feeding their customers the experience, not just the food.
Set with grilled peaches with cashews and blue cheese, glazed mitake mushrooms, watermelon feta salad, monkey bread with dill dip, and fried oysters sitting on Tabasco sauce and powdered sugar, the table was filled with an array of smells and color. We were in foodie heaven. After an extensive wine tasting, we decided on our main dishes: duck with blueberry compote, crusted sea bass with aioli-smothered corn on the cob, and a plump ribeye with blue cheese and potato mash. Every bite was an experience to savor, with layers of flavor dancing together. Upon engorging in this well-loved, wholesome meal we were reminded of how incredible food can be with the right ingredients and preparation.
With tributes to all the farms she buys from at the bottom of the menu, Karen is proud to support local farms throughout Tennessee, Louisiana, and Mississippi. She also knows almost all of the farmers, and had plenty to tell us about the different projects going on within a 2-hour radius from downtown Memphis. There is also a great deal of processing of foods that goes on in her kitchens. From pickling to curing, plenty is done in-house.
In addition to mindfully sourcing her ingredients, Karen has also become a part of Memphis’s own Project Green Fork. Coming from our lovely little progressive bubbles, the aim of this project reminded us of the levels that most cities are at in recycling and composting facilities. Although the city provides recycling for residents, they don’t have the means to truck the mass amounts of (mostly glass) recycling produced by restaurants; they also don’t have the facilities necessary to do anything about compost. Started in 2008, Project Green Fork is the only outlet for restaurant-scale recycling and compost processing in Memphis. It is a very simple idea, the project providing bins for recycling that eventually gets sent to city facilities, as well as collecting green organic matter to donate to community gardens. For $100/year, restaurants get access to these services as well as being advertized by Project Green Fork as a “green” business. Project Green Fork’s logos can be found throughout Memphis in various restaurants windows and on menus.
Growing from 11 to 57 restaurants in their circle over the past 6 years has not been an easy job. But the founder of the company, Margot, really “wants the green movement to come to [her],” so she waits for restaurants who are really interested to approach her as opposed to being a glorified saleswoman. This ensures the businesses’ enthusiasm for the real purpose of the project. Other than her board of directors, Margot is the only employee of the actual Project itself. The establishment of this idea made room for other jobs, however, as Margot has required help with collecting the compost and delivering it to community gardens, and delivering the recycling to her bins. This catalyzed the beginning of a new business called Get Green Recycleworks. Although Margot isn’t interested in franchising her idea, she has put together a business packet for all of those interested in following her model. The guide explains how to start a similar organization for your city, even if it doesn’t have its own recycling facilities. It also explains how to establish a 501(c)(3) or “non-profit”.
So what’s the incentive for the restaurants involved? Other than reduced garbage costs (cardboard in the dumpsters takes up a lot of room!), Karen explains it’s provides an increased sense of responsibility and moral for her employees. It also makes her feel better: “My son [Austin] really made me do it,” Karen laughs. Austin is one of the co-owners of a small meat production farm out in Olympia, WA called Soul Brother’s Farm. “He was doin’ all this awesome ‘green’ stuff; he wouldda killed me if I hadn’t!”
Together, these women are spearheading the movement towards mindfully sourcing food for their community and bringing “green” practices to their city. Slowly but surely, there is a growing interest in conservation; this change is inevitable, and it’s simply a matter of how quickly it will happen. Partnerships like the ones Project Green Fork is focusing on creating are the foundation, and these connections will be what give us the strength to change our idea of convention. With Elvis week coming up, we thought it would be appropriate to quote The King reflecting on his decisions:
“It’s not how much you have that makes people look up to you, it’s who you are.”
– Elvis Aaron Presley