Today, The Wise Guise had a chance to chat with award-winning chef and restaurateur Kelly English. If you aren’t familiar, he owns and operates one of Memphis’ favorite and most delicious restaurants, Restaurant Iris, and has recently opened a more casual yet still just as delicious spot next door to Iris called The Second Line. In addition to these two ventures, he also has a Second Line concessions booth in FedExForum and runs the menu for the in-house restaurant there, The Lexus Lounge.
This week, English’s and my hometown Memphis Grizzlies are in the midst of an intense playoff series with rivals, the Oklahoma City Thunder. For the team-sponsored watch party Monday night, at English’s Second Line, a new dish was introduced, “I’ll Beat Yo Ass Shrimp,” in honor of some gritty words Grizz favorite Zach Randolph shared with the Thunder’s Kendrick Perkins last season.
As the series has shifted from OKC back to Memphis, English is excited to debut some new menu items centered around the Grizz as well as enjoy what has proven to be one of the most fun times of the year to be a Memphian, the NBA Playoffs.
When I caught up with Kelly, he was fired up about the prospect of the Grizzlies taking a 2-1 series lead in front of a home crowd tonight and eager to talk about his love for all things Grizz.
Wise Guise: Kelly, I appreciate you taking the time to share some thoughts about the Playoffs and the Grizzlies. First off, you’re not a native Memphian. When did you start falling in love with the Grizzlies? Was there a specific instance when you officially became a fan?
Kelly English: I’m really glad the Hornets weren’t in New Orleans for very long while I was there because I can’t imagine life without being a Grizz fan. I love the way they (the Grizzlies) play. I love the way their play embodies the city they call home. You just don’t see that often. I can’t point to a specific instance when I became a fan; it just kind of happened organically. The Grizzlies are so much a part of Memphis and I love being a part of Memphis with them.
WG: It’s well documented that you love the Grizz and all they bring to your hometown, so what would you say is your favorite moment of fandom since you started following them?
KE: The whole playoff run last year was absolutely magical. It turned this city into a town that was completely in love with a team all day, everyday, and that was a lot of fun to watch and take part in. But the number one favorite moment was in the regular season last year when (Mike) Conley hit a buzzer beater to beat the Spurs. I was sitting right under the goal. It was a huge moment in the season and one I’ll always remember. The ZBO choke slam on Blake Griffin would have to come in at a close second. I can’t stand Blake Griffin.
WG: I remember both of those very well. So much fun in two completely different ways. And last year’s playoff run was indeed incredible.
The Grizzlies’ series with the Thunder this year is the third in four years. Do you feel the Grizz/Thunder rivalry has as much bad blood as the Grizz/Clippers rivalry? It sure seems like Tony Allen and Co. have done a good job getting under MVP candidate Kevin Durant’s skin, which is pretty hard to do.
KE: A lot of these new rivalries in the NBA have happened so organically. Young franchises like the Thunder and the Grizzlies aren’t capable of having a Lakers/Celtics or even Knicks/Heat type rivalry. So it’s really been fun to watch teams like the Clippers and Thunder and Grizzlies grow and mature together, and then form rivalries of their own.
OKC is interesting because Memphis as a city couldn’t be more opposite in culture than OKC. They don’t have a bad culture; it’s just different. And their style of basketball is one that’s very clean cut and flashy. That’s just not how the Grizz play. Our styles are just so different that it’s fun to watch us try to stop them from playing their game. It’s hard to dislike KD (Kevin Durant) as a person. He just seems like a great guy. Someone you really want as the face of your franchise.
On the other hand, I think our players and fans genuinely dislike the Clippers, their players and staff and attitudes. They are so whiny. It’s extremely frustrating. And former Clipper Caron Butler plays for the Thunder now so I have to see his dumb smile in an OKC jersey. I just really dislike the whole Clippers’ organization. I’m confident the rest of the Memphis fan base feels the same.
WG: What’s your prediction for the series? Right now, the Grizz control their destiny by owning the home-court advantage after stealing a game in OKC.
KE: I like us in six games. Get a series win on the home court. It would be so great for the city and our momentum going forward. I do think we have to win in six though because it’s going to be really hard to win the series on their home court.
WG: Do you find it tough working in the restaurant industry to keep up with the team and their games, given you work a lot of nights?
KE: Well that’s part of the reason we opened Second Line. I love to walk over from Iris to catch Saints or Grizz or Ole Miss games. The restaurant itself isn’t a sports bar. Being from NOLA, every place you go to drink is a bar. And Second Line is a bar with really good food. But being able to have a place like Second Line where you can put the Grizz game on and have it packed out with fans screaming and cheering and high fiving and hugging strangers makes it really fun. So much damn fun. It’s like a mini FedExForum. So yeah, when I want to sneak a quarter of a Grizz game in while I’m working, I’m usually at Second Line.
WG: As a fan, I am crazy superstitious. Do you have anything you have to do or drink or wear during a game to ensure a Grizz victory?
