Fork in the Road

Is This Chattanooga’s Best Breakfast?

One of a new generation of breakfast spots, Kenny’s gives the first meal of the day the respect it deserves

Photo: Kathryn McCrary

Biscuits smothered in sausage gravy.

The duck confit biscuit is an expression of country-boy cooking. The duck confit biscuit is an expression of gentrified city cooking. Both of these statements are true. But after eating two great breakfasts in two months at Kenny’s Southside Sandwiches in downtown Chattanooga, I now believe that the former is more true than the latter.

Glossed with homemade jam, that duck leg biscuit tastes like something a hunter cooks for his buddies, wraps in tinfoil, and passes out by the sack to eat in the blind as the sun rises in the sky and waterfowl arc across a soggy rice field. That duck also tastes of southwestern France, where cooks have long cured and preserved duck legs in vats of duck fat and a confit dish often comes with a vinegary salad, a hill of beans, and a baguette.

Chef and co-owner Kenny Burnap, who opened this breakfast-and-lunch café last summer, knows both worlds. For more than a decade he worked prep and cured meats for St. John’s, a reigning fine-dining restaurant in Chattanooga. That’s where he learned to confit duck legs. Talk to Burnap about what he cooks and why he cooks it, though, and he speaks of his grandparents who raised him in nearby Ringgold, Georgia.

Photo: Kathryn mccrary

Chef Kenny Burnap.

That’s where he learned to make biscuits from his grandmother Betty Lunsford. I asked what the late Hezekiah Lunsford, her husband, whose relatives cured tobacco and hams at their farm near Sweetwater, Tennessee, would have thought about duck confit. “My grandpa would have flipped out,” Burnap told me. Not because the dish would seem foreign or froufrou. “Because he would have loved the tenderness, the richness.”

I’m with Hezekiah. I admire the richness and the tenderness of Kenny Burnap’s duck confit. I also admire the elegant simplicity of the breakfast menu he developed in partnership with Josh Carter, the proprietor of St. John’s. Kenny’s is at the forefront of a new wave of spots that showcase what a great breakfast can be. Here, excellence takes a bow each morning, six days a week, when Burnap and his crew open the storefront café with its cast-iron facade and oversize picture windows, just down the street from the Chattanooga Choo Choo. (Yes, Kenny’s also serves excellent lunchtime sandwiches, including a veggie patty melt made with chickpeas and quinoa on toasted sourdough, but I’m especially keen on its breakfasts.)

An order counter and a dogleg bar anchor the front. Dark gray wainscoting lines the walls. Painted yolk-bright yellow, the ceiling pops against white-and-black-striped wallpaper. Daily specials, scrawled on sheets of butcher paper, unfurl from a roll mounted by the register. If the Reuben bowl is on the specials list, get it. Made with pastrami shaved into thin ribbons, crisped on the griddle to order and served on a bed of sweet-potato home fries, it tastes of coriander and mustard seeds and smells like Saturday morning at Katz’s Deli on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Photo: Kathryn mccrary

The duck confit biscuit topped with jam.

To make his food better than that of the average diner, Burnap does a dozen small things that add up to one big thing. That effort starts with sourcing. Cruze Farm butter- milk, from Knoxville, gives his biscuits lift and tang. For his pimento cheese, Burnap mixes rounds of Cumberland from the nearby Sequatchie Cove Creamery, one of the best cheese makers in the nation, with grocery-store cheddar for a combination that tastes sharp and grassy, especially when smeared on a house-baked English muffin and then topped with an over-easy egg.

Sausage gravy here isn’t a special. But it is special. My Georgia people slathered biscuits in cane syrup or lacquered them with sharp cheddar. Since I moved to Mississippi more than twenty years ago, I have come to appreciate biscuits drenched in gravy. I now think of gravy as a gilding flourish that makes any dish better—especially breakfast, which is too darn often served without filigree or gusto.

I’m a fan of tomato gravy, spooned on stone-ground grits at Big Bad Breakfast in my adopted hometown of Oxford and other cities across the South. Owing to my travels, I dote on the redeye-gravy-inspired mayo, made with instant coffee crystals and served with country-ham tasting platters, at Momofuku in New York City and beyond. And I’m flat-out bonkers for the sausage gravy that Kenny Burnap pours over buttermilk biscuits, split, buttered, and toasted until the crowns shade from gold toward brown and the stark white insides plump like puffballs.

To make that gravy, Burnap steeps ham hocks from the  Tennessee cure master Allan Benton in cream sweetened with sliced onions and spiked with red pepper flakes. For the crumbled sausage, he starts with a purposefully fatty grind of pork, mixing in fresh ginger and sage along with cider vinegar and maple syrup. In a day when too many sausage gravies taste like they were made from 2 percent milk and a knockoff Manwich mix, Kenny’s Southside Sandwiches treats this workaday food with respect, serving a sausage gravy that tastes both frugal and luxe.

Southerners have reinvented breakfast before. During the first wave in the 1920s and ’30s, courthouse-square cafés opened, where farmers and lawyers elbowed into tight booths for grits and eggs. During the second wave of the 1970s and ’80s, Har­dee’s drive-throughs replaced those cafés, and Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores replaced true country stores. Kenny’s leads a third wave, along with such spots as the Yolk in Charlotte, Home Grown in Atlanta, Sunrise in Memphis, and Big Bad Breakfast. Here and there, where honest ingredients and techniques combine, we eaters now have the chance to indulge in breakfasts born of tradition and mo­dernity, breakfasts that taste of country and city.