The year in food: 2012 was a wild year for Nashville

Jennifer Justus for The Tennessean, December 26th, 2012

Remember that cartoon in which the Tasmanian Devil whipped through town on the hunt for duck (Daffy) and burgers? That’s sort of what the food scene has felt like in Nashville this year — a fast, fun, slightly out-of-control and ravenous swirl of events that even caused outsiders to stop and stare. And we’re certainly not complaining. We’ve listed some significant moments from 2012 below, and with a year like that behind us, it’s hard to say what 2013 will bring. But we’re raising a glass of Yazoo or Jackalope beer or two fingers of Tennessee whiskey to the New Year with just this toast: Bring it.

Comings and goings

Yes, we’re open. Sorry, we’re closed. While we were sad to hear about the closings of beloved restaurants including Cha Chah and tayst, we know that good things lie ahead. For instance, Husk Restaurant of Charleston, which Bon Appetit called the best new restaurant in the country in 2011, announced it would open a location here, bringing former Hermitage Hotel executive chef Sean Brock back to town — at least more often. Plenty of other restaurants opened their doors, too, such as Rolf and Daughters, Lockeland Table, Barista Parlor, Urban Grub, The Pharmacy Burger Parlor and Beer Garden, Pour House, Hattie B’s Hot Chicken, M. Restaurant, The Southern, Etch, Pomodoro East, Silo, Aura, Feast, and 8th & Roast Coffeeshop. Whew! And that’s not even a comprehensive list. Gus’s Fried Chicken added a second location here, as did Bobbie’s Dairy Dip, Bolton’s Hot Chicken and M.L. Rose along Charlotte Pike, which with The Stone Fox, is making that area a new hotbed of restaurant activity.

Focus on farms

Jeff Poppen reminded us that we shouldn’t take our farms for granted. Meanwhile, The Hermitage Hotel gives hope by buying the farm. When a post on Facebook about Poppen, the Barefoot Farmer and mentor to many at Long Hungry Creek Farm in Red Boiling Springs, announced that he would be closing his organic farm because of a Tyson chicken house venture next door, the news spread like kudzu. It turns out Poppen will not stop farming. His CSA will continue to operate (call 615-352-8588 or visit, but his operation will be forced to change, and he will be moving. It’s a reminder of the difficult issues facing farmers that crossed into the mainstream consciousness in 2007 with Michael Pollen’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma” and 2008’s “Food Inc.,” and all those “No Farms No Food” bumper stickers. We could always use a fresh wake-up call, but we’re glad Poppen will stay in business. Meanwhile, The Hermitage Hotel announced that it would expand its farming operation with the purchase of a larger plot of land. It’s a reminder, too, that we need to keep supporting our local chefs who support our local farmers, and we need to directly support the farmers, too. Because even though the chefs get the rock star attention, it’s the farmers who keep it punk rock.

Sweet relief

Food bloggers raised money for Sweet Relief once again. In 2010, Nashville’s food blogging community came together for the first time to raise money with a bake sale after the Nashville flood. This year, close to 40 local food bloggers and bakers gathered again to raise money to help a food bank in New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy. Both gestures brought together the community in a spirit of giving and nurturing through food.

A food trend on a roll

The Food Truck fleet keeps rolling and growing. What started as just a handful of food trucks a few years ago has grown to more than 50 strong, offering a hungry Nashville everything from hot chicken biscuits to banh mi. The trucks pulled together, too, over the past couple years to form the Nashville Food Truck Association, which helps advocate for these mobile entrepreneurs and even added a Nashville Street Food Awards this year.

Major milestones

We celebrated some big birthdays. Goo Goo Clusters celebrated its 100th year in October with nearly 50 restaurants paying homage to the candy with creations on their dessert menus. McCabe Pub celebrated 30 years. Midtown Cafe celebrated 25, and City House turned 5, which in restaurant years might as well be 50.

Famous chefs came calling

Those who went to the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in November to hear bad-boy chef Anthony Bourdain speak watched as a presentation glitch made him sweat. Well, almost. But the king of cool recovered and entertained a rowdy crowd, signing autographs for an excited group after the show. Gordon Ramsay visited, as well, in an attempt to overhaul Chappy’s on Church. And last but not least, chefs Thomas Keller and Sebastian Rouxel visited as local chefs served up their own creations as well as desserts from their new “Bouchon Bakery” cookbook.

