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Talking English

On Dining Out for Life, Iris turning 4, and going vegetarian.

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Kelly English is a busy guy. Aside from heading up Restaurant Iris, one of Memphis' most highly regarded restaurants, he opened Kelly English Steakhouse at Harrah's St. Louis last fall and then turned around to compete in and win Memphis' first Cochon 555. Now he's co-chair of this year's Dining Out for Life event, which benefits Friends for Life, a nonprofit dedicated to Mid-Southerners living with HIV/AIDS. We sat down with English to learn about all that and more.

Flyer: How did you decide to get involved with Dining Out for Life?

Kelly English: It's the easiest possible way you could be involved in helping people with their lives. Dining Out for Life says "Hey, will you give us some money if we fill your restaurant?" It's really that easy.

How does one participate in Dining Out for Life?

Go eat! You eat on Thursday, April 26th, at one of the participating restaurants. It's just that simple.

You also recently celebrated an anniversary. Tell us about that.

Restaurant Iris just hit its fourth anniversary. I can't believe it's been four years. Sometimes I feel like it was yesterday we opened, and sometimes I feel like it's been forever. It's amazing what we as a team have been able to accomplish here at Iris over the past four years.

Was the actual date of your anniversary April Fool's Day?

April 2nd. We could have opened on April 1st, but I was so broke and had put in everything that I'd earned and everything that I hadn't earned yet. I couldn't open on April Fool's Day. I just couldn't bring myself to do it.

Speaking of April Fool's Day, you tweeted on April 1st that you were going vegetarian for the month of April.

It's true. I think of the vegetarian lifestyle as a food culture. People go to study in France or Spain. I feel the same way about vegetarianism. It has its own following, and the best way to get in touch with my vegetarian clientele is to immerse myself in it. A lot of people will say that I'm taking the cheap way out, because it's the beginning of spring and it's such an exciting time to eat vegetables. I say that I've chosen very wisely.

Has it been a struggle for a carnivore like you?

The hardest part for me is not the day-to-day stuff. It's during service when I would taste the end of a piece of duck that was trimmed off.

Are you craving meat?

No. And I haven't felt this good in a long time. In December, I spent a good portion of the month in the hospital with diverticulitis. I thought a lot about how to be a healthier person. In restaurant life, you think so much about other people and what you're going to serve someone else, and then when it comes to yourself, you sacrifice. It was just whatever was quickest and easiest.

I'm not trying to make a statement; I've just discovered that I feel great. I doubt seriously that I'll be a lifelong vegetarian, but I'll live a personal lifestyle of not having protein for every meal.

Will this have any bearing on the menu at Restaurant Iris?

We've always been labeled one of the protein-heavy places in town, and that's not going to change at all. But this gives me an opportunity to look at the construction of our plates from a different angle. And it lets me learn more about myself as a person and as a cook.

What have you learned so far?

I've found that the food can be exciting even without protein. It's amazing that I'm saying this, but I got so excited last night when I made myself a hash of local potatoes with Brussels sprouts and capers and some fresh English peas with a fried egg on top. It was awesome. It's been awhile since I sat down and made something for myself. I forgot how fun it is.

Dining Out for Life is Thursday, April 26th. For a complete list of participating restaurants, visit friendsforlifecorp.org.

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