No shushing allowed

Chef, owner and manager ready for best kept secret to be served up loud

Photo with no caption
By Lance Coleman
Senior reporter
Blount Today

"It’s a beautiful thing."

If you can sneak a peek in the kitchen of the Laurel Valley Resort Restaurant, you will see that quote taped to the kitchen door.

Chef Johny Calella likes to keep his philosophy close at hand.

But the chef insists his customers won’t need a peek at the quote to get it. His food will tell them.

"It’s very evident, very evident," he said. "Every dish is prepared with love. It’s corny, but I’ve been doing this 30 years. If you don’t love it, it shows. Emeril has his ‘Bam.’ My thing is, ‘It’s a beautiful thing."

Calella’s journey as the chef at the newly opened Laurel Valley Resort Restaurant has landed him in the middle of a "beautiful thing" as far as the scenic beauty of the area where his new digs sit. The restaurant overlooks the Laurel Valley golf course and community, which is nestled in Townsend, just outside the Great Smoky Mountains peaceful side.

Calella was in-between businesses when he learned of the opportunity at Laurel Valley Resort. He was calling on perspective clients in Bearden when he met someone who had created an elaborate decoration on a table filled with luncheon items. He struck up a conversation with the woman, and she in turn gave his name to Susan King, Laurel Valley Resort owner.

Calella said he was in Knoxville eight years, most of that time as the owner of DiJon’s Taste of New York. It was 140 seat restaurant with a weekend music venue. Following a divorce, he sold the restaurant five years ago and started catering for corporate and private parties and personal kitchens.

At that point, the restaurant portion of the operation at Laurel Valley had been empty for about three years. Busy with a hectic schedule, Calella said he never called King and didn’t speak with her until King called him.

After King called him and they ended talking several times, Calella made the trip to Townsend to see Laurel Valley. It was early March, and the road leading to the restaurant comes out of a wooded area, the road crests and winds down to the restaurant.

"As soon as I hit the crest, I looked out and said, ‘This is gorgeous.’ The view got me," he said.

Within two weeks, Calella and King came to terms and Calella gutted the kitchen and they started preparing to open the facility. "We started working the third week of March and opened the first week of May," he said.

For their grand opening on May 1, they mailed out 80 invitations. When word spread about the event, what started out as an 80- person party ended with around 350.

"I had to start carving the tenderloin a little thinner," he said, with a laugh. "Everyone was very, very pleased and excited there was going to be a restaurant."

Calella got his start in the kitchen while helping his grandmother in the brownstone apartment they lived in New York City.

After graduating from a food training high school, he earned a scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, N.Y., but was unable to accept it because he had to go to work in the family restaurant.

"Later in life I got on with Chef Ray Raimondo’s at Coral Gable’s Fla.," he said. "He took me under his wing because of a family relationship. I worked with him 20 hours a day."

In 1982, he got his papers certifying him as a chef through Raimondo’s. He then opened a restaurant in Miami and ran that for several years before Hurricane Andrew destroyed it. That was when he and his wife moved across the state to Naples, a town that was just beginning to see a revitalization. They opened a restaurant on Fifth Avenue.

"We were one of three restaurants and the first restaurant to have curbside seating," he said. "Within five years, we grew to be very, very successful."

The restaurant’s growth mirrored the success of the revitalized downtown. The community became known for its antique shops, restaurants, jewelry stores and other eclectic shops and community festivals.

Calella said he didn’t plan to sell, but days before an annual festival, an Italian man from Pennsylvania came in and made Calella an offer. Calella turned down the offer, but the man returned the next day and made another offer. A few days later the man’s sons came to see Calella, telling him that their father wanted the restaurant to honor a dying wish of their late mother to own a restaurant. After the man saw how successful the business was, he made Calella an offer "I couldn’t refuse," Calella said, with a laugh. "It was like a scene out of a movie."

They made a sizable profit, Calella said. What had started at $9 a square foot had grown to $55 a square foot when they left, Calella said.

Calella researched several areas, looking for the right place to relocate and settled on the Knoxville area. "Within a year, we opened up DiJon’s," he said.

According to Calella, DiJon’s in Bearden was very popular. He closed it following a divorce several years later and that’s when he began catering to corporate and private clients.

As he prepared to open Laurel Valley, Calella called for family reinforcements. He brought his cousin Denise Lucenti in to help with the management, and she came, even though she had never seen the restaurant or the area. In addition to business at the Townsend resort, Laurel Valley also has catering clients such as Jewelry Television, Fine Dining Wedding Receptions and the Heritage Museum.

Calella described himself as a very, very versatile chef. "I’m Sicilian. I cook Northern Italian, Southern Italian, Sicilian," he said. "There’s so much I can learn. I crave more knowledge about my field. I love challenges. We do as little, as much, as simple or as elegant or anything in between."

Lucenti said the views from the restaurant’s dining room and upstairs banquet facility are popular with guests. "There are people that come just for the view," she said. "They try us and love us." Lucenti had worked in the restaurant and catering industry for more than 30 years at facilities in New York and Florida and had returned to New York when her cousin called her about the Blount County opportunity. "He asked if I wanted to go into a business venture in Tennessee. I said, ‘No.’ He said it was beautiful. I said I would try it and here I am," she said.

Townsend is a much different place than where she lived in New York. She told several people when she moved here she would return home if she ever saw a bear. Driving to work early one morning her first week in town, she saw a bear. "A bear crossed my path!" Lucenti said. "I rolled up the windows. I said, ‘I saw a bear, I’m going home.’ You don’t walk out the door and see a bear (in New York). You don’t see coyote, fox or deer."

But the bear didn’t chase Lucenti away, and now she says she, Calella and King have a dream for the restaurant and resort. Calella praised King for her efforts with Laurel Valley. "Susan, she has a dream," he said of her plans for the resort, restaurant and golf course. Both King and Calella took a risk when they became partners because they didn’t know each
other, he said. "She took a chance on me, I took a chance on her and so far, it’s good," Calella said. "It’s a good working relationship."

King praised Calella. "I think Johny is an excellent chef. I really think that we’re probably one of the best in the area," she said. "Our prices are great. Our view is spectacular. I’m just really proud of it. I think Johny and Denise are doing a great job, and I would like to share the experience with people. We like to call it the best kept secret in the Smokies."

But they don’t want the secret to remain hidden. After all, "It"s a beautiful thing."

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