Thursday, September 26, 2013

Music City Eats Recap: Nashville Culinary Geek-Out With Whiskey

Posted By on Thu, Sep 26, 2013 at 5:42 AM

Moderator Jennifer Justus talks with Nathan Followill, Tandy Wilson and Kahlil Arnold at Music City Eats.
  • @CeeElCee
  • Moderator Jennifer Justus talks with Nathan Followill, Tandy Wilson and Kahlil Arnold at Music City Eats.
So we've had a few days to muse over our experiences at Music City Eats — the ambitious food and music festival that took place downtown last weekend.

Thoughts are distilling, you might say. For me, as something of a food geek, what stands out are the stimulating panel discussions that brought together Nashville chefs, out-of-town chefs and all kinds of foodie luminaries to chew on culinary topics.

That, along with some really good food, with the only disappointment being that some of the samplings ran out before some of the folks could try them. And I won't soon forget the abundance of whiskey, a lot more than I (a humble restaurant reporter who's never been assigned to the booze beat) have ever been offered in my life. Not that that's a bad thing.

A brand-new event, Music City Eats was launched by Kings of Leon and some of their friends and associates in the realms of music and food. In addition to the panels, the festival (which ran Saturday and Sunday) offered cooking demonstrations, book signings and the Flavors of Nashville tasting tents in Public Square Park, with bites from local chefs, along with various wine, beer and liquor samplings. In addition, on Saturday there was Harvest Night — featuring signature dishes from the big-gun chefs — followed by the evening's musical entertainment, the Petty Fest concert at War Memorial Auditorium.

The first panel I caught, "What Music City Eats," welcomed Kings of Leon's Nathan Followill as a late addition to the lineup, with Tandy Wilson of City House and Kahlil Arnold of the venerable Arnold's Country Kitchen, with food writer Jennifer Justus moderating.

Wilson and Followill talked about the similarities between chefs and musicians: "We work the same hours."

The conversation touched on Southern food as an extension of community food, the family picnic leading to the meat-and-three. When Justus asked for a memory of something Nashville has lost, Wilson mentioned the bygone Hap Townes, and said he still makes a batch of that cafe's famous stewed raisins (based on a recipe recovered and published by John Egerton) for his dad a few times a year.

Another panel, "May the Source Be With You" was moderated by New Orleans chef John Besh, with Nashville chefs Hal Holden-Bache (Lockeland Table) and Margot McCormack (Margot and Marché) joining ice cream queen Jeni Britton Bauer and Joseph Lenn of the posh Barn at Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tenn., discussing how getting ingredients directly from farmers is challenging but essential, and can stimulate creativity in unexpected ways.

(Hearing the struggles Britton Bauer has gone through to get her ingredients cast new light on the debate over the $10 pint of ice cream, whichever side of the debate you're on. She had a really interesting story about trying to grow huckleberries but serendipitously coming up with celery ice cream instead.)

Jonathan Waxman, Nancy Silverton, Sarah Gavigan, Erik Anderson
  • Jen Creed/Music City Eats
  • Jonathan Waxman, Nancy Silverton, Sarah Gavigan, Erik Anderson
Ultimately, though some of the discussion topics seemed simplistic, perhaps even inane — like "What Would You Serve," referring to a hypothetical dilemma of what you might serve, say, Elvis Presley, were he here today — it didn't really matter with a lineup of interesting chefs behind the microphones.

On that particular question, Nancy Silverton (legendary L.A. baker and chef at Osteria Mozza) said that in general, if she doesn't know somebody, she tries to serve them things they can pronounce, but at the same time, things that she herself loves. Jonathan Waxman (of New York's Barbuto, who was one of the producers of the fest) insisted that chefs always basically serve whatever pleases them most. He also said he hides all the ketchup bottles in his house on principle, so there you go.

(He did mention that he'd just had Peg Leg Porker's Southern-style green beans — actually, they were broad beans, he corrected — and they were "the best thing in the world.")

The other two chefs on the stage, Nashville's Sarah Gavigan (Otaku South) and Erik Anderson (The Catbird Seat), more than held their own in conversation with the more famous chefs, reflecting the general air of collegiality at the event.

There was only a little bit of celebrity worship evident. There was some buzz about whether Giada De Laurentiis had really been spotted eating a fried bologna sandwich at Robert's Western World on Friday night. But if the organizers were at all concerned about the hoi polloi doing too much crushing on the celebrities, they needn't have had too many worries in Nashville.

The one drawback to the panel discussions was that they drew you away from the Flavors of Nashville tents and lessened your chances of snagging all the excellent samples cooked up by local restaurants. (There was a different set of restaurants on Saturday and Sunday, though many of the beverage purveyors remained the same.)

On Saturday, in particular, some of the food ran out early, which was disappointing. But given that it was a first-time event, it was still a pretty robust amount of food on offer.

And good god. The liquor. Wherever you turned, there was somebody helpfully offering up a tray of Jameson whiskey and ginger ale. (Jameson was one of the festival's many sponsors.) There were many more beverages than I could mention here, but the big hit of the weekend seemed to be Willett bourbon. People were marveling at the complexity of the flavors, even served in plastic cups.

Fortunately, the organizers wisely provide more bottled water than any other beverage. There were bins holding chilled bottles of Mountain Valley Spring Water placed literally every few feet on the festival grounds. Pounding 16-ounce bottles of water between rounds really helped ward off the vapors.

As one might expect, the food at Harvest Night, where the famous chefs did their thing, was especially delectable. But there were logistical glitches. Many of the lines were slow, and not everybody got to try everything. I missed Tim Love's lamb chops, but I got to try New Orleans chef Donald Link's outstanding shrimp sandwich, perhaps one of the finest shrimp dishes I've ever eaten.

Part of the buzz at the fest was that Link said he's considering bringing his Cochon Butcher concept to Nashville. I, like every other member of the media, asked him about it, and he deflected with another question: If he brought Cochon Butcher to Nashville, where should it go? Only later did somebody point out that I should have responded, "Across the street from my office."

I didn't make it to Petty Fest, but my Scene colleagues at The Spin did, and it sounds like it was a memorable evening.

Again, for a first-time event, Music City Eats seemed to go pretty well. If it returns next year (and I'm guessing it will), it would be good to see a beefing-up of the supply of food samples.

Also, Harvest Night offered fine dishes and the opportunity to see distinguished chefs in action, but people wanted to chat with the chefs (which is natural) and the flow of the lines got interrupted. Maybe that flow could somehow be reworked. And some people seemed to be hoping for a more extensive dinner experience, given that the event took place at 7 p.m., with little time for festivalgoers to eat elsewhere before or after.

One issue I can't fully speak to is the ticket price. There were two tiers: $249 for the daytime events Saturday and Sunday (panels, demos and Flavors of Nashville), or $500, adding Harvest Night and Petty Fest. That's in line with festivals in other cities, but steep for Nashville — though Nashville has never had a festival quite like this.

I'm not a promoter, so I don't know all the factors or the bottom line. But I do know that offering a single-day pass or some other partial pass at a lower price would open the event up to a lot more people.

At the same time, I kept thinking over the weekend that while some people might assail a food festival that costs up to $500, there's little hubbub over the thousands of season ticketholders who were watching the Titans play at the stadium just a block from the festival on Sunday. Or the folks making beelines to the Apple Store that weekend to secure their new golden iPhones.

I do hope Music City Eats returns next year. It was a pretty remarkable weekend, and with a just a couple tweaks could be even more so.

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  • Jen Creed/Music City Eats

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