The good food fight

Nashville continues to show its big heart by working hard to take care of our own. The Nashville Food Project, in particular, stepped up its game this year, feeding thousands of hot, healthy meals to the homeless and working poor throughout Davidson County. With the help of food scene titan Thomas Williams, the group also raised a large chunk of change to support its efforts with the annual Nourish dinner at Nashville Farmers’ Market. Other groups worked to empower through food as well — such as Lambscroft, which opened a restaurant employing homeless called The Cookery. And, of course, we celebrate the continued, tireless efforts of Second Harvest Food Bank, the regular meals at Room in the Inn, and the twice-weekly homeless meals at the Downtown Presbyterian Church, among others.

Higher spirits

Distilleries keep finding ways to quench our thirst. In 2009, the legislature changed state law to expand legal liquor-making to 41 Tennessee counties from the previous three. But it seems most boutique distilleries have really gained momentum in 2012. Collier and McKeel’s Tennessee whiskey was even named in The New York Times gift guide, as breweries including Fat Bottom popped up. But among the most interesting is Whisper Creek Tennessee Sipping Cream, a whiskey-and-cream formula that’s good for sipping over ice, flavoring coffee and sparking the creativity of pastry chefs around town.


National media noticed Nashville. Not so long ago, we’d gasp when a Nashville restaurant had a blurb in a major magazine. But now they’re doing full spreads on us. The New York Times, GQ magazine and Food & Wine magazine all sang the city’s praises. Bon Appetit even named Nashville the “coolest, tastiest city in the South.” The accolades keep coming in, and every time we see a homegirl (or boy) representing, we take two fist bumps to the chest and point a finger to our Music City skyline.

New wave of nontraditional restaurants

Earlier this year, Sarah Gavigan of the pop-up ramen and yakitori restaurant Otaku South opined that Nashville needs nontraditional restaurants to help take our city to the next culinary level. Indeed, Nashville has embraced offbeat models, including Otaku South as well as Buttermilk Road Supper Club, food blogger and Tennessean contributor Vivek Surti’s supper clubs and Riffs Fine Street Food’s pop-up restaurants. We can’t wait to see where these creative people take us next on their culinary journey. But we also want to give props to an earlier wave that paved the way with Avon Lyons’ Good Wife Supper Club, Shalene France Gray’s Esoteric Vegan and the longer-running Mangia Nashville.


Vegan delights pack healthy meals with flavor, color: Busy mom packs healthy meals with flavor, color

Jennifer Justus for The Tennessean, June 6th, 2012

We could write an entire story about Shalene France Gray’s cooking, and you’d probably never know she’s vegan. The food she puts on the table for her family and friends defies the vegan stereotypes of twigs and nuts and comes packed with color and flavor instead. But then again, keeping her lifestyle a secret would defeat the idea.

For this month’s Nashville Cooks series, we visited Gray’s East Nashville home to show how eating without meat, eggs, cheese and milk can be interesting and decadently delicious. It’s not that we think everyone should become vegan; we just believe there’s a lot to learn from those who feast on fresh vegetables daily — especially this time of year. It’s an opportunity to ramp up repertoire, and the limitations can breed creativity.

And Gray is certainly a creative one. As a Realtor and busy mother of 2-year-old daughter Zazou, Gray also hosts an underground supper club on occasion called Esoteric Vegan ( One of her previous themes involved a fresh take on the TV dinner, decorations and live Buddy Holly music. Gray, a former burlesque dancer who also worked as a photography assistant and in the music business, turns food into the center of an event — whether it’s a full-blown party or dinner at home.

“It brings people together,” she said of her love of entertaining. “If you think about having a party, everyone always hangs out in the kitchen.” She comes by it honestly. “I always say I get it from my grandmother,” she said. “She always had some sort of festivities going on at her house.” Her grandmother also owned a restaurant, and then later in life her grandfather had a band called The Old Smoothies. Shalene’s grandmother was their booking agent. Gray moved to Nashville as a booking agent, too.

