“There’s a lot that goes into the creation of a dish, and it begins in the ground,” says Alice Waters, chef-owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif. “First of all, it’s what variety of vegetable you’re going to be planting, or what strain of chicken you’re going to be raising. Then it’s how you’re going to be doing this, hopefully without herbicides and pesticides, and in a way that naturally fertilizes the plants or feeds the animals. It’s when this is being picked, and then, ultimately, how quickly that gets to the table because for me, food is about aliveness. Cooking is a very small part of it.”
from Dining Out: Secrets From America’s Leading Critics, Chefs, and Restaurateurs by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page
Since opening her restaurant Chez Panisse in 1971, Alice Waters has profoundly influenced American cooking with a guiding philosophy of sure and simple: Secure the freshest vegetables, fruits, meat, and fish, and showcase them by doing as little as possible to alter the original flavor. When Waters was a 19-year-old student living in France, her home was on the other side of a farmer’s market, which she walked through every day on her way to school. When she returned to California, she brought back memories of that market and the neighborhood French bistros, both of which proved to be an inspiration when she opened Chez Panisse.
Waters started by focusing on the ingredients. She began shopping at Chinese markets in Berkeley and soliciting produce from nearby gardens. Unhappy with the fish she was getting, she sent someone down to the port every day to find fishermen as they docked their boats. When she couldn’t find the baby lettuces she loved in France, she had a friend in Nice send her mesclun seeds, tore up her backyard, and grew her own. She demanded better bread and found a forager to hunt for mushrooms. Ultimately, she hired a full-time forager whose job it was to seek out products and interview farmers to see if their produce was up to measure. According to Waters in an interview posted on the Internet, her restaurants employ the same system for all 75 of the vendors they use, from produce to dairy to meat.
Chez Panisse may be thousands of miles and a far cry from Nashville’s own dining establishments, but several local chefs share Waters’ guiding principles. As restaurants roll out new menus to mark the change of season, dishes get lighter, salads and cold soups take on a larger role, and more produce goes almost straight from the garden to the table. Unfortunately, even as the growing season nears peak productivity, and the Eighth Avenue Farmers Market displays an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables, many area chefs fret that the quality and variety of produce is not what it should be. Increasingly, they rely on out-of-town purveyors and overnight shippers, supplementing that with bounty from their own gardens.
“Because we are close, we go to the Farmers Market a lot,” says Anita Hartel, co-chef/owner of Sasso in East Nashville. “But the Farmers Market has changed a lot; there aren’t as many farmers selling their own produce there, though you see more of it now with certain items, like corn or tomatoes. Still, a lot of produce is being trucked in from Alabama and Florida.
“I’ve always said I wanted to be the Alice Waters of the South. A former sous chef of mine now has a small restaurant in Berkeley and has a big garden out back of the restaurant and a full-time gardener! How great is that?”
Chefs are frequently gardeners as well, and Hartel is no exception. All of the arugula Sasso serves is from her garden“It’s so much more peppery and spicy than what I could buy, probably because it’s just picked.” Hartel and partner Corey Griffith have also cleared an area in back of Sasso where they grow herbs, some tomatoes, beans, and other basic vegetables. But when it comes to the exotics, or even something as simple as heirloom tomatoes, such items are not available locally.
Freddy Brooker, chef at The Trace, has 53 of his own tomato plants, which help produce ingredients for the Hillsboro Village restaurant. Margo McCormack, chef at F. Scott’s, buys some tomatoes and peaches at the Farmers Market, and she gets a small supply of tomatillos, okra, and other summer vegetables from restaurant co-owner and avid gardener Alan Fiuzat. But lately she’s been dealing primarily with purveyors who aren’t local. “I am going directly to the source, not just for produce, but for fish, chicken, cheese.”
Josh Weekley, chef and co-owner of Atlantis, is also skipping the middleman and going directly to the source, via Freshnex.com on the Internet. “The site has purveyors, small farmers, and fishermen all over the country; you can find just about anything. It gets shipped overnight.” He has also cultivated several of his own suppliers. “I have a woman in California who grows nothing but baby lettuces. She ships them in florist boxes, and you never know what you’re going to get, but they’re beautiful.”
