Talking tater tots and more with Trevor Moran, who just left the world’s best restaurant for The Catbird Seat 

New Cat in Town

New Cat in Town

With the departure of chef Erik Anderson from The Catbird Seat, Benjamin Goldberg and the team at Strategic Hospitality had a crucial hire to make. In two short years Catbird had become Nashville's highest profile restaurant, during a time of unprecedented publicity for the city's burgeoning food scene. Anderson's replacement was important.

Quietly, however, his successor was already in-house. 

Trevor Moran, 33, arrived at The Catbird Seat six months ago and began a series of stages that led to his hiring. But because of the legal hoops required for a work visa — including more than 200 pages of documentation and paperwork — Moran's announcement was delayed until last week. 

Although he's Irish, he comes to Nashville after more than four years in Copenhagen at Noma. Under the tutelage of chef René Redzepi, he rose to the level of sous chef at what is widely regarded as the best restaurant in the world. Redzepi's emphasis on clean flavors, fresh ingredients and constant invention have won wide praise from the culinary world.

Sitting down over drinks at Pinewood Social — he prefers a whiskey sour — Moran is funny, humble and more than a bit awestruck at his good fortune. Ask him about the restaurant and he would rather talk about his team of cooks, a group he said he is learning from as much as leading. Ask him about his time in Denmark and he makes it clear that he was deeply inspired by his time there, but the Nordic experimentalism of Noma is a starting point, not something he wants to replicate.

How did he get here? What are his plans? Why is there no improving on tater tots? Moran answered all of this and more in a Q&A with the Scene.

How did you get hooked up with the guys at The Catbird Seat?

I met Erik [Anderson] before The Catbird Seat opened. I guess Erik had done a few internships and stages at different restaurants and he came to Noma where I was a sous chef. Usually the restaurant is full of these 20-year-olds coming over to work, and he's, like, 40? 41? He's in line with all of these cooks, and he stood out.

So one night we went out for a whiskey, and we just hit it off and started talking. Then like two years later I got a call on my phone from some American number. So I picked it up and he asked me to come over for a position that had become available. I took that job. My girlfriend's from Charleston, so I'm accustomed to the Southern thing.

You went from Ireland to Copenhagen to here. Any whiplash from coming to Nashville?

I wouldn't say whiplash. There's similarities between Ireland and the South. The people are very similar. They're very open and very warm. The music's similar. It's just a very similar place. People like to kick back and have a drink and enjoy themselves. Copenhagen's certainly different, but I've spent the vast majority of my life in the kitchen.

Did you have training or did you just end up in a kitchen?

I kind of ended up in a kitchen when I was 23. I was studying music, actually. I got into food pretty late, but I totally, totally fell in love with it. It's so cheesy, I don't want to even say it — but it's just one of those moments where you're like, "Oh, shit. This is my life." I ended up in a pastry section at a restaurant just totally blown away. I've told this before, but one day one of the chefs said, "We're gonna make ice cream," and it's my first day in the restaurant. And I was like, "You don't make ice cream." I really genuinely thought you bought these things. That's the stage I was at when I was 23. And from that day until now, I can never remember not being in the kitchen. It seems like not even a job. It's a pastime that you get paid for.

What were you doing in Ireland when you said, "I've gotta go work at Noma."

I guess I made the decision to see how far I could go. I looked at a few restaurants in Chicago, too. I traveled with a friend of mine, who actually works at Noma now. We were both in Dublin — he's Portuguese — we said, "Let's spend one week eating." So we saved up a lot of money and went to Alinea and Moto [in Chicago], went to London and some other places in Scandinavia. Noma wasn't really on the map then. I just remember we went into Noma, and we looked like two lads on holidays. We went in with Metallica shirts in a very bad way. And that's not the way you do it, when you're eating in a [Michelin] two-star. But they just welcomed us so much. And then René [Redzepi] came out and we were like, "That's the chef." The food, from the first bite to the last, was just ... raw. It tasted healthy. It was just amazing. So I decided there and then that I was going to quit my job and work there.

How would you describe Noma for somebody who's never been there?

It's a little challenging. You need to go with the right attitude — or excited, at least. Quite often you get nervous, and you can build things up in your mind. You can sort of ruin a place. The whole point is to sit back, relax, have a drink if you want to, and just let the chefs at Noma take care of you. They will do that. That's their job. One hundred percent of their focus is to make an amazing experience for you. There's no other motive. That's one of the other things that finally set in — that's the point of cooking. It's nothing else but to make a nice experience for people. That's your chosen profession. And when you realize that, it's a really humbling thing. So that's the thing if you go to Noma, relax and eat your food.

You shouldn't walk in with any expectations?

Well, yeah. It's gonna be a pretty nice meal. It's gonna be good.

I've seen a fair amount about Noma's kitchen and the process where sous chefs pitch menu ideas.