Dessert fits the diet

The night we visited the Grays, Shalene played the soundtrack from Big Night, the iconic food movie about two brothers who owned an Italian restaurant. She clipped fresh basil and oregano from the garden for a summer pasta dish loaded with garlic, grape tomatoes and olive oil. She sliced fennel and apples on a mandolin and cored the fruit by improvising with a cannoli form. She tossed lettuces from the East Nashville Farmers’ Market with pumpkin and pomegranate seeds and topped the salad with the rings of apple and fennel before whipping up a spicy cumin salad dressing.

Meanwhile, behind her at the island where she worked, she pulled together a side dish of green peas — spicy with red pepper flakes, sweet with sauced onions and a smidge of tang from tomato paste. Dinner would be served with a loaf of Tuscan bread passed around the table and ramekins of olive oil and more garlic for dipping.

Dessert, though, served as the showpiece. Gray assembled vegan tiramisu cupcakes hollowed out and filled with a sweetened espresso, a tuft of icing, and then topped with a cut-out of cake, plus more icing and tiny flecks of chocolate. It’s the sort of cupcake you should probably eat with a fork, but it doesn’t involve a single bit of animal fat, eggs or milk. “I’ve tried many things,” she said of the recipe from Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World. “They just don’t fail.”

Change improved health

As for going vegan, Gray’s husband, Jason, took the plunge first in 2006 after reading the Food Revolution: How Your Diet Can Help Save Your Life and Our World by John Robbins. Shalene, who already adhered to a vegetarian diet, followed suit a month later. She had high cholesterol, even as a vegetarian, but as a vegan, her cholesterol has nosedived over time to 168.

The Grays grow peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes and herbs in the backyard, and they belong to a Community Supported Agriculture group, which they began the first year they went vegan. But they also find many ways to eat out as vegans, such as at City House, where they’ll order a vegan pizza and meat-free side dishes, or at tayst (chef/owner Jeremy Barlow’s wife is vegan), or they’ll go out for Indian, Ethiopian, Thai or Japanese.

But there’s something special about the home-cooked meal. “Jason will tell you that everything’s better when I make it,” Shalene said. And so she cooks nearly every day, often with an inquisitive Zazou at her elbow. How has the addition to the family changed her repertoire? “It hasn’t,” she said. “Except I probably use cookbooks less, and do more winging it.”|newswell|text|FRONTPAGE|p


Underground Eats:

Jennifer Justus for Nashville Lifestyles Magazine, April 2011 Best Restaurants issue

Meanwhile, Esoteric Vegan operates more like a true underground supper club—the menu and location are kept secret until a reservation is made. But at a recent dinner, attendees feasted on a four-course Mardi Gras meal of French onion soup, jambalaya with collard slaw, cornbread and individual-sized King Cakes spiced with cinnamon and glazed with sugar. Though the food is vegan, carnivores are welcome, and club organizer and chef Shalene France Gray always includes an artistic element that goes beyond the table, such as a second-line brass band or dance troupe.


Vegan Supper Club

By Anna Peraino for VegNews Magazine’s VegNews Daily (online), March 11, 2011

Supper clubs are gaining popularity among foodies in Nashville, Tenn., including vegans. Esoteric Vegan, a 100-percent vegan club organized by chef Shalene France Gray, meets once every three months and always includes a little something extra, such as a brass band or dance group. Gray does not plan on opening a restaurant one day, but says of the club, “I was trying to figure out a way to fulfill [the desire to cook], and give Nashville another [veg] option.” The club recently hosted a Mardi Gras dinner, which included jambalaya with collard slaw and King Cakes.


Esoteric Vegan’s Mardi Gras Dinner

Jack Silverman for the Nashville SCENE

When: Sat., Feb. 26, 2011, 6:30 p.m.

