Three Nashville chefs were nominated for James Beard awards this year: City House's Tandy Wilson (Best Chef, Southeast); Josh Habiger (Best New Restaurant, Pinewood Social); and Matt Bolus (Best New Restaurant, The 404 Kitchen). Over lunch at Fido, the Scene sat down with the three of them to talk about awards, restaurants and what happens when you put chefs on a red carpet.
Did the Beard nomination mean anything for your restaurants?
Bolus: It has for us, at least. I would say [it's responsible for] 30 to 40 percent of our customers who come in right now. The week we were announced, we did the highest cover count we've ever done [in one night]. A grand total of 81!
[laughter from other chefs]
Bolus: Which is a lot for us!
Wilson: You don't have more seats?
Bolus: No. We've got 22 seats. That's four turns.
Wilson: That's a lot of turns.
Tandy, when you were first nominated six years ago, did reservations spike?
Wilson: Nobody noticed. I didn't even notice. I had to read it twice. It was the first year we were open and that year — '08 — was the first year [we were nominated]. It kind of slid through the cracks. It's kind of funny — I said this last night to somebody — now we blow through them, and we're so busy, we can't get a slow night. It was not that way for us. It was different and we had off nights. There was a lot of building trust and getting people to come see us. The first time [we were nominated], no. But now, absolutely.
But in your case, it was trying to get them to come to Germantown.
Wilson: I think that was part of it, but part of it was trying to get people to eat the things that we put out there in our own way. At that time, things like hearts and ears and all that stuff, we couldn't even get them processed locally. We were getting them from New York for the first two years we were open. We were getting small amounts off of whole animals, but whole animals were the only things you could really get consistently locally.
Habiger: We kind of started off with a bang [at The Catbird Seat]. It's just such a small restaurant, though. We did 35 or 38 a night, four nights a week. Because of the exclusivity of it, it became a destination people wanted to check out. But I don't think the Beard thing affected that.
Did the Beard nominations change the number of locals versus out-of-towners?
Habiger: I think it started off with a lot of local people, then built to, I would say, now it's half out-of-towners. But part of that is ... nobody at this table knows where they are going to eat in 30 days. A lot of us don't know what we're eating tonight. (laughter) But if you're traveling someplace — if you're visiting Nashville from somewhere else — you know what you're going to do.
Wilson: I think what Josh is saying is really true. What you see is out-of-town diners. You know, the local people will always support you. They'll come out when they can. My restaurant will do, like, 200 covers on a Wednesday night. We're not getting that many Nashvillians to come out. That would be great, and we love them — more is better! But out-of-towners are a lot of it.
Is recognition vital to getting the tourist crowd? Are awards necessary for that?
Habiger: Publicity is always good. I don't get too into the winners and losers, but when I see the nominations, it puts people on my radar that I haven't noticed before.
Bolus: Especially the long list [of semifinalists].
There's a narrow window for Beard voters to come to your restaurant before they start voting.
Bolus: We're booked on Thursday, Friday and Saturday for the next four weeks out. I'm really happy about that, but there's this thing in the back of my head that says, "Shit!" because you don't know who the voters are.
Wilson: Oh, that they're in [the restaurant].
Bolus: Yeah. Did they get a reservation? Are they one of the people trying to come in? What if they don't come in or can't?
Wilson: I used to wonder about all that shit. You get used to it. It is what it is.
Are you concerned if Beard voters — or other people evaluating the restaurant — are in your dining room?
Wilson: I find great peace in losing all of that confirmation in my life. It's not about a review anywhere. I don't read anything about me; I go to work and say, "OK, how fucking good can we make this today?" You know what I mean? That's the whole thing. And if you put all of that into everything every day, life is fucking great. There was a time in my life that I would have driven by Germantown Café to see how they did. Are they still going [later than me]? I haven't done that in years. All you can really worry about is what you're doing. Your quality of life gets much better. Mine certainly did.
Bolus: I go with him on that. I don't read reviews. I don't care. We do what we think is right. If you like it, fantastic. If you don't, I'm sorry to hear that.
Wilson: Have you ever looked on fucking Yelp?
Bolus: I hate Yelp.
Wilson: It's like they're trying to make shit personal. Somebody had a bad experience — I assure you that wasn't our intention when you walked through our doors. I can guarantee you that. But that stuff's a bunch of finger-pointing. You don't even have to be there to write a Yelp review.
Habiger: That's true. At Pinewood, they called the front desk and it went to voicemail. We have, like, five hostesses, and two of them were probably seating people, one of them was clearing tables and nobody had time to answer the phone. So we got a one-star review.
Wilson: Rolf and Daughters had the same thing. Somebody called up on Friday and couldn't get a reservation so they gave them a one-star review. You can't care about that shit.
Bolus: I even had our business manager try to get us removed from Yelp. They said, "Somebody will put you back up." Great. Then we'll remove it again. And again. And again. We'll spend one day, once a week, just taking us down from Yelp.
Wilson: Any energy you spend on that shit, though, is wasted.
Bolus: It is!
Wilson: Any time you spend trying to get that removed, all it does is just frustrate you.
Habiger: I don't read them.
Tandy, as a finalist last year, you went to the awards gala, which a lot of people liken to the Oscars. How was it?
Wilson: It was crazy. People were decked out, they put you on a red carpet. They tell you to stop for photos, which I thought was hilarious. Nobody wanted my picture there. Thomas Keller was right beside me and every camera was ready to go. They didn't care about me, and I know it.
Bolus: Did you photobomb him?
Wilson: No, no. But they were ready for his ass. But I tell you, I hadn't been dressed up like that since I went to the prom. I had a haircut. I went with my dad because Steph had just had our little boy. They were just barely home, and we went to New York. It was great being there with dad and all of our good friends. It was crazy.
I've heard a few chefs say that's the best part, just going and hanging out, more than the awards themselves.
Wilson: You eat really well. Our trip was a little short, but yeah, we went to the new Torrisi place.
Wilson: Yup, Carbone. We ran up the biggest food tab I've ever run up. It was just ridiculous. We were sweating by the time we were done. It was great. Being there and seeing it was pretty crazy. It's a really long thing that was really entertaining.
Bolus: Did you write a speech?
Wilson: No. They ask you all of these questions about movies and foods and your life. Because they announce this stuff as you're walking up.
Bolus: "Tandy Wilson is a fan of Forrest Gump."
Wilson: Exactly. Some people, they played the Star Trek music as they were walking across the stage.
Bolus: Did you answer as a joke or were you serious?
Wilson: I think you have to be a little bit of both. I was like, "I can't be serious about all of this." They ask you what your guilty pleasure song is.
Bolus: You've gotta be careful with that one.
Wilson: No, you've gotta go all out with that one. I mean. I went with "John Deere Green" [by Joe Diffie].
Wilson: You know, throw a little John Anderson at them. Some John Michael Montgomery.
Bolus: Throw a little "Seminole Wind" at them. I would love to see you up onstage, accepting an award to "Seminole Wind." That would be a highlight of my life.
Wilson: Nineties country is great. Fun stuff.