Echo – Seth & Lisa, this inscription pops up in my email every so often, bearing the promise of some new and fabulous dinner special at Echo Bistro. Echo is located in a small, sleek, tan building with a black and tan awning in the Bearden neighborhood. A “little neighborhood joint” Seth Simmerman would say, a bit of the New York dialect of his youth coming out. But a swankier “neighborhood joint” with a bigger heart, you will not find. ￼
“Have you been to Seth’s?” “Do you know Seth?” “The way Seth does it…” “A reputation like Seth’s…” After the third chef I worked with on my food tours brought up his name completely out of the blue, I decided to find out for myself about Chef Seth Simmerman. And this is the most important thing I will ever tell you concerning dining out – eat where the chefs tell you to eat.
The first time I visited Echo was during Knoxville’s Restaurant Week, so expecting a crowd, I made a reservation, which I rarely ever do. I always prefer to experience restaurants incognito before anyone finds out who I am or what I do. “Paula’s here!” a gentleman at the door called out after finding out about my reservation. Oh dear, I thought, so much for staying under the radar. But as surprising as the exclamation was, it was kind of nice too. It was a bit like one of your relatives announcing you just showed up at a family dinner. A sense of – of course Paula is here and everyone is expecting her, and it would be more unusual and perhaps even disappointing if she was not here. But after being seated and beginning the multi-course meal, I knew that I had truly arrived. ￼
Most of what I remember about that night is that they just kept bringing food. Meals at Echo start with homemade bread and pesto and a bowl of pickled veggies. Then there was a soup that warmed me all the way to my bones, and after one bite of the flavor packed entrée, I thought to myself – this guy is serious. You can taste it. He knows people are here to eat, and it is serious business. “It’s just like we did it in the 50’s,” Seth would say. “We don’t do small portions, nothing from a bag, it’s all the old classics, all from scratch.” ￼
When I recently returned to Echo for Oysters 7 Ways, I got a chance to sit down and talk alternately with Seth and his wife of 30 some years, Lisa. Seth and Lisa work together nearly every day at the restaurant. “We opened Echo in July of 2009, but we wish we would have done it sooner,” Lisa tells me. She has a happy and content expression. “Our customers are wonderful.” She goes on to tell me about the Culinary Institute of Hyde Park, where Seth graduated 2nd in his class, his time working as the head cook on a submarine in Vietnam, and 32 years at ClubCorp and Club LeConte. While we are talking, their son pops in for dinner, and although Lisa tells me both their children know how to do everything in the restaurant, they both have other careers, which is fine with her, because the restaurant business is hard and time consuming. Knowing that this is a demanding lifestyle, I ask her if she ever had any hesitations about marrying a chef. “I was just so head over heels in love,” Lisa wistfully responds, as if it could never have been any other way, and there was no other explanation.
“Who was it??” Seth asks with a smile in his eyes after hearing my story of the three chefs who ultimately sent me to Echo. “I’ve had a couple hundred employees come through the kitchen here.” He explains how he works with young and aspiring cooks, eager to learn the business, showing them cooking and plating techniques. “You see yourself as a mentor to them,” I say, more as a statement than a question. “Teaching, and being creative, are my two favorite things,” he replies. “I’m always thinking all day long of cooking and twists, how to do something new and different. We have to stay young, fresh, and new.” ￼
“Who taught you how to cook? Your Mom or Dad?” I ask. Seth looks maybe a little surprised that I just asked one of the best chefs in town who taught him how to cook. “My Dad,” he responds. “He had two restaurants, and I started working there when I was 11 years old. He taught me quality, cleanliness, and organization. I never wanted to do anything else. I’ve spent 55 years doing exactly what I wanted.”
Seth continues the conversation with details that help him make his restaurant successful. “I try to visit every table every night,” he says. “You see all those people at the bar? I know every one of them. That table that was just seated…” he goes on to tell me their first and last names, how they are related to each other, what they are there to celebrate, and what they are eating. “We know our customers. We know if they like to drink hot tea with their dinner,” he says with a quick glance down at my cup. “It’s the little things that people remember. I can do special requests and substitutions. Every item here can be made without gluten. I change my menu twice a year according to what’s in season.”
Chef Seth regularly runs seafood specials, like the 7 Way Oyster dinner. He features scallops, crab, salmon, lobster, and even frog legs. Steak, veal, and duck also make appearances on his menu. “Many of our customers travel and eat all over the world. They know good food. We even have dishes with Asian influences.” Using as many local ingredients as possible is also very important. “Grainger County tomatoes…they have to be featured when they are in season. Anybody would be crazy not to.” Broiled lamb t-bones, escargot, or a Tennessee Valley Grass Fed Angus burger – Seth has something for any taste.
The one thing that Seth Simmerman would want people to know about his restaurant? “We care. We love what we do, and we care.” Echo – Seth & Lisa, a love story in a “little neighborhood joint”, with a big old East Tennessee heart. So there you have it. Eat where the chefs tell you to eat, and you can’t go wrong. Echo Bistro is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday at 5803 Kingston Pike.