Think of them as the underground rockers of the food movement — except instead of JEFF the Brotherhood pounding eardrums in a dingy basement at a hush-hush address, these folks are whipping up vegan feasts guerilla-style at a similarly undisclosed location. Esoteric Vegan’s dinner last summer, Viva Italia, transformed a local photography studio into a charming trattoria and included a wonderful feast, some lovely romantic crooning by Tommy Keenum — in Italian, no less — and a bewitching dance performance by Gabrielle Saliba. On tap for tonight: Mardi Gras, featuring a four-course New Orleans-style meal and entertainment to match. For more information and to make reservations, visit If you’ve got that Big Easy jones, don’t delay — last we heard, there are only a few spots left.


A life in local food

By Alan Powell for the Long Hungry Creek Farm/Barefoot Farmer CSA Newsletter – 8.1.10
(The Italian-themed dinner Alan mentions toward the end was Esoteric Vegan’s “Viva Italia” dinner on 7.31.10.

Running this CSA, (and last year Bells Bend’s), selling food to restaurants, attending farmers markets, going to potlucks, visiting farms, preserving food, and bartering with like-minded people, all characterize a life in local food.  There is also a community of chefs who cook in the local restaurants, especially those prioritizing fresh, local ingredients, and they support each other in many ways.

In my weekly restaurant visits, I have acted as a taste tester, or even a courier at times, carrying a special treat from one restaurant kitchen to another.  I too have been swept up in this process, trading pickles or kimchi with local chefs, receiving portions of cured meats like salami or summer sausage, or just carrying a joking message full of crass but endearing jibes from one chef to another.

I’ve been invited to far more potlucks than I am able to attend, and have become aware that at least two new farmers markets have opened this year.  They are in every corner of Nashville now, each unique, often occurring on different days, and most (thankfully) are thriving.  This Saturday I am even playing music at the West Nashville Farmers Market at 9:15 in the morning.  (Come on out if you can.)

Last night I attended a gourmet, Italian themed, vegan dinner put on by an inactive CSA member.  All I can say is- Wow!  I just have to share the menu with you.  Everyone received a raspberry mojito mocktail upon arrival.  First course consisted of tomato bruschetta and stuffed tomato bites.  Next came a cold cucumber and potato soup, followed by a rustic country salad.  The main course consisted of a trio- summer stuffed peppers, eggplant gratin, and homemade pasta with a raw tomato sauce.  Each divine dessert plate had four items- chocolate cream mousse with almond tuille, chocolate almond truffle, Italian wedding cookie, and a coconut macaroon.  There was a condiment plate on each table with a selection of olives, artichoke hearts, and baby pickles, and plenty of bread, including my contribution, garlic and dried tomato focaccia.  Wine was optional but seemed to flow endlessly. We all left stuffed full like the peppers.

What struck me was how many people were not vegan, just food lovers who love and support local food, and most of the ingredients were sourced locally.  This movement, where food lovers get together to share our local bounty, build community, and support the local economy, is filled with a real diversity of individuals.  America has been accused of having no food culture, and perhaps in large part over the last several decades, that was true.  There is, however, an emergence of something special going on here, and I feel privileged, not to mention well satiated, to be a part of it.


Culinary Confidential: Esoteric Vegan Dinner Party Set for July 31

By Jack Silverman on Wed, Jul 7, 2010 at 4:08 PM for the Nashville SCENE

It’s no secret that the Nashville dining scene is a tad starved for vegan dining options. Outside of Wild Cow, Grins and Woodlands Indian Vegetarian Cuisine — vegetarian eateries that, though not technically vegan, offer a fair number of vegan options — there aren’t really any places that are particularly welcoming to the vegan diner.If you’re a vegan trapped in a world of fried chicken, pulled pork and meat-and-threes, Esoteric Vegan might just be an oasis in your culinary desert. A dinner hosted by a vegan Nashvillian who prefers to keep a low profile in the media, Esoteric Vegan will likely be a quarterly event, and will feature more than just food: Each gathering will include some sort of artistic collaboration — dance, visual art and music are all possibilities. While the identity of the host may be a secret, I can attest to her reputation as both a cook and a party thrower.The inaugural installment of Esoteric Vegan takes place Saturday, July 31, and features the theme “Viva Italia!” For a $40 donation, diners will be treated to a four-course Italian-inspired meal and entertainment to match. The dinner is limited to 20 diners, and as of today, eight slots are still available (and that number will likely change to six after I get done writing this post and reserve a couple of spots).