The Saturday night process? Yeah. But it's not just the sous. It's everybody. You have interns, maybe a young kid from Mexico who's 18 years of age, with very little experience. And he will come up with an idea — it might be something he's always had or wanted to cook. We've had guys do their national flag on a plate, just super amazing stuff. Or else they'll be very inspired by what they see at Noma and they'll do a dish for 30 or 40 folks. You see people really come alive under the pressure. So that's the idea. And sometimes it will inspire a new dish on the menu. We don't do that at The Catbird Seat because there's five of us. It's more of an ongoing process. The guys are always playing with stuff. I'm watching Alan [Hlebaen] and he's doing his prep for the day and he'll be cooking something alongside, and he'll ask, "What do you think of this?" It's just a constant evolution.

What was the first thing you pitched?

You want me to say the raw potato thing. [Moran put a dish of raw potatoes in front of the Saturday night group. It didn't go well.]

[Laughs] No. I know the raw potato thing. Let me put it this way. What's the first thing you pitched that you were really happy about?

In Noma? I don't know. There's so many things. You can be so happy about something and think, "Oh, this is going to work." And you put it together, and it's just a disaster. And I always heard Rene saying that: "You will constantly fail. Constantly. Constantly. Constantly." But those are the things that will eventually succeed. So in your mind a dish is one thing, but in your hand it's a very different thing. From one of the projects, I did this dish using celery and celery root as a dessert.

[Questioner makes face]

Exactly. You're like, "That's kind of weird." But that was the Noma thing. Vegetables featured very highly in desserts. I think I really took a lot from that.

Are you going to feature vegetables a lot?

I don't know. There's a lot of whimsy in cooking. One minute you'll be very inspired by meat, although we will have a philosophy — actually, we're trying to develop a philosophy, you can't just walk in and have a philosophy — of being vegetable-heavy when it's appropriate. Right now we have some coldwater fish on the menu. We have sea urchins, because now is the right time for sea urchins. But we're playing with some ideas. We want to grow our own stuff, actually.

Are you looking for a plot?

Yeah, maybe we'll put one into the restaurant. That would be kind of awesome to grow our own plants. What's really exciting about food is that there's a certain joy from picking something from the ground and eating it. Everyone knows that. If you pick a radish from the ground and eat it, it will blow your mind. It's much better than going to Whole Foods and getting something that's three or four days old. So I kind of like the idea of the process behind the food rather than overlayering the dishes with these very complex things. It's very important to show people the beauty of the food. It would be amazing if we had a garden so we could pick some plants minutes before. So instead of, "Chef, you're out on two fish, put your pan on," it's, "You're out on two fish, quickly go and pick your veg."

That's interesting.

It's not going to be pretentious food. It's going to be totally fun. We learn from the guests. We have the luxury of presenting a dish to the guests and saying, "Did you like that?" That's a really strange thing.

It's an interesting setup. You're not in the back, cranking things out and sending them to the guests.

Yeah. All of my previous experience in restaurants, I was sealed in a little metal box behind a door. It's a really strange thing.

Is there a performance aspect to it?

I'd say there is. That's not to take away from how genuine the experience is for the guest at all. It's your job. So there is some performance. You need to be charged, and sometimes you get to work and you might be in a little bit of a bad mood or something might have happened at home. But the guests should never feel that. They don't want to pay to see the grumpy chef. You don't want to be [monotone voice]: "This is the turbot in brown butter. Enjoy." So there's a performance in some way. They're paying money to spend time with you. You owe them. But that's where the performance ends. There's genuine excitement. We're total nerds.

Me and Tom [Bayless] talk quite a bit about food. We drive home together. We'll have a drink and chat about what we like to eat. But what do guests actually want and what should we give them? Do they want what we like to eat? And that's not necessarily like truffles or caviar or foie gras — those type of things. You know, you put a piece of fish on the barbecue and you char it, you turn it and put a little salt on it. And we eat that, and as chefs we say, "That's perfect." You can't make that better. Maybe it needs a little salt. So that's what we're doing in a restaurant, you put a piece of turbot on a plate and serve it to the guests, and they're like, "Where's the finesse?" So it's a dish with zero finesse. And we have a couple of dishes that have absolutely no finesse whatsoever. But we're working in the background to make the flavor beautiful. Do we add hickory at the last minute? How do we make that the most beautiful piece of charred fish you can get?

When did you get here? September?

I got here a little earlier. I've been staying with my girlfriend. She's from Charleston. I was staying here for six months before I took over at The Catbird Seat, which is a pretty cool thing, because I didn't come here in January with this whiplash. I got know a lot of people. I got to know all of the barmen here [at Pinewood Social]. I got to go to a couple of farms before starting at The Catbird.

What surprised you?

