Interview with Kentucky-Tennessee Rising Star Concept Chef David Mitchell of Mitchell Deli – Nashville, TN

by Caroline Hatchett
February 2014

Caroline Hatchett: How did you get your start in the industry?
DM: I started working in a burrito shop in 1998. It was kind of a cool spot and did everything in house. After that, I worked at a country club as sous chef in Franklin Tennessee, and there I got lots of back of the house experience. I worked at Wild Oats for four years, and there I tried to hone my skills on vegetarian items and natural ingredients, use local ingredients, and support local farmers. 

CH: What advice do you have for young chefs just getting started?
DM: I started [Mitchell] when I was 28. One of the main things is that I'm still young enough. If for some reason the concept doesn't fly, I can redirect. I’d also say, find a good location. Location is key. One thing that brought me to this space is the community aspect. The whole community uses it. Get in early, find a place, focus on product, and use the best ingredients you can. Service and products are one and two for me. 

CH: How did you decide to open a deli?
DM: The food scene here was lacking. There were nice restaurants like Margot, but not fast-casual good food. We've focused on top notch ingredients and get local when we can. We do as much as we can in house, so we can control flavor profiles. It’s a labor of love. We’re trying to elevate the sandwich. 

CH: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
DM: Figuring out how to manage employees. There's a fine line between being too hard and rigid and kind of guiding them in the direction you want them to go in. Also, day-to-day operations. You never know what equipment will go out.  Now, I know how to service our toaster. Starting in a smaller space helped us figure out what we needed to do to be easier on the equipment.

CH: How do you develop new sandwiches?
DM: Lots of sandwiches start as specials. If they're top sellers, we put them on the menu. We have people who only come in on Thursday because they want a meatloaf sandwich. Chefs in the back come up with new ideas.

CH: This seems like a quiet corner of the city. How many sandwiches do you sell?
DM: We sell 600 to 700 per day. The most popular is the turkey-avocado-bacon sandwich. My favorite is the BLT or roast beef and cheddar. We try to sell quantity so we can keep prices in check. I was raised here in Nashville. My parents were fairly frugal. We keep our price points as low as I can. People come in who work for the electric company—they’re blue collar people who just want to enjoy a sandwich. 

CH: How has the Nashville dining scene evolved since you’ve been open
DM: In past five years, the food scene has developed into something more than meat and three. There's a lot of fast-casual places on similar lines as us. We have a wide variety of customers. Any chance you get to have old people mixed in with hipsters, sharing a love of food is great. It's done a complete 180 in my opinion. It's a lot more refined now, and chefs are moving into town. 

CH: You recently opened a new Mitchell Deli location? What are you planning for the old space?
DM: We're working out something with the old space. We'll probably do house-made sausages for a sausage shop. I started the business as a market. It was food dessert, and there weren't any nice grocery stores—nothing on a higher end or local. That's changed since we've been open. We'll probably focus on a market, do sausages here, all local whole hog sausage. Then we'll try to utilize [the new] space to supplement the space down the street. At some point we'll put in a taproom. 

CH: How do you see Mitchell growing?
DM: A guy yesterday wanted me to put a Mitchell Deli in his hotel. Up until now, we couldn't do that. Now, with the commissary kitchen, we can. We have a lot of great, talented people. My goal is to keep people around as long as possible, and the only way to do that is with growth.