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Canyon Grill Chef Learns from School of Hard Knocks

Canyon Grill | January 1, 2006

Johnny Holland climbed the ladder from a high school kitchen worker to executive chef of the popular Canyon Grill through practical, hands-on experience, and guidance from restaurateur Lawton Haygood.

Rising Fawn, Ga. – Johnny Holland does not have a certificate from an esteemed culinary school showcased in a fancy frame. The executive chef of Canyon Grill possesses something he deems more valuable than any classroom education could have provided – practical experience cultivated from climbing the ladder in the kitchen of this renowned restaurant on Lookout Mountain.

To Holland, Canyon Grill is home. Raised on nearby Brookdale Mountain in Bledsoe County, the chef lives on Lookout Mountain and has worked at Canyon Grill since he was in high school, starting in the kitchen tackling any task that was asked of him.

“The only way to learn is through hands-on experience,” he said. “I developed a passion for life in the kitchen. It’s exciting, and there is something different every day.”

“I tell people I graduated from the Chuck Haygood School of Hard Knocks,” Holland said with a laugh. (“Chuck” is Canyon Grill owner Lawton Haygood’s nickname.) “He would taste my food, throw it away and make me prepare it again over and over until it was just right. Trust me, you learn quickly with Chuck.”

Haygood credits Holland with keeping the dishes consistent, and longtime guests returning to Lookout Mountain time and time again.

“Johnny has a great attention to detail, and he is committed to maintaining consistency in each dish that he prepares,” Haygood said. “This results in a memorable dining experience for each guest, which turns first-time customers into return customers.”

Slash ‘n Burn Catfish is Canyon Grill’s signature item. The whole bone-in catfish is stuffed with ginger, garlic and jalapenos into thin slashes, cut into thin slashes, dredged in flour, deep fried and then topped with black bean soup.

“It’s a dish you can’t find anywhere else,” Holland said. “I think that is why it is so popular.”

Other intriguing items are the grilled cabbage and the crispy squash. The half-head of red cabbage is steamed until softened and then cooked on the wood-burning grill that Haygood invented. It is finished with a touch of garlic and anchovy sauce, and a bit of cream. The crispy squash is lightly salted and sprinkled with corn meal mix and dropped into peanut oil, yet it has just a hint of deep-fried taste.

“Our menu is definitely innovative,” Holland said. “That is what makes it so exciting to work in an environment like this.”

Not far from Cloudland Canyon State Park, Canyon Grill’s location is remote – so remote that most guests drive at least a half-hour along a scenic road on the back side of Lookout Mountain before reaching the restaurant. First-timers are told to recognize the building from the cars in the gravel parking lot and its proximity to the adjacent New Salem Mountain Market, an old-time corner grocer.

Still, Canyon Grill is packed, mostly with out-of-towners, on a nightly basis with guests savoring choices like Slash n’ Burn Catfish, Ground Mignon, Whole Rainbow Trout, Alaskan Red King Salmon and Rack of Lamb.

Owned and operated by the husband-and-wife team of Lawton and Karen Haygood, Canyon Grill was a 40-seat restaurant when it opened in 1996. Today, it has expanded to 142 seats. Named after Cloudland Canyon State Park, and Haygood’s cooking technique, Canyon Grill features fresh seafood flown in from a purveyor in Boston.

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