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VOL. 36 | NO. 38 | Friday, September 21, 2012

Nashville climbs higher up the food chain

Great chefs find home

By Hollie Deese

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When you visit a city, much of your impression is based on what you eat. While Chicago will always be known for their lowbrow-but-tasty hot dogs and deep-dish pizza, so too will Nashville always be associated with pulled-pork sandwiches and meat-and-three diners. And damn good ones, too.

But in the high-end realm of foodie culture, Chicago also is

on the cutting edge of the culinary scene, as well-known for molecular gastronomy and James Beard award-winning chefs as they are for Italian beef sandwiches.

Nashville has begun following that lead, giving out-of-towners and locals much more than they once bargained for.

“I think it describes us,” says Laura Hill, executive director of the Nashville Originals. “It tells a story about us.

“If you come to Nashville from out of town, where do you want to eat? Do you want to eat at a restaurant that is the same as the one you could have eaten at home, or would you like to see what we can do here? Where our tastes lie, what our cuisine is, how it affects local farmers, the local culture and history?

“For most people that is more exciting and fun than a place they can eat at their local mall,” she adds.

The Nashville Originals are a group of about 50 restaurants locally owned and operated, banded together six years ago to further promote Nashville food.

And while this has not happened overnight, it has seemed to explode in the past few years, bolstered by a slew of national articles and blogs devoted to just how cool Nashville is in all areas.

Forbes Life, the ultimate arbiter of luxe living, just named Corsair’s Rye Moon whiskey “sensational” in a Sept. 2012 article on white whiskey. The New York Times blogged about locally-made Olive & Sinclair chocolate. And The Guardian extolled the virtues of City House and The Catbird Seat this summer, among other local favorites. But it didn’t always use to be that way.

“When I moved here in 2005, really there was not that big of an independent restaurant dining scene and you had maybe a handful of good chefs throughout the city,” says Brandon Frohne, a local chef and food blogger (nashvilleurbangardeners.com), currently working on his first cookbook with award-winning photographer Ron Manville.

Kathleen Cotter, cheese monger and owner of The Bloomy Rind, agrees or she would not have left her human resources job a few years ago to curate cheese made specifically in the Southeast.

“I think there is a growing awareness and movement for people to know where food came from and what is in it,” Cotter says. “There are some big food corporations who would rather you not pay attention to that. It tastes good but has a shelf life of three years. People are more aware of and concerned about that.”

Fresh is better, but it comes at a price. Time is needed to seek the goods and do the research. After all, opening a plastic-wrapped slice of cheese that has been in your fridge for a few months and slapping it on an even-older frozen patty is much easier than going to your local butcher – if you have one – and cheese monger and educate yourself on the diets of the animal or even what to ask for.

As for the money, well, it costs much more to keep animals at pasture than shoved into feed lots. And the cheeses Cotter carries are made in small amounts by hand, not in a large factory. But her growing client base has shown her people really do look at quality over price.

“It seems every day someone comes in for the first time,” says Cotter, who has her shop within Porter Road Butcher. “They have never been to a butcher and won’t really know what to do. So everyone who works here has the heart of a teacher in that we are happy to take time with people.

“People are used to going to the grocery store, and there is a spread of pre-cut meat and you pick out what you want. It is a different process. It is exciting for people who get and appreciate what we are doing and are interested in learning more about it. They are typically pretty darn excited to come in.”

When Scott Atkinson and Scott Sears opened Flyte World Dining and Wine, times were good. The two met as undergraduates at Vanderbilt, then played in a band together for about four years, waiting tables at places like Rio Bravo while they discussed opening a restaurant together someday.

Atkinson went off to the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern, but the two continued their discussion until the doors opened on their space on the edge of the Gulch in October 2006. Business exploded.

“We kind of blew the doors off in 2007,” Atkinson says. “I am not sure how much of that had to do with the fact that there was not as much depth in the market at that point, but it was a lot busier than we thought it would be.

“Part of that was the concept and the newness and part of that is we were executing things well to begin with. And at the same time, people were just throwing money around. For a while, pre-recession, we had a few $65 entrees.”

But those times did not last long, and despite the quality they were putting on the plate, they knew they had to pull in the reins if they wanted to survive.

“The books didn’t look right anymore in terms of future bookings for corporate parties and such,” Atkinson says.

So they dug in and expanded their bar business, offering about 100 options by the glass. They started doing a prix fixe menu for $35 and promoting the heck out of it.

“If it looked like it was going to be a slow weekend, we are pretty aggressive with sending out discount deals to our customer base,” he says. We took action really early or we would have been in trouble.”

Others were not as lucky. Dining leaders like Mirror and Zola closed.

“We had a really favorable lease outside of the Gulch, which helped a lot, but when push came to shove, Sears and I both went back to work fulltime. It was either go back to work or fire a lot of people, and we did not want to fire anybody.”

Atkinson is in Chicago with a job in the financial sector, while Sears is director of operations at Nashville-based Emma.

Throughout it all, quality was of the utmost importance, and Flyte chef Matthew Lackey has elevated the food even more in the past few months. Ingredients come from his farm in Gallatin, which he cares for organically while researching heirloom varieties.

Lackey trained with former Nashville chef Sean Brock, who is making big waves in Charleston, S.C. And while there are no $65 entrees on Flyte’s menu, a filet with pumpernickel, leek, pickled cherry mushrooms, cherry and hazelnut will cost you $45.

“Chef Lackey has added another dimension of taking the food seriously,” Atkinson says. “He is passionate about the health qualities of eating properly.”

