Catbird Seat chefs Eric Anderson and Josh Habiger.
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And Now the Food Sings, Too

Beverly Stephen / January 2013

There’s still bacon, Bourbon, and barbecue aplenty, but an emerging culinary scene is putting Nashville on the gastronomic radar.

Until three years ago I had only grown three tomatoes in my whole life,” says Tyler Brown, who’s as likely these days to be called Farmer Brown as he is Chef Brown. We were walking through rows of autumn lettuces, collard and mustard greens, leeks, breakfast radishes, and more, cultivated largely with heirloom seeds at The Farm at Glen Leven by Brown and his helpers only five miles away from the Capitol Grille at Nashville’s historic The Hermitage Hotel, where he is executive chef.

Though it’s rare these days for a chef not to have special relationships with farmers or even to have a small garden to call his own, few are as dedicated to the actual field work as Brown, who puts in about two days a week on the land. “When I was much younger, I didn’t really care where the vegetables came from,” he admits. “Now I don’t know if I could work another way.”

He modestly denies that he’s worthy to be called a farmer, however. “There’s a steep learning curve. While I was training to be a chef, I never dreamed I would, years later, spend days worrying about rainfall, compost, or, as happened recently, the cows getting out of their field and helping themselves to the garden. Our first year, we planted potatoes in three quadrants,” he says, sweeping his hand out toward the corners of the farm. “By the middle of July, we needed an army to get four tons of potatoes out. They asked me if I had a root cellar. I said, ‘No, do I need one?’”

Turns out he did. In one weekend, the potatoes started to rot in the summer heat. Lesson learned. So he started working on crop rotation, and now the garden supplies 60 to 80 percent of his needs for field peas, pumpkins, mustard greens, and other greens and root vegetables to accompany his crispy fried quail or his duo of lamb. In addition, the hotel is adding a 245 acre farm for raising cattle that will supply the hotel with about one animal a week for steaks and burgers and wholesale meat for other local restaurants.

Capitol Grille is elegantly appointed, white napery and all. But the South rises again, especially at breakfast, with a Tennessee “Jack” egg sandwich (Jack Daniel’s–infused toast, pan-fried egg, jowl bacon, tomato gravy) and at lunch with a meltingly awesome grilled pimento cheese sandwich with fried green tomatoes on buttered brioche.

Brown is only one example of how Nashville has embraced the contemporary ethos of chef-driven restaurants, with its emphasis on the local, artisanal, small batch, and DIY enthusiasms that no one would be surprised to find in Brooklyn or the Portlands—Oregon and Maine. A perfect storm of talent and expectations—not to mention a resurgence of interest in Southern kitchen traditions—has coalesced to propel Music City toward becoming known as a food city as well.

“We’re ready now,” says veteran restaurateur Randy Rayburn of Sunset Grill and others. “Nashville has 12 million visitors a year, and two out of three people have moved here from somewhere else, so the level of expectations has risen and the level of quality has risen with them.” He notes that now there are several local culinary schools to supply a work force as well as an increasing number of chef-driven restaurants.

Charleston luminary Sean Brock will add to that number when he opens a branch of Husk here in the spring. “Sean will be a great thing for our city, and we’re both tickled to be in the same town again,” says Brown, a good friend from the days the two worked together at The Hermitage. “He will add another layer to help us grow.”

In the past, Nashville was mainly known for spots like Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, where the fried chicken is liberally spiced with a fiery cayenne paste and served with white bread and pickles, and cafeteria-style “meat ’n three” joints, where patrons choose fried chicken, meat loaf, roast beef, or the like and three side dishes, such as mac and cheese, grits, fried green tomatoes, or collard greens. Janitors and judges alike converge on Arnolds Country Kitchen (a James Beard Foundation America’s Classics Award winner in 2009) for what many call the best lunch in Nashville for less than a ten-spot.

While these traditions are still revered, the city is now awash with the artisanal and the avant-garde: bean-to-bar chocolate at Olive and Sinclair Chocolate Co., gourmet popsicles at Las Paletas, a taco truck turned brick and mortar hot spot at Mas Tacos Por Favor, small-batch booze at Corsair Distillery. And, of course, restaurants.

Right now that means The Catbird Seat, one of the most successful iterations of so-called counter culture. Four nights a week, Wednesday through Saturday, two well pedigreed (Noma, Alinea, The French Laundry) chefs, Josh Habiger and Eric Anderson, work in an open kitchen surrounded by an up-close-and-personal 32 seat counter, hand delivering a seven course, $100 menu during a three-and-a-half-hour seating. There’s a witty homage to hot chicken—a tiny square of crisp chicken skin on pureed white bread; grouper wrapped in a sheet of chipotle “leather”; pigeon, with clawed foot in stiff salute, in dashi broth with fresh and dried mushrooms, hibiscus and nasturtium leaves, and a sugar-cured egg yolk. Was Nashville ready for this? The answer is an unequivocal yes, because reservations must be made online a month in advance starting at midnight. They sell out in 12 to 15 minutes.

