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Nashville’s Veggie Moment

Nashville chefs are embracing a movement by putting vegetables at the center of the plate.

Written By:  Erin Byers Murray

Photographers:  Hannah Messinger

Seated at a corner table in Husk’s glass-walled downstairs dining room, I could see the restaurant’s side-yard garden, where long raised beds were still giving life to several short, leafy heads of greens in late December. The low-leaning sun warmed up the space as a server presented my lunch, a dish called A Plate of Southern Vegetables, set upon a stump as a plate. Four bowls of varying heights took up the slab of wood, the highest filled with grits that sang with a mushroom broth, freshly pureed bay oil, and a poached egg. Beside that, turnips that had been braised into tender bite-sized nubs were folded into a smoky mixture of farro and kale while another bowl held a mustard-laced warm potato salad topped with minutely diced slivers of chive. A cabbage and apple dish filled out the plate, offering a version of a winter salad that was refreshingly light and satisfying.

Aside from the egg, the meal was purely vegetarian. But not in a sprouted, crunchy kind of way. It had soul—and lots of it. There was a smokiness to the farro, herbal notes from the bay leaf, and a bright zip of mustard. There was diversity of flavor and a variety of texture that all comingled into one lovely dish. I ate exactly half of it, feeling so satiated that I couldn’t finish any of the bowls. After lunch, I was full but instead of feeling sluggish or in need of a nap, I was practically light on my feet.

What A Plate of Southern Vegetables made me think about was how Nashville’s chefs have started embracing a more plant-centered plate. This wasn’t just a dish that the Husk chefs had thrown together to appease a vegetarian request. The time and energy that went into those grits—a long-simmered mushroom broth; freshly infused, pureed, and pressed bay-leaf oil; a perfectly coddled egg; cooking the grits themselves—likely equaled the efforts that went into preparing the restaurant’s rich and sumptuous shrimp and grits or the slow-smoked barbecue ribs.

This plate, along with countless others I tasted in 2015, signals a shift in Nashville’s culinary tides. There was a time not too long ago (think four or five years back) when just about every local chef was putting their energy toward celebrating the almighty whole hog. City House, which opened to wide acclaim in 2008, was touted constantly for the use of the whole animal, showcasing odd cuts like the tri-tip and carefully crafting their own hand-made salumi. For years, the buzz about nose to tail dominated dinner menus, celebrations, and fundraisers. Whole animal butchery classes were going for hundreds of dollars.

Lately, though, a small but growing number of our local chefs have begun waving a greener flag. Instead of nose to tail, chefs are talking about root to tip, showing off ways to use all parts of the vegetable and exploring a new palette of creativity by crafting entire menus around vegetable-heavy meals. Vegetable farmers, not just meat producers, are being invited to prix fixe dinners, showing off the multiple varieties of kale they’ve grown. In 2015, Little Octopus brought us dishes meant for “clean eating” and Nashville welcomed its first raw vegan restaurant, Avo. No longer just a trend, we’ve started to embrace a movement toward plant-based, vegetable-focused meals. And chefs from all backgrounds are now leading the charge.

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Rooted in Tradition

Husk’s Plate of Southern Vegetables should not come as a surprise, especially considering the restaurant’s mission to celebrate our micro-regional cuisine. Vegetables, after all, have always been the heart of the Southern dinner plate. Consider the meat and three: The ultimate expression of country farmhouse cooking traditionally features three vegetable-heavy sides. Yes, the greens and beans are usually cooked using some type of pork fat, but the focus remains vegetable-based. The difference is that today, even the meat and threes, like at Swett’s and Arnold’s Country Kitchen, have introduced fully vegetarian side dishes, explaining that it’s what their customers have requested.

“We took the chicken broth out of our cabbage and added dill and thyme,” says Kahlil Arnold, who currently runs his family’s lunch cafeteria. “Our potatoes and macaroni and cheese are vegetarian, too. We are still a meat and three so we’ll always put ham in our green beans and ham in our turnip greens. But we’ve evolved.”

Chef Sean Brock says his inspiration for Husk’s Plate of Southern Vegetables actually stems from the meat-and-three tray. “I like how all of the sides are contained and singular and organized. I thought, How can we do that on a plate?” he says. After getting a potter to craft the dishware, he encouraged his chefs to use that dish, which shows up on the lunch and dinner menu daily, as a creative play space—to work with the produce that comes in the door each morning and create four or five completely vegetarian dishes.

