Jeff Lewis can whip up a mean plum coconut curry soup.
But that's when he's at work as a cook at The Beauty Shop Restaurant.
A native Memphian, Lewis, 37, has worked in restaurants from Manhattan to St. Simons, Georgia, where he appeared on The Food Channel and Food Network. But it all began when he got a job at a Jersey Mike's Subs during his junior year at Houston High School.
- Michael Donahue
- Jeff Lewis
"I played lacrosse in high school, and I had broken my wrist. I had a cast on when I applied," he says. "I lied to them and said, 'Oh, I get it off tomorrow.' I had it for three more weeks. They put me in the back working on the flat-top grill, and it was fun."
His goal was to own a Jersey Mike's, but, he says, "I thought the most important thing in the world was to go see Phish concerts. And halfway through my senior year, I missed a certain amount of days and was told not to come back."
He enrolled at Johnson & Wales University in Charleston, South Carolina. "At the time, all you needed was a checkbook and a pulse to get in," Lewis says. "And a GED."
After he graduated, Lewis worked at Interim after telling then-executive chef Jackson Kramer he could bake when he couldn't. "This is when iPhones came out. So I could Google a recipe."
Kramer was a big influence. "Jackson challenged me to learn savory and sweet and seasonal, high-quality ingredients," he says.
Lewis began creating his own pastries. "I remember the first dessert I did on my own there was a coconut panna cotta with shortbreads and a pineapple sorbet," he says.
Through a friend, Lewis got a job in the pastry kitchen at Per Se, a Thomas Keller restaurant in Manhattan. He quit after a month. "I guess I wasn't a risk-taker at the time," he says, but "I learned more in a month there than I learned anywhere else — modern technique, the basics behind being a chocolatier, just bells and whistles."
In 2014, he worked in Nashville at Etch restaurant, owned by chef Deb Paquette. "She would make you cry," he says. "She put me in tears one day. It was over a soup — a butternut squash pear soup that I made too sweet. But that's when I learned how to make a butternut squash pear soup."
Nashville was too expensive, so he moved to St. Simons, where his family resides. He was executive chef at The Georgia Sea Grill. "That's where I was starting to show my creativity," he says, "doing my fish specials because we had the best seafood."
His creations included banana-crusted grouper with Charleston hot pepper cream sauce and banana chips. "I would go to Jacksonville, Florida, and cook food on the news," Lewis says. "And show them how to tell if your seafood is fresh or not, how to cook it properly, the whole nine yards."
That led to appearances on Food Network, The Food Channel, and the Cooking Channel, as well as being in magazine and newspaper articles.
But, he says, "I was miserable. My backyard was black sand. My dogs were miserable."
Lewis loves working at The Beauty Shop. "I've got to do six specials a day," he says. "I make them really good soups. The last one was a coconut plum curry. And I did a sweet potato plantain. Soups you're not going to get anywhere else, I promise you."
Music lovers probably will recognize Lewis, who's played bass in bands, including Early Maxwell, Willie and the Herentons, Hillkrunk, and MLGW.
His ultimate goal is to open a bake shop and make high-end donuts, cupcakes, and desserts, including watermelon lemonade cake.
Lewis has no idea what he'd name his bake shop. "Probably be cliché and name it after the address," he says.
Like Early Maxwell? "Yeah. I'm really bad at naming stuff," Lewis says. "When I was growing up, I had a Pound Puppy, the doll. I named him 'Pound Puppy.' Blanket's name was 'Blanket.'"
The Beauty Shop is at 966 Cooper Street.