A thoughtful, innovative, and atmospheric new restaurant has begun their “soft opening” in the Sewanee village. Centered around the need for an accessible yet high-caliber dining experience, Lumière combines culinary influence from the South of France with the American South, leaning into the warm, familiar, and communal elements of both cuisines. I recently had the opportunity to speak with owner David Boyd Williams, as well as collaborators Keri Downing and Emily Heid (C‘17), about the concept of Lumière and their ambitions for the restaurant moving forward.
Downing was the previous owner of the property that is now inhabited by Lumière. She ran restaurants there for 10 years, first IvyWild, then OctoPi, until the pandemic caused operations to close. Williams, having no direct affiliation to Sewanee, but with a background in food philanthropy and education, bought the property during the pandemic and began reaching out to many facets of the Sewanee community to determine what people wanted this place to become. “I spent a lot of time getting to know the community, getting a sense of what people were looking for, where they wanted to spend their time.” He says. “People were looking for something that was different from the other offerings – a place where people could hang out regardless of their background – and that definitely aligned with my vision for the space.” In a serendipitous alignment, Williams was in need of someone with Downing’s restauranter expertise right around the time that she was feeling eager to delve back into the industry.
During the time Williams spent looking for insight and inspiration from community members, he crossed paths with Emily Heid who managed the Tuesday farmer’s market and is heavily involved in local agriculture. Due to Heid’s culinary experience combined with connections to local farmers, and her goal to “create community and uplift our local food system,” Williams hired her as the first cook for Lumière, as well as a project manager for his company Nine Twenty One, LLC. The goal of this company is “to look at the landscape and the region and begin to ask questions about the relationship between food and the community” he explains, also saying that “across America there is a lot of bad information about what food is and where food comes from.” Williams has done work pertaining to food education and access in inner cities, and thought he should take a look in his own (newly acquired) backyard.
Williams, Downing, and Heid, in addition to sharing many of the same culinary values, (notably sustainability and accessibility), all studied French in school, and would identify themselves as Francophiles. “I’ve always been fascinated with French culture, and the slow pace of food,” Williams remarked. “And the priority they give it in their lives,” Downing adds. When I asked why French and Southern cuisine were particularly compatible, Downing said “they are both about nourishing souls and lives. They are about taking simple ingredients and making them shine….We do a ratatouille– that’s one of the home dishes in France, and then we pair it with grits, because they go perfectly together, and grits are one of our Southern staples.” Regarding the name of the restaurant itself, Downing expressed that it is linked to the Sewanee tradition of the porchlight. She says the message is: “come in, come in if you’re lonely, come in if you need something, whether it’s community or food. Our light is on.”
I asked Downing about the community’s reception to Ivywild compared to Lumière, and she said “it was night and day. People weren’t used to the idea of a restaurant on this side of town, they definitely were not used to the idea of a high-end, fine dining experience [here]. I had lots and lots of people tell me I wasn’t going to make it, they didn’t have any problem walking in the door and saying ‘Oh this is going to fail,’and I’m not going to say it wasn’t a struggle, but it was far from a failure. Over time we taught people to trust what we were doing, that we were going to take care of them and do good things, even if it wasn’t something they were used to seeing.”
She continued: “We had a good market in the second-home-people of Monteagle and Sewanee, and I’m so grateful for them, but this time around I’m more driven to feed my neighbors, feed all the people that live here, and be the community watering hole.” This shift has clearly paid off, given the “great reception so far from all facets of the community, including more students than Ivywild ever had.”
I had the chance to eat dinner at Lumière recently, and it is clear that the restaurant is, indeed, attracting many different types of people — I saw several students, some upperclassmen couples, some freshman boys in baseball hats, a group of professors drinking beer, several large tables of wealthy-looking middle aged people dressed in black who had ordered three full chickens and were louding chortling over wine, and many other Sewanee dwellers and visitors alike. The ambience was classic, homely-yet-refined, and somewhat unfinished (which I liked). The interior is quite compact, much longer than it is wide, with a sleek wooden cocktail bar dividing the room lengthwise. Suitably, the lighting is the standout feature, in the form of candles and hanging glass orbs, equidistantly spaced along the length of the ceiling. Circular mirrors and large cylindrical glasses reflect these lights softly into the dark corners of the rectangular room. A large bouquet of purple and red astrid flowers sits at eye level when you open the door, and right outside are hay bales topped with piles of pumpkins and more flowers. To order, we only had to casually lean over the bar and request what we wanted. Afterwards, we sat outside on bright orange chairs next to a rusted metal globe with a dying fire inside. We shared the ratatouille and grits, which was modestly served with a sprig of oregano for garnish, and incredibly rich in flavor. As we ate, I experienced a kind of pre-nostalgia or pre-deja vu— in that I could picture myself ordering this meal again and again in different circumstances throughout the rest of my college years. It was nice to realize that the characteristics of my life at that moment would probably change significantly over the following months and years, but this would be a place I could keep coming back to, to experience this same comfort once again.
Despite only being in the early stages of their opening, Lumière has already established a firm commitment to their asserted values of sustainability and approachability. For instance, they are beginning to utilize kegged wines, which limit waste. They have a small menu that is versatile and continuously rotating to keep costs and labor within reasonable limits. They are disrupting certain conventional restaurant systems that are not designed with utilitarianism in mind, by keeping a very small number of employees who freely move between jobs. (Sergio Rodriguez (C ‘21) and Ivy Downing are the other two members of the group.) All five of them do dishes, work behind the bar, etc., which gives both appreciation and proficiency for different domains. This fluidity of roles means that the person who cooks your food often serves it to you directly, which further builds respect and communality between the restaurant and the guests.
Each member of the team does contribute distinct areas of knowledge, though. For example, Heid worked on a farm in the South of France during her study abroad and learned about crepes. She innovates four new savory and sweet crepe dishes every couple of weeks, and incorporates a buckwheat crepe option for gluten free guests. “Last week we featured a mushroom crepe with mushrooms grown at Midway Mushrooms, right down the road. We’re excited to utilize more local ingredients,” she said. Downing went back to school several years ago to study wine and achieved the third level WSET sommelier certification, a coveted accomplishment. She possesses a rich wealth of information about wines and wine evaluation. This excellent wine program within the restaurant is something definitively unique — It is an offering that you do not find anywhere else in the area. “My goal in life is to find the most delicious cheap wines that I can, from all over the world”, says Downing, which she curates for the Lumière wine list. She notes that her favorite wine on the list is only $7 a glass.
Lumière has only been open for about a month, and there are many plans in the works for the future of the business. Some of these pertain to physical structures, like making the brass wood fired oven functional again to produce dishes such as fire roasted oysters, or developing the other side of the building into a lounge area for students or community members that work from home. And some plans are more theoretical, like moving beyond the traditional conception of a bistro and allowing the kitchen to serve as a makerspace for community groups, and developing a think-tank to address local food concerns. Above all, Williams, Downing, and Heid are firmly committed to furthering community integration through both the food they use and the people they serve. Williams discussed hopes of student involvement as well, given the obvious centrality of students to the town. He even mentioned how they installed outlets and usb ports under the bar countertops as an example of their emphasis on student appeal. All three interviewees spoke about their desire for student feedback and proposals. If you are a student reading this, all three encourage you to respond to this article with your ideas. As a student myself who cares deeply about cooking, consuming, and learning about high-quality food, I see a great deal of potential in this new addition to Sewanee.