“We work with Jeff Poppen, the Barefoot Farmer, who might bring us some cabbage that is crazy sweet one day, so that’s where we’ll start,” Brock says. A wood-burning stove at the center of the kitchen is then put to use to impart flavor. “At Silver Sands or Martha Lou’s, one of the greatest things about eating those vegetables is that they’ve got comfort and soul—but it’s usually done by adding pig or turkey necks. Here, we use the hearth and fire and smoke to very quickly achieve that same soulfulness. It’s a much lighter and more natural way. And we can focus on only cooking the vegetable once, not simmering it, holding it, and reheating it.”

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Planting a Political Seed

At City House, chef Tandy Wilson is slowly shifting his menu away from protein-heavy options—for plenty of reasons.

“Our current food system is broken,” he declares. “Consider how much energy it takes to raise a cow or how many pigs and chickens are raised and slaughtered for meat in this country. What raising industrialized meat is doing to our land and our resources is criminal. People should go to jail for those hog farms that sit on giant manure lagoons that are so toxic they’re causing people to die. It’s seeping into our water table, flooding into our lakes and rivers. And that’s all so we can have tenderloins available at a cheap price at the grocery store. It’s not going to work. Eventually the land will be robbed of what is has to give.”

But can one chef do enough to offset so many atrocities across the food spectrum? Wilson thinks so. “We started looking at all of these ideas and saying, What are the things that we can do? So now, we’re trying to find a better balance for our community, our country, and our planet,” he says. “We can be more resourceful, we can cook better, and we can use all of the food that our farmers bring us.”

Thanks to a close relationship with local growers, Wilson is doing more to utilize everything they’re growing—even the seconds, or crops that might be blemished but still edible, like the cabbage that he scooped up from a local farmer early this winter in order to make large batches of kimchi and sauerkraut. “We don’t let it go into a composting bin; it’s going into the kitchen,” he adds.

At two-year-old Josephine in 12 South, vegetables have always been a focus for chef Andy Little. And while he says his reasons aren’t political, he can’t help but weigh in.

“I know the amount of space it takes to grow vegetables and the amount of space it takes to raise animals,” he says. “With vegetables, it’s really easy to see what they’re producing. You can go over to Green Door Gourmet and there it is, all in front of you. No one’s hiding anything.” He adds that he can’t even begin to think about the inhumane treatment of animals.

Here’s what Little sees happening in the near future: “Vegetables will be considered the center of the plate, and proteins will become a garnish. From an economic standpoint, as we continue to see beef, pork, and the prices of meat rise—especially the steak specialty cuts—I think we’re going to go back to everybody knowing how to cook [cheaper cuts]. I think we’re going to be eating less of it—and be better off for it.”

For chef Daniel Herget at Little Octopus, politics come with the job.

“As chefs, we have this social imperative to make the best of everything that we can,” he says. “It’s our responsibility to show people that you can minimize waste—and not just for the sake of minimizing waste but to make something that’s just as beautiful as something that is more common and approachable.”

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The Seeds of a Healthy Diet

Like a lot of chefs, Herget “wasn’t always focused on living a super-healthy lifestyle,” he admits. In fact, after graduating from the Johnson & Wales culinary program in North Miami, he got into the habit of eating poorly and drinking too much. He eventually landed himself in a hospital bed for ten days, where, Herget says, “a doctor told me I had the worst case of Crohn’s disease he’d seen in someone my age.” Medication alleviated the pain for a while—and then a family friend introduced him to the idea of holistic healing.

“He told me that if given the proper tools—nutrition and exercise—the body could heal itself of anything. So I just took a leap of faith and started treating it holistically,” Herget says. “I haven’t been on a drop of medication in five years—and I attribute that entirely to diet.”

The menu at Little Octopus, which opened in the POP space in East Nashville last summer, is a refreshing change from what is offered at so many of Nashville’s mainstays. Heavy on vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options, the list of dishes also pops with bright flavors and ingredients—from simple crudos to roasted acorn squash to a cassoulet topped with sumac-crusted tofu. It’s a direct translation of Herget’s past (he spent ten years cooking in Miami) as well as his present state of being and eating.

“What I eat now is very vegetable-centric,” he explains. “You don't get a lot of micronutrients unless you’re eating a lot of raw vegetables. Now that I’ve gotten things under control, my diet is all about balance. And that’s what we try to do with the menu here. You can have a burger…just not every day.”

