Jay Luther, Chef and Co-Founder of Germantown Café, Found Dead in Cooler in East Location

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Nashville's restaurant community was jolted this morning by the news that the prominent chef-owner of Germantown Café and Germantown Café East was found dead in the cooler at the east side location.

The investigation is continuing, but police theorize that Jay Luther, 47, may have become trapped in the cooler accidentally and suffered carbon dioxide suffocation.

Luther and his business partner Chris Lowry were pioneers in the revitalization of the Germantown neighborhood when they opened the original Germantown Café in 2003. In late 2008, they opened a second restaurant, the French-bistro-influenced Allium, in another evolving part of town, the ground floor of the 5th and Main condo and retail development in East Nashville.

The team reworked that restaurant and reopened it as Germantown Café East last year.

At the time, Scene restaurant critic Carrington Fox raved about Luther and Lowry's savvy in relaunching the new restaurant using feedback from local food bloggers. "The resulting strategy incorporates the best of both Germantown Café and Allium, adding hints of French flair to the comfortable contemporary cuisine that has made the original eatery so beloved," Fox said.

Co-owners Luther and Lowry were a very successful restaurant duo, with Luther serving as executive chef and Lowry working the front of the house as general manager.

My colleague Pierce Greenberg talked to police investigating the death this morning. Here's his report in The City Paper:

Prominent Nashville restaurateur Jay Luther, 47, was found dead Monday morning in the restaurant’s cooler around 9:30 a.m.

The Metro Nashville Police Department said the initial investigation points to the death as an accident, as there were no indications of foul play. Luther was co-owner and chef of Germantown Cafe East as well as the original in Germantown.

According to MNPD spokesman Don Aaron, a power outage occurred at the Fifth and Main building in East Nashville Friday. The restaurant had been closed for the weekend due to the outage, and management put dry ice in the cooler to preserve vegetables and other food.

Police believe when Luther went to check on the restaurant at some point Sunday evening the cooler door closed behind him and he became trapped inside.

Aaron said the dry ice might have caused carbon dioxide to displace oxygen in the room. So when Luther was locked in, he may have died from carbon dioxide poisoning. Aaron also said they found cardboard scraps on the scene that might have indicated that Luther attempted to break out. He didn’t have a cell phone on him.

Aaron said the locking mechanism on the cooler door was broken for some time.

MNPD is still investigating the case and hasn’t classified it yet. An autopsy is expected to be performed on Tuesday.

Luther opened Germantown Cafe with business partner Chris Lowry in North Nashville in 2003. Luther ran the back of the house as executive chef with co-owner Lowry running the front of the house as general manager. The duo opened Germantown Cafe East in the fall of 2011, replacing their original concept in the space, Allium, which launched in 2008.

Laura Wilson, a longtime Nashville chef who now heads the Grow Local Kitchen at the Nashville Farmers’ Market, remembered Luther fondly.

“Jay was a very talented chef,” Wilson said. “Chris [Lowry] and Jay took great chances in up-and-coming neighborhoods. Restaurateurs all over Nashville are grateful for his work.”

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