Where Do Chefs Eat
Where Do Chefs Eat
For people in the restaurant business, time off is precious and can’t be wasted on bad food
by Kay West
April 15, 2004
After six nights in the restaurant, what am I gonna do?” Colleen DeGregory asks. “Go home and cook?”
Along with her husband, chef Michael DeGregory, Colleen owns Mirror restaurant on 12th Avenue South. At the moment, however, she’s sitting in the Oak Bar at the Hermitage Hotel along with Michael, Mirror bar manager Stephanie Johnson and Johnson’s husband Robin, a professor at Tennessee State University. The foursome are quite glamorously turned out, having just come from a matinee performance of The Producers at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center across the street.
“Why would you pay $60 a ticket to see a show, and wear jeans and sneakers?” Stephanie scoffs. “We have one day a week off, a chance to go out with our friends, see a show, go to a nice bar and have a drink. We’re getting dressed up, girl. And the shoes! When you’re on your feet all night, you have to do the comfortable shoe thing. But when we go out, I know I’ll be sitting down, and I get to pull out the sexy shoes. The ones you can’t walk in!”
Most upscale, independent restaurants in Nashville serve dinner every night but Sunday, which creates a dilemma for the people who work there: You can get all dressed up, but where do you go?
“If there’s a show at TPAC, we are there,” says Colleen. “We might go to brunch first, then come over here to the Hermitage for a drink before the show, then back after the show for a cocktail. It’s a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
If there isn’t a show, we’ll go to the Frist. In the summer, when the Sounds are in town, we go to Greer Stadium on Sunday, to the restaurant upstairs. Air-conditioning, a bar and baseball—what more could you want? But there are not very many restaurants like ours open on Sunday nights, so your choices for dining out like that are limited. It’s sort of ironic: Being in the business, you can’t go out to eat.”
Chain restaurants are usually open on Sunday nights, but restaurateurs who are serious about good food almost unanimously reject that option. Instead, they go out to eat ethnic—which is also a good option for lunch, when time and shifts allow. “I am at Hacienda at least twice a week,” says Colleen. “But we always do the à la carte items, never the platters—too much food!”
La Hacienda Taqueria, on Nolensville Road, has a huge clientele of chefs and restaurant industry workers. “Go to Hacienda on Sunday afternoon, and you’ll see every chef in Nashville eating there,” says Travis Dossat, chef at Yellow Porch.
Kien Giang, Nashville’s first Vietnamese restaurant, is another favorite. Dossat, Wild Iris executive chef Kim Totzke and mAmbu owners/chefs Anita Hartel and Corey Griffith can be found there regularly lunching on spring rolls, po’boys and steaming bowls of pho. “I am here two days a week and sometimes twice in one day on Sunday,” admits Griffith, who came to Nashville from San Francisco, where he frequently worked with Asian chefs. “It’s cheap, it’s fast and I love the food.”
Good food cooked quickly is a plus for food professionals, but fast food is rarely an option. “I can’t even remember the last time I was in one of those places,” Michael DeGregory says. “When we want a burger, it’s gotta be Brown’s Diner. They rock. That is our fast food.”
Stephanie Johnson admits to an occasional drive through Krystal, but only in emergencies: “When you need a liquor sop, Krystal is the place. A couple of sliders and you’re set.” The DeGregorys vehemently disagree. “No, no!” cries Colleen. “Those places are poison! If we need a liquor sop, we go to the Hermitage Cafe. They’re open late, and they have the most amazing hash browns.”
Totzke is also a big fan of Hermitage Cafe, located on Hermitage Avenue, across from the now closed General Hospital and next door to Nashville Fire Department Station 9. The hours are right for late-night dining—10 p.m. until 1:30 p.m. the following day—and breakfast is always on the menu. “When I need a liquor sop,” Totzke says, “I have to go with the Hermitage’s fried egg on a cheeseburger with chili.”
When it comes to checking out new restaurants, people in the industry are often the last ones in. “I try to wait a while,” says Totzke. “Whatever is on the opening menu probably won’t be there in a month or so, so there’s not much point in going early.” The DeGregorys have nearly the same approach. “A lot of times, we get invited to the family-and-friends opening, right before the official opening,” Michael says. “We try to go because we want to support them, and it’s interesting to see the room and what they are doing. But after that, we usually wait a couple of months before we go back, so they can get all the kinks straightened out. The menu can change a lot in the first month or so while everybody gets their chops down. It takes a while to get service working right too.”
Johnson notes that new restaurants frequently suffer because some servers “want to get into a place while it’s hot and they can make a lot of money. Then they leave. So you are not necessarily getting the best servers when a place opens, just the ones who want to be at the newest place.”
When Ambu’s Hartel goes out to eat, she looks for places that will please every member of her family: husband/artist Mark Smith, 10-year-old son Wilder and 8-year-old daughter Isabel. “In this business, you don’t get much family time,” she notes. “Mark cooks at home for the kids, or he might take them to Mirror. They like the olive plate and order a few tapas. When I have a day off, we all go out together. We might go to Blackstone, because the kids like the fish and chips and Mark likes the beer. Or we’ll go to Ichiban and sit at the bar; the kids love sushi, it’s 2-for-1 sake and Mark can smoke. Everybody’s happy.”
Griffith recently took his 4-year-old daughter out to eat, but didn’t have quite as much luck finding that happy medium. “She didn’t like what I ordered her and made sure we knew it. The waitress came over and asked if there was a problem. My daughter said ‘Yes, I don’t like this. May I see a menu?’ The waitress went off to get a menu, and I looked at my daughter and said, ‘What are you getting a menu for? You can’t read!’ She said, ‘I know. I just want to see it.’ “