How hot it is. I'm Irish. I would never complain about it. Basically, we live [near the Cumberland River], but we have a pool. But I'm Irish. I never thought for a second that I could take to PBR or a six-pack of High Life. There are so many things that are blowing my world.

Well, it's the champagne of beers.

It's amazing! You can sit by the pool, eat some Hattie B's, drink a High Life in the blistering heat. I've got sun cream everywhere, even in my hair. That's amazing. My parents actually came out this Christmas.

Really?

Yeah. It was wonderful. They're in their late 70s. We flew to New Orleans, which was my dad's dream. Actually, I have to tell you, this is the most amazing story. I'm so excited. In The Catbird Seat just before Christmas, I was cooking some food, hanging out with the guys, two guests I was talking to bought me, my girlfriend, my mom and my dad four tickets to New Orleans.

Holy crap.

A wonderful couple. They said, "Obviously, your father really wants to experience New Orleans, we're going to get you the tickets." I said no, but they wouldn't take no for an answer. I couldn't believe it. That's crazy. So my parents came over on Saturday [before Christmas], they had a hard time getting here, their flights were canceled. I had taken the night off. I told them, "Tomorrow morning we're going to New Orleans for a surprise visit." We stayed for two days. It was the greatest.

So this is a question I have to ask ... what's something you've eaten since you got here that you hadn't seen before?

[Laughs] I've been preparing for this. I'm gonna go with three things. There's two things that are popular all over the world but that aren't done well anyplace but America. First, cheeseburgers. Cheeseburgers are everywhere. Everyone has a "gourmet" burger or they have this special bun or they put all of these things on it. That's the sin of a real cheeseburger — you can barely hold it or you have to eat it quickly. It's got "American" cheese. So a cheeseburger is a spectacular thing, with a side of tater tots. I'm EASILY impressed. You're like "tots?" And I'm blown away by tots. And you can put ketchup on them.

The crazy part, of course, is that there's nothing you can do as a chef that would improve on the frozen tots right out of the bag.

You can't! I mean, why would you do that?

This mass-produced thing ...

Is spectacular! Can't beat it. And there's certain things that we all laugh about, like homemade ketchup. I don't want that. Ketchup is perfect. Number two is hot chicken. I've had Southern fried chicken many places in Ireland. There's no chippers here. Fish and chips, I miss a lot. A fish and chips shop would go down extremely well here.

We do like our fried food here.

We'll talk to the owners. But hot chicken is a wonderful thing. Hattie B's is one of the first things I had here. It's right beside The Catbird. Erik said, "You've gotta try this chicken." So I walked down and ordered the "Damn Hot," and it was really great. Later we ordered the "Shut the Cluck Up," and I will never do that again. Those two things are wonderful and very American things that I loved.

But there's something really interesting happening in Nashville. I can feel it. Look at this place we're sitting in [Pinewood Social]. It's completely bananas. It's got this copper bar. It's luxurious but also chilled out. We've got the best restaurants here. Look at Rolf and Daughters. Everyone who sits at our table mentions Rolf and Daughters, especially if they're in town for three or four days. City House? Some of the best pizza I've ever had in my life. It's absolutely amazing. There's so much to do in this town, it's crazy.

I feel like I haven't seen 10 percent of it. And to be part of that is an amazing thing. It's nerve-wracking but amazing, you know? The team, we all feel a responsibility. There's a standard you have to live up to. And there is a standard here. You know, every night, we have people who fly in. The other night, there was a guy who flew in from L.A. just to eat at The Catbird Seat.

Wow.

I was like, "Well, what are you doing tomorrow?" And he said, "Well, I've already been to Rolf and Daughters. Tomorrow, I'll go to Husk." It's becoming a food destination. It's small. You could stay a week and eat every lunch and every dinner in a different place and be blown away.

At this point in your career, are you an Irish chef? A chef who's Irish? Nordic? What's your point of view?

To be totally honest, I don't aim to do a rendition of Noma. I don't want to do that. But it's definitely the most inspiring time in my life. That four-and-a-half years changed my life, not just in cooking but in every way. The experience of moving from my home to Copenhagen, meeting amazing people who are now all going to open their own restaurants and do stunning things. That's changed my life. Noma has done all of that for me, and I'm super-inspired. Often, I'll put something on the plate and think, "Oh, shit, that's how René would do it." In the age of modern media where someone can come into your restaurant and take a picture, and one minute later, René Redzepi is in his bed checking his phone and see a picture from here? That's how quick it is now. So you're always very conscious. It's more difficult to slowly evolve now, because there's pressure to be performing all the time. Still, it's only cooking.

What's your outlook for the next six months? What do you want to do?

That's a real stumbler. It already has a momentum, and it's a very successful restaurant, so I think it's important to continue that. We're not going to scare anybody. They're not going to have ants on the menu. We want to challenge people a tiny bit, but more than anything, we want them to have a good time.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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