Drew McDonald likes to take dishes that seem familiar and flip them into something completely new. At the Plaid Apron, the casual café he owns in Knoxville, Tennessee, he builds a club sandwich with chicken thighs and braised greens instead of roasted turkey and lettuce. (The bacon, naturally, comes from Benton’s in nearby Madisonville.) He smokes the apple cider vinegar for his vinaigrette. And he’s a fan of desserts that are both savory and sweet, folding parsnips, for example, into chocolate pudding. For summer, he decided to turn the triumvirate of the Southern garden—corn, peaches, and tomatoes—into an ice cream sundae. His only constant: starting with the finest and freshest. “Honestly,” he says, “the only time I ever really eat corn is after the Fourth of July to early September.”
In Centerville, the small town sixty miles outside of Nashville where McDonald grew up, vegetables were always on the table. His grandparents and a great-aunt and -uncle would put almost everything that came from their gardens into canning jars. By thirteen, his love of cooking was so firmly in place that he asked his mother for an All-Clad-style skillet.
He was going to medical school when he took a hard right turn and decided to make a career of cooking. He took a job in a Nashville kitchen, got a business and food management degree from Lipscomb University and a culinary degree from Sullivan University in Louisville, and then landed back in Tennessee for two years at Blackberry Farm, the luxury resort outside of Knoxville. After returning home from a stint in New Zealand—where he met his wife, Bonni—and kicking around in the kitchen of the Capitol Grille in Nashville’s Hermitage Hotel, he decided to make a go of it in Knoxville. “Nashville was starting to blow up, and I’m a small-town guy,” McDonald says. Five years ago, the couple opened the Plaid Apron in the heart of the old Sequoyah Hills neighborhood.
His creamed corn frozen custard is conjured from the memory of fried creamed corn pudding he had in elementary school. There’s the familiar note—a rich, velvety smooth custard ice cream base. Then come the twists. McDonald complements corn’s natural sweetness with brown sugar for a hint of nutty caramel, then underpins it with a generous amount of salt for savory balance. Sorghum adds a deeper, darker caramel flavor to the topping of peaches and sweet cherry tomatoes, sparked with more salt, a few grinds of black pepper, and fresh basil. It’s surprising and refreshing.
“I’ve had a lot of desserts at the end of the meal that are so sweet they totally erase everything else you were just eating,” he says. “Dessert should not be something that sets you down for the night. I want you to leave thinking about what you just ate as much as I want you to be satisfied.”