Trevor, the executive chef at the RT Lodge in Maryville, Tennessee, had a spell where he thought he might get a degree in business administration, but he rediscovered his passion for food while he was in school.
It probably doesn’t hurt that kitchens have always been familiar to him: his dad was a professional chef in Detroit, and while his dad worked, he helped his mom prepare food at home. “Cooking is all I’ve ever wanted to do,” he says.
Although he grew up in Detroit, his family’s roots are in the Deep South. As a kid, he and his family traveled there every Easter and summer to visit his great-granddaddy’s farm where he learned to hunt and fly fish and got a first look at traditional food preparation. For the past eight years, the region has also been his home and workplace. Since he was 25, he’s been the executive chef at the RT Lodge, a luxury hotel and restaurant hidden away in the woods of Maryville College.
These childhood experiences—and his on-the-job cooking experience—have helped to shape his understanding of food and seasonality.
What’s your culinary philosophy?
It’ll be five years in August since [former executive chef] Rick Mace left RT Lodge, and I feel like my personal philosophy has changed. He worked in mostly French kitchens, which brought a very technique-driven approach. We’re very cognizant of how things are done. We take care of our produce, and we carefully cut our meat to get the most use out of it. The basics that I learned from Rick, the building blocks, provide a foundation that we can change up and do what we want.
Everything is very seasonal. Not in that it’s springtime so we’re going to change the whole menu, but more in that our produce guy brought us green garlic, so we’re using that this week. One or two things change, so individual dishes change instead of going away. We take pride in buying high quality products, and we work hard to honor these products and use all of them.
It’s so important to show reverence to the food we have in the kitchen, to use everything. Going to the farm as a kid, and with my mom and dad having a farm now, brings all of those things together. The sight of food going into the garbage is awful. I’m so inspired by the chefs I’ve worked for and by the history of farmers in my family.
We get pigs from my dad every month or two. We use everything, with 90 percent of the pig being turned into dried meats. It’s hard to walk the line between using everything and the things you know the guest wants. I can’t run pork tenderloin with Berkshire pigs because we can’t slaughter that many pigs off the farm.
Being from Detroit, what brought you to live and work in the South? Why did you fall in love with it?
My dad’s family is from Tennessee. Both of my dad’s parents were born in Gainesboro, a small town about two hours from Knoxville. Every year for Easter and Thanksgiving, we took our breaks from school and went to great-granddaddy’s farm. We came down in summer too. My most distinctive memory is the canning house—it fascinated me because it was different from what we had at home. They had cows, pigs, chickens, vegetables, tobacco. They smoked their own meats and canned everything in the can house that was dug into the side of the hill. It wasn’t until a little later on that I learned to do that, but it’s been in my mind since I was a little kid.
How did you begin hunting and fishing? How has it affected your culinary style?
When I was a kid, I would go hunting with my dad, my uncle, and my cousins. The first deer I took, I think I was 12 or 13 and was using a bow. My godfather cleaned it, and I learned how to do that. There are a lot of hunters who don’t know how to clean what they take—they hunt for trophies and don’t understand the importance of being able to hunt and fish to provide for yourself and for your family. People think it’s a cool or sexy thing for a chef to use fish he or she caught, but it’s real life for a lot of people. Why buy beef if you can get yourself a deer?
How did you come to the RT Lodge?
When I started here eight years ago now, I had never worked in a “real” kitchen. I had worked at a pizza kitchen since I was 14, and I knew that I loved being in any kitchen—loved the hustle and everything going on. I was extremely nervous because I was working for a guy, Rick Mace, who was chef de cuisine at Daniel Boulud Brasserie in Las Vegas when he was 27. There were only four or five people who worked in the kitchen, so I was able to learn a lot very quickly. After a year, the lodge was changing course. All of the sudden, Rick couldn’t give me 40 hours.
We were out at Blackberry Farms, and Rick [pulled some strings] to see if they had any work. I got thrown into a stage and application for eight hours that day. For two years, I worked at Blackberry Farms in the mornings and some evenings, and worked weekends at the lodge. Looking back, it was great because I crammed in a lot of learning and a lot of work at the same time. I was given the opportunity to go full-time at RT Lodge as sous chef. About four months later, Rick let me know he was going to leave and invited me to come with him. A couple of months later, he took me to the walk-in cooler and told me that the owner was going to offer me his job.
What’s your favorite part about working there?
I feel like we’ve created a good culture of people here, not just employees but with our guests, too. When people come here, we want them to feel like they’re home and to welcome them like we’d welcome them into our homes. I love to cook, but there’s more to it. The lodge has changed over my eight years, but no matter how we grow, our hospitality, the way we treat the guests, and our respect for food and service has stayed the same. It may be an understatement, but we’re not saving lives here, we’re just cooking dinner.
My whole life, my goal has been to have my own restaurant. Not because I want to get rich—owning a place won’t make you rich—but I would love to have my own place where I could take everything that I learned. I could say that you’re eating that because it’s the food I love to cook, and that I love to eat. At some point, you want people to enjoy the things you enjoy, to put your own food out there and see if it works.