Brentwood’s best chefs are on the slicing edge of Middle Tennessee’s culinary Renaissance.
In the same way that music in Music City inspires one to sing or play guitar, our city’s signature dishes inspire many of us to dabble in the culinary arts. And while entertaining family and friends can be exciting and fun, throwing a lavish dinner party can be the source of an extra large slice of stress.
But what about the chefs around town who do this every day? What inspires them? How do they stay at the top of their game? What does it really take to produce an exceptional dining experience?
Recently we sat down at Brentwood Country Club for a Chefs Roundtable Discussion with some of Brentwood’s very best chefs. They chatted candidly about the nuances of their craft and what they try to bring to the table for their guests. These culinary masters of different genres run the show at some of Brentwood’s most beloved restaurants. Our discussion included: Skylar Bush, executive chef at The Honeysuckle; Jeff Herman, head chef at Brentwood Country Club; and Chris Smithing, general manager and executive chef at Mere Bulles.
What inspires you to cook every day?
CHRISTOPHER SMITHING, Mere Bulles: I get out of bed to make my guests happy. It really is the driving force behind the decisions I make.
JEFF HERMAN, Brentwood Country Club: My whole objective is to open people’s eyes. I love being creative.
SKYLAR BUSH, The Honeysuckle: The fact that there is no such thing as perfect food, and being stubborn enough to try and create it.
What does it take to produce an outstanding dining/hospitality experience?
BUSH: It takes vision, desire, dedication, communication and follow-through. Great dining experiences can be trained. Outstanding dining experiences are a life’s work of constant refinement.
SMITHING: A great, dedicated team from owner, management to staff. No one does it alone.
BUSH: Having a good team is where it matters. It’s what makes you smile.
SMITHING: You have to be humble enough to admit when you are wrong.
HERMAN: In the country club industry, we hear about it every single day. That’s what keeps us going.
Do you have any tips for the aspiring home chef?
BUSH: Have fun! Don’t try and get too serious with it. Cook what makes you happy and try as many new things as possible.
SMITHING: Try everything and taste it even if you know you did it wrong, because you might have done one part of it awesome. The recipes are a guide and can be changed as you like.
Do you have any particular tools or gear that you can’t do without?
HERMAN: It’s not the gear you use. It’s what you can do with it. The Santoku I use is actually one I’ve had for something like a decade. My Santoku is so well-used, in fact, that the brand name and symbol has worn off!
What’s your best-selling dish?
BUSH: Duck and Brussels. Hands down.
SMITHING: Our fresh catch is the number one selling item we have. It is usually a mild white fish – think grouper or snapper – pan-seared and roasted with a daily prepared sauce, risotto and roasted or sautéed vegetables.
HERMAN: We have so much variety here that it changes all the time.
What makes the Middle Tennessee dining scene so unique?
BUSH: Just the sheer influx of people in the past few years has given us such an eclectic and demanding community. Combine that with really great local farmers and chefs communicating and throw in a little artistry as is the Nashville way, and you have a recipe for a unique dining scene.
SMITHING: Given the history of being a chain-restaurant town, the influx of new residents that wanted something different has helped Nashville’s food scene. And also, the overall popularity of national television cooking shows has helped people to open their minds to what they eat. With all that said, there was a lot of room to grow from what we were 2-3 years ago.
HERMAN: We’ve got so many people moving here every day. And our local produce is amazing.
Is there a local chef that you particularly admire? A favorite local restaurant?
BUSH: There are too many to name. They are all so great.
SMITHING: I respect all of the local chefs who are stepping up to do something new or renew something old. As far as favorite local, I seem to eat at my restaurants as that is where I am most of the time. (Editor’s Note: Smithing serves in a similar capacity at Green Hills Grille.)
HERMAN: City House in Germantown, never disappoints. City House’s Executive Chef, Tandy Wilson, uses those ingredients to emphasize elements of authentic Italian and deeply Southern American cuisines and does so to great effect.
Is there a food item in your home pantry or refrigerator that might surprise people?
BUSH: Cheese whiz. Nothing beats a cheesesteak sandwich.
SMITHING: I’m pretty plain-Jane when it comes to cooking at home. I’m still encouraging my daughters to expand their palates. One is coming along nicely, but the other would rather have a chicken tender and baby carrots for the rest of her life.
HERMAN: I confess. I’ve got a Banquet frozen chicken potpie or two. They’re a dollar apiece! And they’re not half bad so long as you finish them in the oven to make sure the crust has a nice crispness. The sodium count is pretty outrageous but sometimes I can overlook that.