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Chef Travis Tungseth’s long road to becoming a chef

The Skybox's executive chef's style is a melting pot.



Travis Tungseth sports a "war band" — a thin white tattoo — across his face.

"Every single fight that I've fought in my life I've earned getting this war band," said Tungseth, 31, executive chef at The Skybox Grill & Bar in Collierville. "It's a white line that goes from my ears all the way over the cusp of my nose. Just the whole tattoo itself signifies a war band — that I'm always ready for more. I'm able to grapple any task at hand."

Cooking related? "Always. And life itself. Come on. Life is crazy, man."

Tungseth, born in Puyallup, Washington, wasn't a picky eater as a kid. "When Mom and Dad put food on the table, it was take it or leave it. I definitely took it because there were always repercussions — 'Go straight to your room, and go straight to bed' — if you didn't eat."

But Tungseth was fascinated with food and the kitchen. At six, he made lunch for himself for the first time: a peanut butter sandwich with chocolate chips and marshmallows. "I started breaking the rules. That's not good sustenance for lunch, necessarily. It was that rebel mentality of 'Okay, I finally get to do what I want.'"

Tungseth, who considered himself a rebel in high school ("I was half prep, half skateboarder"), dropped out of school in his senior year. "There was nothing there that just intrigued me to want to move on. I got a job at a bar and grill as a dishwasher."

He loved it. "It was the high voltage, crazy, glamour of that rock star lifestyle. Being back in the dish pit, I got to hear everything that was going on. I got to hear about all the drama. I got to see the cooks, who I admired because they looked bad-ass. They smoked cigarettes. They ran out to their cars and snuck a little marijuana. A little smoke.

"I saw these rebels. I saw chefs getting mad and slinging pans left and right. Granted, the place was just opened. It was in that honeymoon phase, so it was pure chaos. The adrenaline that these guys [had]. They loved it. They got through it, and they laughed about it. It was aggressive. It really intrigued me."

Tungseth, who eventually got his degree from an alternative school, went to work at a "turn-and-burn restaurant. Get them in. Get them out. Send them home with a piece of pie. By the end of my duration at that place, I was running the line by myself."

When he was 18, Tungseth moved to Collierville, where his mother's side of the family lived.

His grandmother told the owner of The Tennessean, a now-defunct restaurant housed in Collierville's vintage train cars, that her grandson needed a job. The owner told Tungseth to talk to David Krog, the restaurant's executive chef.

He called Krog, who said, "I'm at the Pizza Cafe. I'll be here for 15 minutes. If you want an interview, you'd better make it."

"I hopped on my bicycle and pedaled in my pajamas to the Pizza Cafe."

Krog asked him if he had any knife skills. "I was like, 'Well, I can throw a knife from here and stick it into the wall right there. I'm pretty good at that.' Growing up I learned how to throw knives. He was like, 'All right. That will do.'

"David completely nurtured me into being a proper chef. He's absolutely my mentor. I have nothing but love for Dave. I wouldn't be here as the chef I am without that man."

Cooking was the perfect fit. "I became a part of something I could identify with. The type of people that I'm working with. It's so tightly knit because you have to go into battle with these boys. You're in the trenches taking grenades. You build that love and that bond. What makes a strong kitchen is, no matter what happens, you make sure your guys get through. And you do it in a professional manner."

When The Tennessean closed, Tungseth worked at other restaurants, including Fino Villa and Chiwawa.

He also worked for the late Ronnie Grisanti. "Ronnie, to me, is like the godfather of old school cooking. His was just the quintessential rock star chef mentality: 'Whatever I say goes. And I'm going to do what I want.' That rebel. I loved him, man."

Tungseth moved to Skybox three years ago. "It's just that classic American soul food that you want."

He enjoys coming up with new specials and prides himself on his skill at a wide variety of cooking styles. "I can even cook Asian food. My fiance is Asian, and she's taught me to make Pho Thai and cook tofu correctly."

How would Tungseth describe his own style? "I would be the Ellis Island of cooking. I'm a collaboration of this melting pot of America."

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