Letter from the Editor: Owning It in Nashville Vol: 104

January 2014
Caroline Hatchett
Caroline Hatchett, Features Editor

Photos

The candied sweet potatoes at Arnold's Country Kitchen airlifted me back to my childhood, where I can still see produce bins at Piggly Wiggly stacked high with Styrofoam packs of sliced orange tubers, all destined for sticky sweet endings. At Arnold's, soul food kitchen heir Kahlil Arnold bakes his sweet potatoes twice, first with sugar, citrus, and butter; then again with sugar, butter, and molasses. Arnold is just as much a chef as soul food traditionalist. His greens are seasoned with horseradish; his fried green tomatoes maintain their crunch through a photo shoot. It's the power of this memory-jogging soul food that keeps Arnold's relevant in 2014 and makes it one of the city's most loved institutions.  

That's what chefs in Nashville are after. Rather than fly-by-night openings and tricky lease agreements common in most of the country, many of the chefs we met strive for the model set by Tandy Wilson when he opened City House in 2007: buy a building, open a business, and build an institution by making food that wins the hearts of a whole city. It's possible here. It was important to Hal Holden Bache to own the land beneath him, so he purchased and meticulously renovated an old grocery store in East Nashville for his comfort-comes-first Lockeland Table. David Mitchell pioneered the Northeastern edge of East Nashville with his sandwiches at Mitchell Deli and recently bought and opened a new space down the street from the original. Scott Witherow is setting up Olive & Sinclair to be one of the South's premier chocolate makers from a new shop he gutted and opened in December 2013.

Chefs also have the room and resources to run farms of their own. Through his long-time post at Capitol Grille and the Hermitage Hotel, Chef Tyler Brown and his staff manage Glen Leven Farm, situated on land from the Land Trust of Tennessee. And the Hermitage just purchased a large tract of land for Double H Farms, where Brown oversees a herd of Red Poll cattle that will supply Capitol Grille and other Nashville restaurants. Chef Matt Lackey works on his family farm outside of town to provide much of the produce for Flyte World Dining, giving him the opportunity to shift and shape the flavor of produce before it lands in his kitchen—as he does with his "forgotten" beets.

There's also a place in the Nashville market for strong, talented women business owners. In our travels, we tasted with Bailey Spaulding, who abandoned a Vanderbilt law degree to start Jackalope Brewing Company and successfully dive into the boys club of beer. Sarah Gavigan and Teresa Mason left creative careers to pursue a passion for foreign foods. Gavigan studied the art of ramen and launched pop-up Otaku South, which she'll convert into a brick-and-mortar concept early in 2014. Mason fell in love with simple, home-cooked Mexican food, and after much trial and error, she's serving simple, soul-satisfying tacos, beans, and soups out of an eclectic cinder-block shop. And Alexis Soler decamped the high-volume crazies of the Miami club scene to open East Nashville cocktail haven Bar 308 in East Nashville.

The wine and pastry communities of Nashville are each smaller than they're savory counterparts, with only the city's biggest names investing in talent. Strategic Hospitality—owned by brothers Max and Benjamin Goldberg—supports a number of the city's best somms, including Adam Binder at Catbird Seatand Andy Wedge at Merchant's, who we're featuring in this week's Top Pair. The Hermitage gives Pastry Chef Kayla Swartout full creative reign of the pastry kitchen, from which she makes elegant, smart riffs on Southern favorites, like her Tennessee Corn Cake. Sean Brock's Husk also has a fully stocked staff with Lisa Donovan making pastry (and some of the most addicting soft-serve we've ever eaten) and with Sommelier Kenny Lyons crafting a beverage list that includes Southern sodas and divides wines by soil type rather than region or grape. Nashville is still largely a cab sav city, but somms and local brewers (Fat Bottom, Jackalope, and Yazoo) are turning tastes around.

There's always lots of whiskey to go around, too. While most of the country's whiskey is produced by just a few big makers, Nashville is host to experimental Corsair Distillery (that makes quinoa whiskey and hopped whiskey) and historically rooted Nelson's Green Brier Distillery that currently blends Belle Meade Bourbon but is set up to start making its own Tennessee whiskey in 2014. Ham also has a collective hold on the city's (and region's) palates—from Trey Cicoccia's double deviled eggs with ham at Farm House to Porter Road Butcher's Waller Whiskey-cured ham. Even the city's chocolates, courtesy of Olive & Sinclair, are infused with the spirit of ham. Allan Benton smokes cacao nibs for Witherow, who folds them into a smoky-salty-sweet brittle.

We just wrapped up research in Tennessee and Kentucky with an epic road trip from Memphis to Sewanee, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Lexington and plan on announcing Rising Stars winners soon. And we're continuing to follow the shifts in Nashville as Erik Anderson leaves Catbird Seat and Josh Habiger and the Strategic Hospitality Crew get into the groove at Pinewood Social.  We'll keep you posted on the Music City, along with destinations in Coastal New England, D.C., and Los Angeles. If you know where to eat, send us your nominations.

Cheers!

Caroline   Hatchett
Features Editor