Tod Weachter, a graduate of Johnson & Wales culinary school in Charleston, S.C., spent three years as night chef at Midtown Café before moving to California and cooking at several restaurants there. When he and his wife decided to start a family, they moved back to Nashville, and three months ago he took over the kitchens at Katie and Gep Nelson’s two restaurants, the Wild Iris in Brentwood and the Yellow Porch in Nashville. He has just finished redoing the menu at Wild Iris and is now concentrating on the Yellow Porch. Both restaurants already grew their own herbs.
Weachter admits to having problems getting the type of produce he was accustomed to on the West Coast. He is growing several varieties of tomatoes at his home, and he gets squash blossoms from his grandmother. “It’s odd. Tennessee has such a long growing season, and normally more rain than California, but no one is growing the things here that they grow out there. Katie and I talk about getting a plot of land and growing our own things.”
In New York, many top chefs have done just that, purchasing acreage, usually in the fertile Hudson Valley, and growing their own products. According to McCormack, it’s also a growing trend in the Atlanta region. Sasso’s Hartel thinks that with the increase of new independent restaurants and chefs moving here from other cities, the same thing might start to happen in Nashville. “As we get more people dedicated to fresh, quality products, we might be able to get several restaurants together, find some land, hire a grower, and have a little co-op. I don’t think it’s that far off.”
Twelve of the 14 entrees on Sasso’s menu are new for summer. Among the dishes making their debut are Thai shrimp over limestone Bibb lettuce with a minted pea cake and tomato wedges; jalapeño-cornmeal-crusted salmon over spicy mashed potatoes in a gazpacho vinaigrette with an avocado salsa; trout sautéed with green beans, red potatoes, tomato, lemon, thyme, and baby carrots; and cioppino, the seafood soup with fresh fish, lobster, mussels, shrimp, and calamari.
Margo McCormack at F. Scott’s has introduced her summer menu, including fettuccine with poached lobster, grilled corn, and tomatoes; seared lamb loin with Greek salad, chick-pea cake, and mint vinaigrette; grilled wild salmon with cilantro rice and cucumber salsa; corn, tomato, and okra gumbo over rice with grilled sourdough; and veal scaloppine with lemon-sage brown butter, red chard, and parmesan-red pepper grits.
Deb Paquette’s new summer menu is in place at Zola. Among the temptations are smoked gazpacho; artichoke martini; grilled asparagus and homegrown tomato salad; a pistachio- and sesame-crusted salmon with spiced greens, pink grapefruit, and grilled sweet potato; and grilled lamb chops with artichoke, lamb-lemon jus, and a mint-ouzo-olive relish.
Anne Clayton is back in the kitchen fulltime at Clayton-Blackmon, A Bistro, and with chef Kristian Morgan has added some new dishes, including Maryland-style crab cakes with roasted red-pepper aoli; a Cobb salad; fresh herb polenta cakes with smoked-tomato-and-red-pepper coulis; and a roasted free-range chicken breast served over spicy-corn-and-lima-bean succotash.
Among the dishes Weachter has added at Wild Iris are a leek cannoli stuffed with crab and marinated artichokes; arancini-risotto fritters stuffed with gorgonzola cheese; crispy filet of salmon with salsa verde and garlic mashed potatoes; and a recurring special of braised lamb shank with roasted shallots and cannelloni bean ragout.
Mirror in 12South introduced its lunch menu in a soft opening last week. The culinary curious were rewarded with dishes that included a crispy fried trout basket with Asian slaw and lemongrass oil; a crunchy baked Italian hoagie; seared tuna with white beans, arugula, watercress, and balsamic onions; an applewood bacon-wrapped crab cake sandwich with jalapeño rémoulade; and a California Rueben on rye with fresh avocados. Mirror officially opens for lunch and dinner July 5.