Kepner Melt by Brian Sherry
In the late 90s, I became a willing and deeply embedded entity in Tomato Head culture. I was as concerned with our expanding baked tofu operation (spurred on by the popularity of the spinach salad and its mushroom sesame dressing pairing) as I was with figuring out my own central identity and its place in the world. I forged an eventual unholy alliance between who the birth papers said I was (Brian Sherry) and who I imagined myself capable of being (Kepner Tregoe).
Now we have a running start on how the sandwich got its name and place in a restaurant that was already holding the line, further taking off and leading the renaissance of Market Square and downtown Knoxville at the turn of the 21st century.
Working in the kitchen meant you got to make your own shift meals, which frequently veered from the traditional menu items (sandwiches, pizzas, or calzones). We had access to the entire prep (read: healthy allowances of tahini, hummus, and pesto). In deciding what I wanted to eat, I generally worked backwards from what my side items were going to be. I wanted to dip regular (potato) chips into the tahini or have blue chips with the hummus, or a mix of both, which on certain days left you to figure out what to do with the pesto if you weren’t having it with warm pita.
It was one of those days a lot during my shift meals. I ended up making this one particular sandwich a few days in a row, which hadn’t happened in a while, so I knew I was on to something, as we weren’t always making our food for taste and enjoyment, mind you. We were working hard, some of us having a lot of fun, but we were also really skilled, and needed the sustenance to maintain.
So there’s a part of this inception tale that must emphasize this point, with food as an allotment we were using to offset the output, and this led to some of the more compelling creations the kitchen workers were coming up with making their own shift meals, which led to ideas you built on from what you saw the others consider for meals themselves.
On the fourth morning of perhaps my new pre-rush routine, Mahasti landed my sandwich out of the oven, looked at it, asked what was on it and if I could make her one. It does now seem ridiculous to think about rattling off these ingredients to her: What was I going to do with the pesto? I generously put it on top of the bread, basing it to catch and hold the pineapple, herbed tomato, roasted onion, and walnuts, tucked and then secured by the monterey jack slice. On the under bun a nice knifing of spicy mustard, leafy spinach greens (I needed this to also be a salad), baked tofu, laid with another slice of jack, and then warmed in the pizza oven.
She said she liked the sandwich (I never saw her eat it, nor have I ever seen her have a Kepner Melt) and asked if we could run it as a special on Monday and we joked that we should name it after my alias. The Tomato Head staff would have been very supportive of me using my alter ego; it was a fine lark and eventually took on a life of its own, buoyed by the success of the sandwich, the shows, and the sports. I think we sold 29 sandwiches that first day. We wondered if it was a fluke so ran it on a Thursday and it sold another 19, then another 23 on the following Monday. People started asking for it. Mahasti put the Kepner Melt and another shift meal of mine, the Roger Roger, on the new menu. But that’s another story.