Nashville Food: What's Next?

What does the future hold for the city during this storm of culinary goodness?

One time an Uber driver said to me, “Welcome to the boom.” Asking what he meant, he replied with, “Nashville — It’s the place to be!”

Anyone who's spent any time in the Music City knows that Nashville is growing. Exploding is probably a more accurate term. Twenty years ago Nashville was a few hidden gems, some quality "mom and pop" restaurants, and chains galore. But as the city has progressed into the 21st century, the true indicator of the modern urbanization of Nashville has been the explosion of chef-driven, quality food options throughout the city.

One of the most notable "chef-lebrity" imports into Nashville is Jonathan Waxman, whom you may have seen on Bravo's Top Chef Masters. Waxman, headlined and co-founded the recently held Music City Food + Wine festival and is chef/owner of Nashville eateries Adele’s restaurant and Bajo Sexto Taco, explains, “10 years ago, Mario Batali told me Nashville is the place where national restaurateurs go to die. That it was the most unfriendly town to outsiders.”

Basically it was the "welcome to Nashville, now ya'll get the hell out" mentality. But that was the old south, and the old Nashville. Nashville's youth explosion has laid waste to the old stereotypes and the tides are shifting. Nashville is now a food destination.

Sarah Gavigan, chef/owner, Little Octopus, Otaku Ramen, and Pop Nashville, is one of Nashville's new up-and-coming gourmands, arrived in Nashville six years ago and the response to her food has been extremely positive.

“People wanted better restaurants and experiences here," said Gavigan. "You couple that with the growing tourism and it was a match made in heaven. That, plus people who have money to invest, and it was the perfect storm.”

“It’s really wonderful to see that people are becoming more reflective about who we are today, more than who we were after the civil war. It seems like it has taken this long for the South, for Nashville, to accept diversity. Before this, Nashville was a diverse city, but the city itself within the (outer interstate) loop, was predominantly owned and run by the white 1 percent.”

To Gavigan, Nashville has always been a diverse city, but its diversity has struggled to find its way out from under the quilt of traditionalism. With acceptance and curiosity for what's different, combined with an influx of new people and money, comes fertile ground for chefs to experiment and thrive.

"Once you break apart of that old southern bullsh*t, ya know..." said Waxman. "We’re a team and then the rest of the world feels comfortable coming into Nashville."

While they may complain about the additional traffic and swarming tourists, it's the residents of the city that benefit most from the explosion. Nashville’s growth spurt means more; it means more biscuits, brunch and bustle to and from their new favorite restaurants. People are coming from far and near so watch out locals, but if you really think about it locals, through experimentation and conversation, know where to get the best biscuits. Speaking of biscuits, Karl Worley, of Biscuit Love in the gulch embraces the growth.

"We have a lot of different people from a lot of different backgrounds in our kitchen, and a lot of times they will bring in recipes they cook from home. It’s going to be exciting when they are able to rise up and kind of start their own thing."

Worley, not only looks at the current explosion, but also the even more promising future things to come.

"I’m excited, I know that a lot of other cities have a lot of food incubators and food halls which would allow people with a much lower price point to get in and show the world what they’re doing. I’m excited to see the rise of ethnic food and rise of food halls. I hope that is right down the road."

Young and old and everything in between are flocking to Nashville to place their roots. But mostly young. For Waxman and Worley, they look at millennials as potentially the key barometer of Nashville's food trends.

"I think Millennials are so interesting because of their knowledge and the places their brains have gone," said Waxman. "They can sit in one place but their brains can go around the world through the Internet and their brains demand certain things."

"Young people like exciting, new, different," said Worley. "I think it’s going to keep us as cooks on our toes with coming up and innovating and bringing something different that they can’t get at a chain. One of the cool things that I love about young people, and I’m starting to see it more, is we use local products and we don’t have to make a statement about it. We use it and know that, so we’re feeling good and supporting local."

Lisa Donovan, writer, premier Nashville pastry chef previously of Husk, offers a bit of old-school caution to the growth in Music City.

“I hope that the enthusiasm doesn’t get lost with this major influx of people moving in. Not to say that they’re not welcome, there’s a really genuine care and enthusiasm for each other in this town that I think we all end up benefitting from. I think that’s why people are moving. We do have really good food and we do have incredibly talented people here. All of the people who are in this business really give a damn and have been doing them here for quite some time.”

Donovan's caution was once an indirect method for discouraging the growth of Nashville.  Keep the foreigners out by telling the locals that they'll lose their soul with every new resident. Now, the spirit of the plea, actually bears some legitimacy. An influx of growth at an exponential rate may pull at the heart of the city's "together"ism.

"It needs to be an organic growth," says Maneet Chauhan, chef/owner of Chauhan Ale & Masala House and of Food Network's "Chopped" fame. "The most amazing part about Nashville is the sense of camaraderie. So that means we work as a team together, we cannot be poaching people from each other. At the end of the day we are a community we need to preserve that community."

But cautionary tales not-withstanding, there's no debating the boom is providing options upon options for the hungry masses wandering the streets and boulevards of Nashville. That said, growth implies room for more, and Nashville is still missing a few key cogs in its food landscape.

“Nashville is missing a Chinese restaurant, which we are opening in two months," chuckles Chauhan. "It's missing a global diner concept which we are opening in 3 months. And whatever else we are missing, I won’t tell you because we will just open it and then I’ll announce it, simple as that.”

"I think it’s specialty stuff too, like bakers. I think Nashville needs bakers," says Waxman.

John Lasater, executive chef of Hattie B’s Hot Chicken, would like to see a good seafood restaurant in Nashville and more affordable options in general.

“You have to have a good price point, you have to have good food, and if you have a high price point, you better have DAMN good food," said Lasater. "I would like to see good price points as well as good food here in Nashville.”

"I think I’m really ready to see some more dynamic and challenging types of cuisine," said Donovan. "I am anxious to see a more diverse palate. I love these restaurants but I don’t need every restaurant to serve out of a cast-iron skillet. I would love to walk into a cozy little place that is family ran and get knockout Chinese food!"

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