Jay Luther and Chris Lowry met in 1993 when both were servers at Granite Falls, the midtown restaurant where Corner Pub is now. As it turned out, they were also neighbors in the Elliston Place Apartments, and from those commonalities, a friendship grew. It developed into a 19-year partnership that created two popular Nashville restaurants — Germantown Café in 2003 and Germantown Café East, which opened as Allium in 2008.
Luther, 47, a native of Dickson, died unexpectedly Sunday night in a tragic accident, locking himself by mistake in the cooler of his Germantown Café East. The shocking news hit hard, reverberating through social media, among friends, in the East Nashville neighborhood where they lived for many years, the close-knit local food community and the many non-profits whose fundraising events the restaurants supported.
After some short stays in New York and New Orleans, and passing through several landmark Nashville eateries in addition to Granite Falls — Cakewalk Cafe and 12th & Porter included — Luther turned in his server's apron and landed at the furniture retailer Storehouse. He transferred to the Atlanta headquarters store in 1998 when Lowry took a job as general manager of the original Pleasant Peasant restaurant on Peachtree.
"At the Peasant, I was GM and running the kitchen, and it was impossible," Lowry said. "I was going crazy and I made Jay come in to help me." When Luther returned to the biz, he moved from the dining room to the kitchen, which is where he found his place. "He had no experience in the kitchen," remembers Peasant owner Maureen Kalmanson. "He just really enjoyed being there, in that environment. I set the bar high, and he loved that challenge. He went after it with the same intensity he did everything, and he gave it 200 percent."
When Lowry and Luther felt they had mastered the necessary systems for operating a successful restaurant, they returned to Nashville, took the corner on a building at Fifth and Madison being developed by Andree LeQuire and Scott Chambers, and opened the quintessential neighborhood bistro in the rapidly transitioning urban Germantown.
"We did that restaurant on a shoestring," Lowry remembered on Tuesday. "It was a lot of blood, sweat and tears. Jay's blood and sweat, my tears. I am not a manual labor guy or good with tools. Jay was, and he built all the banquettes in the original Germantown space himself. The badly laid tile floor in the kitchen is where I helped him."
Though the restaurant was known for its dining room view of the Capitol and downtown skyline — the Germantown East windows frame the Metro courthouse from 5th and Main — Luther's focus remained on the kitchen, where he continued to challenge himself every day, and where he felt most comfortable. Wearing his ever-present ball cap, Luther would come out to the dining room to chat with regular customers, who were as legion as they were loyal. But Lowry says for the most part, Luther avoided doing anything that put him in the spotlight.
Because he had no formal training, Luther refused to take on the title of chef, and referred to himself simply as a cook. "One time a customer asked where Jay had gone to culinary school," remembered Greg Hilbourne, a friend of Luther's for 13 years and manager of Germantown Café since shortly after it opened. "I said, 'I think he went to the Norma Luther Cooking Academy,' " referring to Jay's mother, an accomplished home cook who still lives in Dickson.
The menus at both restaurants were Luther's, and comfort and consistency were hallmarks of his food. It was his desserts, say those who knew him, that he most enjoyed making and sharing, and that customers and friends loved.
"It's ironic, because in the beginning at Germantown, even as he gained confidence in the kitchen, he was terrified of desserts," Lowry says. "He got a lot of recipes from his mother, who always seemed to leave out one key ingredient. He was really happy when he could figure out what that ingredient was on his own."
"His strawberry cake was the best," says friend Kim Totzke, director of operations for Provence Breads & Café. "He knew I loved it, and whenever he made it, he'd send me a text that just said, 'Strawberry cake today,' and I would text back, 'Save me a slice.' I can't believe I'm never going to get that text from him again. Our hearts are broken."
The funeral service for Walter Johnson "Jay" Luther Jr. will take place 11 a.m. Friday, June 22, in the chapel of the Taylor Funeral Home in Dickson. He will be laid to rest in the Luther family cemetery.