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TKO Restaurant on on Gallatin Pike

Chinese technique and Southern ingredients come together in tempting, new ways at TKO.

Written By:  Erin Byers Murray

Photographers:  Stephanie Mullins

As our dining scene continues to welcome new arrivals and transplanted chefs, it’s hard not to root for the local guys, the chefs who have come up in Nashville’s food scene, have built it into what it is today, and are ready to set off on their own.

Food What to Order:

Chip & Dip, $7
Steamed Bun, $4

Rice Porridge, $9
Lamb Mapo Tofu, $19
Fried SMF Half Chicken, $19
Mystery Dinner, $50

When we heard about chef Ryan Bernhardt’s interest in opening his own restaurant with his wife, Anne Thessin Bernhardt, we couldn't wait to see the results. Bernhardt, after all, has been working under chef Margot McCormack at both Marché Artisan Foods and Margot Café for almost 12 years. And Anne, who originally hails from Franklin and met Bernhardt while working at Marché, has been (and still is) the general manager at City House for 7 years.

>>> Inside the Chef's Kitchen: Margot McCormack


At their new venture, TKO, which opened in an airy, industrial-feeling new construction space on Gallatin Pike, near Madison, in October, the couple is stepping away from their French and Italian influences and aiming for something more ambitious: Chinese food. Bernhardt’s never been to China, nor has he cooked the cuisine, aside from the occasional Chinese New Year menu at Margot.

“The cooking style is way outside of my comfort zone, so it’s an opportunity to learn,” he explains.

It’s also a chance to create something familiar. “We both grew up with a Chinese restaurant nearby,” Bernhardt says. “I took inspiration from a place I used to go as a kid in Evansville, Indiana. It had been open for decades and was this neat, old place serving Cantonese style food. The owners were first-generation immigrants. There used to be places like that all over the country, and all over Nashville, but they’re going away,” he adds. TKO is the couple’s effort to celebrate those spaces.

But, there’s also a Southern twist. “To hold onto our roots, we use local and seasonal ingredients,” he says. “It would feel irresponsible to fly a bunch of ingredients in from another hemisphere. We want to use local items and keep the menu Southern inspired. So, we’re using clams from Florida and pork and sausage from Lexington, Tennessee. These are things that we already have here, so there’s no sense having them come from farther away,” Bernhardt adds.

The menu is dotted with examples of Bernhardt’s effort to add Southern influence to Chinese techniques. The most obvious is the steamed bun: a biscuit-based dough filled with sausage gravy.

“It works,” he laughs. “It eats like biscuit and gravy, but, then, you have that neat steamed-bun effect.”

Another example is Chip & Dip, on the snacks menu, which is a play on crab Rangoon. The chips, made from fried wontons, are served with a solid version of a clam dip, a recipe that comes from Anne’s family. There’s fried chicken on the menu, too—an attempt, Bernhardt says, to appeal to even the pickiest of eaters; an apple and hot mustard sweet-and-sour sauce, which can be requested on the side, adds a kick of heat and flavor.

If you’re interested in more traditional Chinese fare, there’s rice porridge, which is a play on congee, served with a fried egg and chili paste, as well as a mushroom lo mein. Another standout is a silver carp dish, which Bernhardt is sourcing from Kentucky. The sturdy white fish is an invasive species and becoming more popular on local menus. Bernhardt steams it and plates it with wok-seared broccoli, celery, onions, black beans, and an orange-scented sauce.

The Chinese restaurant of Bernhardt’s youth used to offer a “mystery meal,” so he’s replicated that here; it’s listed on the menu as $50 for two people. The selection changes each night but might include four or more dishes (some from off the menu). It allows Bernhardt to create the menu on a whim.

To drink, there’s a small and tightly edited list of wines and beers, plus a handful of Tiki-inspired cocktails, almost all of which come in full and half sizes—a smart choice for those who are awaiting a takeout order.

“The half cocktail allows you to try something new without committing to a full-size drink,” Anne says.

Food and drink aside, the couple has also set out to create a new financial model for their restaurant by instituting a no-tipping policy. Instead of a tip, there is a small service charge added to each bill, and everyone on staff, both front and back of house, is paid equally, with the added bonus of revenue sharing.

“Having both worked in restaurants for so long, we saw a huge discrepancy between front and back of house wages,” Anne says. “We realize people choose different things for their work, but when you work so closely together, it only seems fair that we all get the same wages. Plus, we want a healthy work-life balance for employees,” she adds.

And, so far, the scheme is working, they report—business is good, especially thanks to their friends and family in the restaurant world. (On a recent visit, we spotted two other chefs in the house, including Husk’s Sean Brock, who was picking up a takeout order.) For us, it’s all adding up to an important and worthy addition to our city’s ever-broadening dining scene.

4204 Gallatin Pk.; 615-915-3102; tkotn.com

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