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Babalu Tapas & Tacos new executive chef brings 23 years of experience to table

August 28, 2017

Babalu Tapas & Tacos has hired T.J. Saunders as executive chef of the downtown Knoxville restaurant. In this role, Saunders will oversee the culinary staff and create boldly flavored dishes featuring authentic, gourmet tacos and Spanish-style tapas with a southern twist.

“Chef Saunders’ culinary experience is paired with the enthusiasm and passion we look for when making a new addition to our team,” said Dee Hust, general manager of Babalu Tapas & Tacos Knoxville. “Chef Saunders impressed us from day one, and we look forward to seeing his creativity and innovation in the kitchen impress our guests.”

Saunders’ mother started teaching him to cook when he was in the third grade growing up in Lansing, Michigan. He then decided to follow in the footsteps of his role model, Julia Child, an iconic American chef, author and television personality.

“I even did a school report on how I wanted to be a chef when I grew up,” Saunders said. “I am excited to join Babalu’s team and help continue the restaurant’s great success in Knoxville. I look forward to introducing new savory dishes to the menu that I know diners will enjoy.”

Prior to joining Babalu, Saunders served as executive and regional chef for Maryville College in Maryville, Tennessee. He previously had served as executive chef at Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Knoxville, Diverse Concepts in Knoxville and Café Del Mar in Del Mar, California. He served as a sous chef at Four Seasons Resort Aviara in Carlsbad, California, and at the Ritz-Carlton in Dearborn, Michigan.

Saunders trained under the direction of five certified master chefs in the Culinary Arts program at Schoolcraft College in Livonia, Michigan. Before starting his culinary career, he served as corporal in the United States Marine Corps and earned two Meritorious Mast for Operation Desert Storm.

Saunders and his wife, Spring, currently reside in Knoxville with their three children, Jack, Madeline and Gabrielle. In his free time, Saunders enjoys fitness and team training, spending time with family and traveling.

To learn more about Babalu Tapas & Tacos, visit, like its Facebook page at, and follow @BabaluKnox on Instagram and Twitter.


About Babalu Tapas & Tacos

Babalu Tapas & Tacos is a fun, one-of-a-kind, family-style dining experience. Founded in 2010 in Jackson, MS, the restaurant has quickly taken the Southeast by storm. All our Latin-inspired dishes – each with a unique Southern twist – are sure to bring people together. We pride ourselves on using hyper-local produce and products for our made-from-scratch dishes and handcrafted cocktails. Babalu is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Eat Here Brands. For more information, visit their website at