KE: I am really superstitious too. Growing up in New Orleans, I was really superstitious about the Saints. I have an undershirt I wear for every playoff game. Don’t worry. I wash it between wears. I just have a tendency to get emotionally intoxicated by sporting events I have an interest in and superstition plays a big role in that.
WG: What about your wife and family? How do they feel about the Grizz and your fandom? My wife, an OKC native and die-hard Thunder fan no less, thinks I am absolutely nuts in the way I approach my love for the Grizz.
KE: My wife gets really frustrated by the emotional intoxication I was talking about. She thinks it’s crazy that my love for a team or a sport can 100% affect my mood for the rest of the day, or in some cases multiple days. She just doesn’t get it. I can’t imagine what it’s like living with a wife that thinks you’re crazy and on top of that cheers for the team the Grizzlies are playing right now.
My wife also thinks that it’s bizarre that I want to sit down and watch a game between two teams I have personal connection to. When the Steelers play the Jets, I want to watch it because it’s football and it’s fun. She doesn’t get that part of my sports’ fandom either.
WG: It’s pretty obvious how much you love the team. What inspired you to mix business with pleasure and put out Grizz inspired dishes? Will these new items at the Second Line be permanent fixtures or just temporary during the playoff run?
KE: “I’ll Beat Yo Ass Shrimp” just kind of happened organically. We just were talking about the upcoming watch party at Second Line and “BOOM,” decided to make them. They went over so well that I think we’re going to have to keep them long term. We’re trying to figure out a way to put them on the menu that won’t contain such gritty language. I think you’ll probably see “IBYA Shrimp” when the Playoff run comes to an end.
It’s been great to root for a team that is so quotable and that constantly is spitting out sound byte worthy phrases. I mean if you were watching that game, you could hear Zach Randolph literally tell Kendrick Perkins, “I’ll beat your ass.” How awesome is that?
But Second Line itself has really been all about mixing business with pleasure. It’s irreverent. People go there to let loose and hang out. It has a very NOLA driven spirit, but it belongs right in the heart of Memphis. I love how well Memphians have reacted to it and made it their own.
WG: Can you tell me more about the “Milk a Horse” cocktail you plan on serving? It sounds pretty interesting. Are there any other Grizz fares that will be debuted as the Playoffs progress that you can tell me about?
KE: The “Milk a Horse” cocktail, inspired by Tony Allen’s quote regarding Kevin Durant, will be available Saturday night for game 4. It’s a take on a bourbon-milk punch that we’re really excited about. As far as other new items go, we really just want to see where the Playoffs take us and what other crazy things our players say. We have confidence that other menu items will come about just as organically as “I’ll Beat Yo Ass Shrimp” did.
WG: You have a sandwich at Second Line named after local radio personality Chris Vernon. Republic Coffee has a sandwich named after radio host and Commercial Appeal columnist Geoff Calkins. Bluefin has a sushi roll named after CBS national columnist and radio host Gary Parrish. Arguably the most exciting radio announcer in the NBA, Eric Hasseltine, is the only radio host on 92.9 WMFS that doesn’t have something at a local restaurant named after him. Could you make a few calls to get some “Ring it Up and Put Three on the Board” donuts at Gibson’s or something?
KE: Maybe Second Line could work up a “Hasseltine” cocktail or something for Eric. I actually end up listening to radio broadcasts more than watching TV ones, so it’s fun to listen to Eric. He loves the team and his job and his excitement is absolutely contagious.
WG: Maybe a “Hasseltini” or something?
KE: Maybe something a little cooler than that.
WG: Ok, as we wrap up, I want to just throw out some rapid-fire statements about the Grizz and Memphis and you just give me the first thing that comes to mind.
KE: Tony Allen.
WG: Define grit ‘n’ grind.
KE: It’s a complete blue collar, work for it, earn it attitude. And that’s what the Grizzlies do. Nothing has been given to them and that’s how they want it. They want to earn it. All heart, grit, grind.
WG: Who gets the last shot in a close game?
KE: Mike Conley isolation for the win. He’s so smooth and confident. I trust him 100%.
WG: Who wins the title this year?
KE: We’ll have to see who earns it. I’m not going to count out the Grizz. We are the scariest 7 seed in NBA payoff history.
WG: Saints, Rebels, or Grizzlies?
KE: Oh man. Why do you have to do that to me? I probably would just cry myself to sleep if I had to answer that question.
WG: Favorite spot to eat in Memphis, outside of Iris and Second Line of course?
KE: Las Tortugas, Gus’ Fried Chicken, or Hog and Hominy.
WG: Last one. First thing that pops in your head. Tony Parker.
KE: [Laughs] I thought we’d made it through the whole thing without mentioning that whole incident. It was all overblown.
WG: Thanks for your time Kelly. It was a pleasure talking to you. Go Grizz!
KE: Go Grizz!
For more information about Kelly’s restaurants or to make reservations, visit their websites.