Raw chef and certified detox coach Jess Rice, former co-owner of the raw vegan restaurant Avo, had been living a completely raw lifestyle in Nashville for a full year before opening the restaurant. “I’m a super-social person, I love happy hour and going to restaurants,” she says. “And while I could usually find something to eat—even on a steakhouse menu they’ll have a side salad—honestly, it was so hard for me to eat out. In terms of options, I was always very limited.”

The decision to open Avo was in response to her own needs—but also to those of so many other locals who are living with dietary restrictions. In December, she says, she was asked to visit a table where one of the guests, an older woman, put forth a long list of items she couldn’t eat: vinegar, citrus, and fruit included. Rice got busy in the kitchen, preparing several dishes on the fly. “They were thrilled,” she says.

But then, after the meal, the woman came back to the restaurant to speak with Rice personally. She wanted to explain her condition: She had been diagnosed with cancer and was attempting to treat herself holistically, through meditation, exercise, and, of course, diet—and she was now in remission.

“She told me, ‘This is the only time I’ve been able to eat out at a restaurant with my family since my diagnosis,’” Rice says, beaming. “You can lose sight of why you’re doing something, why you’re trying to be a pioneer. But what she said really hit home the reasons why we decided to do this.”

As more and more people choose plant-based diets for health reasons, Rice only sees the trend continuing to grow. And not just with spots like Avo—even many restaurants that aren’t focused on healthful diets include a vegetarian plate on their menus. And if they don’t, kitchens are learning how to accommodate the requests.

“We don’t have a dedicated vegetarian or vegan menu,” says Josephine chef Little. “But if you came in and said ‘I’m vegetarian,’ the options of what we can give you are almost endless.”

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Bottom Line: It Tastes Good

“It’s no secret that I’m completely obsessed with vegetables,” laughs Husk’s Brock. To his point: His entire left arm is covered in vegetable tattoos. But he’s not the first chef to make the statement, he admits, calling out renowned French chef Michel Bras for really pushing the concept of celebrating vegetables as early as 1978. Bras is known for the creation of le gargouillou, a plate of vegetables cooked, prepared, and arranged with artistic precision. It’s been replicated and copied countless times and seems to be the genesis of a movement taking place in restaurant kitchens around the country. 

“When you get into the vegetable kingdom, it’s such an enormous alphabet, an enormous palette of colors, tastes, and textures. It allows you to be as creative as you can possibly ever be,” says Brock. That’s especially true when put into the context of a hyper-local focus: “Once you start digging into the unique varietals of your area and region, you get so many stories that come along with them, and that creates a narrative of your table, of the agriculture and history of your region,” he continues. “Then you’re really embracing the place where you’re cooking.”

For Herget, the exploration of vegetables also started with Bras, when he read the chef’s 2002 tome, Essential Cuisine. “Everyone thought he was crazy because he had such a respect and regard for vegetables and made them the centerpiece,” he says, adding that at Little Octopus, he aims to do the same. “The menu here is very much about respecting the vegetables in a very pure form.”

His restaurant utilizes all of the vegetable in order to both eliminate waste and coax out even more flavor. “One of my favorite things is when you get a nice carrot,” he says. “Carrot tops are such a beautiful ingredient—you can make pestos or herb oil—and it’s just incredibly herbaceous, so it actually has a parsley note with sweet undertone.”

For Little, vegetables also offer a wider palette from which to paint. When creating a new dish, he says, the vegetable components are normally where they start. He and his team are constantly playing with new ways to treat the old favorites, like adding a smoking rack over the wood stove in order to smoke and dehydrate flavors.

“Right now, we’re brining kale that we got from Bloomsbury Farm. The idea is almost to create our own seaweed, so we’ll shake the brine off, place it on the smoking rack, and dry it out. Then we pulverize it and use it to enhance broths,” he explains.That’s the way we think about vegetables.”

But all of this, Little and the other chefs stress, is happening because it’s what Nashville diners want. “I think people here are so ready to see some new things and a more varied restaurant culture,” says Herget.

Adds Little: “At the end of the day, it’s a business so we need people to come in and buy what we’re selling.” He offers his Brussels sprouts small plate, which almost didn’t make it onto the original Josephine menu—it’s still his biggest seller. “I like that there’s a [vegetable] dish that people want so badly that they’re angry when it comes off the menu,” he laughs. 

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