A! Magazine for the Arts

Jason Vanover

Jason Vanover

J Frank's chef grew up in restaurants

July 27, 2021

Jason Vanover of J. Frank Restaurant, Bristol, Tennessee, grew up in restaurants. His mother ran the Old West Dinner Theater and when he got out of school he went there. Eventually they put him to work, and his love of the culinary world began.

When he was 19, he applied for a job at The Troutdale. He didn’t initially get the job. By the time they called him two weeks later, he had another job.

For a time, he worked outside the culinary world. He went to college and started a transport service that contracted with the Federal Reserve. While he was doing that, his aunt talked him into doing a catering job for her.

“That turned into two the next week and three the week after that and the week after that. It just kept going. So, I was running two businesses and drinking coffee to avoid driving off the road,” he says.

When he decided that he didn’t want to keep up that pace, he chose restaurants over transport. Throughout his career, he’s cooked in France, South Carolina and Florida. He describes his food as Southern with French influence.

“I feel like the core of most cuisines is French influenced. Presentation is a big deal. Obviously, you eat with your eyes first. But it’s really more making sure all flavors marry together. I tend to lean a little bit too much toward seafood, so I have to make sure I’ve included other options on the menu,” he says.

More than two decades after he applied for a job at the Troutdale, he bought the building and opened J. Frank, which is named after his grandfather.

The restaurant is located in a restored 1850s Victorian House on Sixth Street, Bristol, Tennessee. It features several dining rooms and a comfortable bar.

“I wanted it to be a welcoming place where everyone could come and have a good meal. I didn’t want a place that was so expensive, you only came on special occasions or a place where you felt like you had to whisper,” he says.

He kept that philosophy in mind when he chose his wine list as well. “There are several expensive bottles of wine, but there’s a ton of great wines between $14 and $30. I wanted the wine list to be accessible so people wouldn’t worry about trying to order something. You can order a glass and try it. We’ll make suggestions if people ask, but I don’t pair wine and food on the menu. There’s nothing wrong with having a light Syrah with a heavy fish or sauvignon blanc with a filet and lobster tail,” Vanover says.

When he designed the menu, he added small plates which are larger than an appetizer and perfect for a cocktail party. They include a charcuterie board, sliders, mussels, oysters, lamb and other delicious options. Main courses include crab cakes, grouper, chicken cordon bleu, pastas, sea bass, osso buco and other steak and seafood options.

Since he opened J. Frank, he has created an outdoor oasis for his diners. In addition to the welcoming front porch, there is a terrace in front of a stage for bands that play on the weekends and an expanded balcony at the rear of the building.

While he’s been successful with his restaurant, he acknowledges that opening a restaurant is a risky business. There are backbreaking long hours, mind-numbing repetitive tasks, overwhelming heat in the kitchen and risk of injury. He has burn scars on his arm from molten sugar and knife scars. But the biggest risk is that 80 percent of new restaurants fail in the first year, and there’s an 80 percent failure rate the second year.

“You have to be a little bit crazy to do this, but it gets in your blood, and it’s what I want to do,” he says.

J. Frank is open Wednesday and Thursday from 5-10 p.m. and on Friday and Saturday from 5-11 p.m. Sunday brunch is served from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Reservations, which are not required, can be made by calling 423-764-3663.

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