“There are a million people in Nashville,” Habiger points out, “and we only have 32 seats.” Plus there are many visitors from out of town.

In addition, Habiger laid the groundwork with owners Benjamin and Max Goldberg running their swank cocktail lounge, Patterson House, downstairs. “I met Josh three years ago,” says Benjamin Goldberg. “He’s one of the most talented people I know. He got Eric to move here. I took them to Arnold’s, and they were in.”

The Goldbergs were also on the cutting edge with Patterson House. Benjamin was so smitten with The Violet Hour in Chicago that he was inspired to create the kind of handcrafted cocktail program that relies on consultants, master mixologists, and ice chefs. The best seller is New York City–based Alchemy Consulting’s Juliet & Romeo, made with Plymouth gin, mint, cucumber, and rose water. But few can turn down the Bacon Old Fashioned, made with Benton’s bacon (from Madisonville, TN) infused Four Roses Bourbon, maple syrup, and pecan/coffee bitters—a veritable mouthful of the South. “Bourbon and bacon are my two favorite things in the world,” one young patron enthused.

More groundwork had also been laid by pioneers who preceded them. Ten years ago, chef Margot McCormack opened Margot Café in the gentrifying area of East Nashville. Some people refer to her as the Alice Waters of Nashville because of her devotion to local seasonal ingredients and a daily changing menu. “My cooking is an inspiration of French tradition played out with ingredients that derive from Southern roots,” she says. “I use Falls Mill grits, Benton’s bacon, Cruze Farm dairy, and vegetables that were grown locally. And, of course, we make biscuits and pickles and jams, too.” This all comes home in a grilled pork chop with grits and dandelion greens or grilled trout with roasted turnips and carrots, turnip greens, and mustard sauce. Recently, she added Marché Café & Bar, whose wildly popular brunch has lines around the block.

Over at City House, Tandy Wilson packs in crowds with Southern twists on pizza and pasta. Turnip greens might sneak into a white bean soup or atop a pizza along with house-made belly ham or grits. Plus just plain imaginative creations. At a recent Sunday Supper, he featured “trout ribs,” (rib-like fillets with barbecue rub) as well as a Marcona almond/Sherry dressing on a cauliflower/pomegranate seed salad. Nearby also in the Germantown area, Philip Krajeck recently opened Rolf and Daughters, serving what he calls “modern peasant food.”

Another veteran chef, Deb Paquette, whose previous restaurant, Zola, had a loyal local following, is back at the recently opened Etch, a sleek modern showcase for her cooking. Her dishes span the globe from Japanese-braised and fried short ribs to lamb chops with merguez sausage brik, cauliflower/feta cream, and smoked tomato chermoula. But she remains loyal to the region. “We have some cool places here that provide us with every part of the pig and great menus,” she says. “Chefs here are reaching back to create their grandma’s recipes. Watermelon pickles have made a resurrection of course, with some foo-foo vinegar and a ghost pepper!.”

Etch is all about preserving the old techniques and traditions. “I’ve done crazy Southern crap for years. I incorporate it into my Turkish and Moroccan dishes. We use a lot of the same things—okra, black-eyed peas, peppers.” Ginger-flavored grits, for example, accompany her Moroccan-spiced Moulard duck breast with carrot/pear sauce.

“The effect of Sean Brock on our market will be great. I knew he would come back someday, and we’re glad he has. He’s a ‘mover.’ Bob Waggoner has also come back from Charleston, and his followers are very excited. He’s helping to promote Nashville with his TV persona, focusing on local chefs and local products. His smile is contagious.”

A year ago, Waggoner reconnected with friends from his days at the Wild Boar and made a deal with the Watermark owner to become a chef/partner. He’s now shooting Ucook! with Chef Bob in Nashville and is starting a Nashville culinary tour with Gray Line. “In the 15 years I’ve been gone, Nashville has transformed into an amazing new food city with new young chefs and some old friends coming up with a whole new cuisine of Nashville. Throw in the eighth largest convention center in the States opening next year, and just you watch how the city grows. I’m proud to help build the culinary scene here as well.”

The ABC television series Nashville also is playing a part in putting the city in the limelight. Of course, the storyline is all about music. When it gets to the point when one of its main characters is a chef like the Susan Spicer–inspired character on Treme, the HBO show about New Orleans, Nashville will have truly arrived as a food city.