Making Her Moves 

Kim Totzke oversees the complex maneuvering of staff at Katie and Gep Nelson's Nashville Restaurant Group

Kim Totzke oversees the complex maneuvering of staff at Katie and Gep Nelson's Nashville Restaurant Group

When Kim Totzke raids a kitchen, it's not food she's looking for—it's people. And as executive chef of the Nashville Restaurant Group—the company owned by Katie and Gep Nelson, whose holdings now include Wild Iris, Yellow Porch, Cross Corners Bar & Grille, The Flying Horse and Pegasus Catering—she is a person who needs people. Chef people, to be precise, which is a tall order and a tricky recipe.

Totzke began with the company as chef of Yellow Porch in 2001. Less than a year later, the Nelsons promoted her to executive chef of the two restaurants they owned at the time, the Porch and Wild Iris. While she oversaw the kitchens at both establishments, it took several months for her to replace herself at the Porch, so she was also cooking there while desperately seeking a new chef from a slim file of résumés. "People in the chef community didn't really know our restaurants then, so I had to really go out and beat the bushes to find people," she explains.

The bushwhacking days are over. Now, with the popular success of both restaurants and the solid reputation they enjoy within the industry as places where chefs are given the time and creative freedom to develop their own distinct menus, both established talents and novice aspirants flock to fill any open positions. So when word got out that the Nelsons had purchased a building at the Factory at Franklin formerly occupied by Princeton's Grille, and Totzke placed an ad in the classifieds, she was bombarded with replies. "I probably got 40 résumés, not just from chefs in Nashville, but out of city, out of state and even out of the country."

The process begins with an examination of résumé, reference check and in-person interview. If the applicant passes go, he or she is asked back for round two. "I tell them they have 30 minutes to go in the cooler, find something and make a dish. That will tell you a lot, and whether they've been truthful on their résumé."

As it turned out, two of the first three people she interviewed ended up filling two key positions, and both came from the same source—The Wild Boar, Nashville's priciest restaurant. "Neither of them knew the other was applying," she says. "It just worked out that we hired both."

The challenge of filling so many spots was like an intricate game of chess, with kitchen staff as playing pieces. These were the moves Totzke made. Travis Dossat, longtime chef at Yellow Porch, went to The Flying Horse in Franklin. "Travis just moved to Franklin, he lives five minutes from there, and he has the energy to do a big restaurant like that. Travis and I have worked together so long, I know I can trust him and rely on him, which is really important when you are opening a new restaurant. I also knew a place that big required a co-chef situation." Enter Drew Thompson, sous chef at the Boar. "The Horse is different from the Porch or the Iris," Totzke continues. "It's not going to go out on a limb creatively as much as they do. With that many seats to fill, we are competing for the family dining dollar with the chains in Cool Springs. The menu we have done at the Horse has some things from both the Porch and Iris, but it also has a fried chicken salad and a burger. Travis and Drew can stretch on the specials; they both want to do the best food they can do." Coming on board as sous chef at the Horse is Tony Patton, most recently sous chef of Bound'ry.

Now Totzke needed a replacement for Dossat at the Porch, and she found one in Chris Howes, former chef de cuisine at the Boar—though she takes issue with the term "replace." "When I hire a chef, I'm not looking for someone to replace the last chef; I'm looking for a chef who will build on what is there and make it their own, take it to the next level." Coming on as sous chef at the Porch is someone familiar to Howes—Nathan Hudson, who was most recently line cook at the Boar.

Meanwhile, Wild Iris sous chef Ben Barbour was promoted to chef of the company's new catering division, Pegasus. That left Iris chef Laura Karwisch—whom Totzke had met when both were solo-dining at the bar at Margot Cafe—without a right-hand man. But not for long; Jason Bierly, most recently at Basante's Green Hills, is now working under Karwisch as sous chef of the Iris.

"In our restaurants, I want to see everyone trying to move up, and the people over them should be helping them out," Totzke explains. "Every chef should be training their sous to be a chef. Every sous should be training the line cooks, and every line cook should be training the dishwasher. It keeps everyone in the kitchen working together, helping each other out. There isn't room for big egos in my kitchens.

"The only place I didn't make any moves was at Cross Corner; my kitchen manager there, Joe Talley, is awesome, and he makes the best burger in town. We put it on the Flying Horse menu."

Gep Nelson credits Totzke with making all this personnel maneuvering work smoothly. "She is a great juggler; she can manage all of these very different places, and, because of her background and experience, chefs trust her, and she knows how to work with them. Chefs can definitely have some egos, but they know she is a great chef herself, and she can go toe to toe with any of them. Lots of our customers at the Porch still ask for her when they come in; they miss her cooking for them."

Totzke, driving in between restaurants for meetings with staff, says that she misses it too. "Sometimes I'll do a special at the Porch, because I miss it a lot. The other day, I made chicken salad at the Horse, just to touch food!"

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