When brothers Benjamin and Max Goldberg opened The Patterson House through their Strategic Hospitality company in 2009, they did not let the economy factor in what they were trying to do – create high-end cocktails made with precise amounts of liquor, fresh fruit and homemade bitters and syrups. They even have eight different types of ice.

Goldberg, who had already found success with Bar Twenty3, City Hall and Paradise Park Trailer Park, thought the concept was just what Nashville needed.

“I think maybe we are completely naïve or we have these blinders on, but I fundamentally believe that in Nashville, if you can offer a great product that is determined to be a fair price, the people are going to support that regardless of what it is,” Benjamin Goldberg says.

“We went into it with blinders because we truly believed what we were going to do was going to be a really great product and dove in head first.”

They take cocktails very seriously at The Patterson House. They treat the bar as if it were a kitchen, tasting and testing everything before it goes out, squeezing fresh juice daily from locally sourced produce and handcrafting their own bitters and syrups.

“That takes a lot longer to do than most people are used to waiting for a cocktail,” Goldberg adds. “The fear was that people would not understand why they were waiting 10 minutes for a cocktail. And I was worried the price of the cocktail would scare people from giving us a fair shot. But people immediately got it. There was no explanation needed. They understood time was needed, the price point was necessary strictly because of the high-end ingredients.”

The success of The Patterson House helped Goldberg open The Catbird Seat, a 32-seat intimate space that allows diners to surround chefs as they create their meal.

And these are not just any chefs. Josh Habiger spent time at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck restaurant in London (three Michelin stars on a scale of one to three), as well as the James Beard award-winning CRAFT restaurant in New York. Later, he was on the opening team for Grant Achatz’s Alinea Restaurant in Chicago (also awarded three stars by Michelin).

His co-chef at Catbird is Erik Anderson, who has worked at the French Laundry (another three Michelin stars) in Yountville, Calif., with chef Thomas Keller, and at Tim McKee’s Sea Change Restaurant and Bar, where he curated a menu focused on sustainable seafood and seasonal ingredients that garnered attention nationwide. There, he was named a James Beard Foundation nominee and Food & Wine magazine’s People’s Best New Chef Midwest finalist.

“I personally believe they are two of the most talented people I have ever met in my life,” Goldberg says. “I want Nashville to have the best of anything. And when the opportunity arose for Josh and Erik to work in Nashville and do this project with us, we jumped at it.”

A seven-course tasting menu that lasts just under three hours at Catbird costs $100, plus drinks, tax and tip. Reservations are only available online, no walk-ins are taken and no-shows are charged $75 a person. A year in and people are still lining up for the experience.

“Nashville is an overwhelmingly supportive city, and what I have personally found out is that if you open something in Nashville and you are offering a great product at a fair price, people are going to give you the chance to succeed,” Goldberg says.

Jon and Lindsay Yeager have created PourTaste, consulting with restaurants and bartenders to help them take their cocktail selections to new heights. They also teach at Nashville’s Farmer’s Market.

-- Photo: Lyle Graves | Nashville Ledger

“In a lot of bigger cities people are looking for reasons for you to fail. But Nashvillians really want this to be a dynamic and wonderful city. I have been able to take the training wheels off a little bit and fully dive into taking more risks with a more specialized product because I have seen the response the general public in Nashville has toward locally owned businesses.”

As one of the original bartenders for East Nashville’s Holland House Bar & refuge, Jon Yeager became enthralled with the process of creating classic custom cocktails. His passion was fueled by the excitement of those around him, and when he began seeing things he was doing through the bar garner national attention, he knew he had found his calling.

Now, Yeager and wife Lindsay, a former physical therapist, have built on that and created PourTaste, what they call a cocktail collective. They consult with restaurants like the French Cafe Fundamental, train staff, teach classes at the Farmer’s Market, came up with a concept for a TV pilot and even team up to bartend events.

But their biggest move came in April when they created the PourTaste app, which directs travelers to bars anywhere in the country that share their philosophy about cocktails. They spent a year traveling, making phone calls and doing research to make sure the quality of establishments is tops so people don’t have to weed through online reviews to find something decent when they are in a new city.

“The app is our baby,” he says. “It is America’s first craft cocktail house locater. My palate is being educated and I don’t want shitty drinks.”

The Yeagers also provide drinks for the monthly supper club hosted at the Farmer’s Market by local food blogger Vivek Surti (viveksepicureanadventures.com). Each month, a guest chef is invited to create a meal with an Indian twist for a limited number of guests. Price is around $85 with cocktails and wine, less without.

Last week, guests were treated to courses that included Gulf snapper with lentil dhal, cabbage and black mustard and duck with garam masala, cherry and duck fat carrots.

Past guest chefs have included Jeremy Barlow of Tayst and Sloco, Laura Wilson of Grow Local Kitchen and Frohne, who created a modernist Indian menu with a few gastro tricks. His dessert, a sweet corn panna cotta with salted popcorn ignited lime meringue and cherry reduction featured a nitro-faked bourbon caramel.

“We blew smoke all the way down the dinner table and the diners were engulfed in this liquid nitrogen,” he says. “It was really awesome.”

And he hopes the trend to higher-minded fare continues, if not just for Nashville but for his own gain as well.

“Being a young chef, I want to see more big time chefs choose Nashville as a spot to open up a restaurant and develop that scene because ultimately that is an opportunity for me to work under a great chef,” Frohne says.

Yeager also says Nashville is on the right track, even if it there is so much more growth to be achieved.

“We want the consumer to be proud that they don’t have to travel to have the best, we want the people making these things to be proud to say it is a celebration that we are doing something right.”

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