At a recent fundraiser for restaurant workers struggling with addiction at the Nashville restaurant City House, Kamal Kalokoh, a chef with Jamaican roots, handed out plates of roast; a soul singer backed by a horn section belted out tunes; and Trevor Moran, an Irish chef who came to Nashville from Copenhagen’s Noma—often called the best restaurant in the world—stood behind a rickety table making Japanese kakigori, piles of matcha-dusted shaved ice hiding surprising hunks of greens or kiwi.
Tourists might have been disappointed to find none of the trappings of classic Nashville in this scene. No country music. No hot chicken or barbecue. But this party represents some of the best of what makes the city both fresh and soulful. It’s a curious, playful, casual kind of backyard hang.
Since about 2012, Nashville has been hitting the “it” lists everywhere from the New York Times to magazines across the country. Growth and tourism have been through the roof, leading to downtown shenanigans with crowds of revelers packing neon-lit honky-tonks, along with other growing pains. But in the midst of this all-American party, Tennessee also had the highest rate of growth for international visitors in the United States—up 11 percent—with Nashville experiencing 10 percent growth in international visitors in 2018, according to the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp (CVC). British Airways launched direct flight service between London and Nashville five days a week in May 2018 at 95 percent occupancy and expanded service to seven days within a year— the fastest expansion on record for the airline. Nashville might have gone country a long time ago, but it’s gone global now.
A variety of factors draw international visitors to Nashville, and those who study such trends, like Deana Ivey, executive vice president and CMO at Nashville CVC, chalk it up partly to authenticity, friendliness and the Southern hospitality that Nashville does particularly well. Of course, music plays a part, too. But one of the first people off the plane from London on the inaugural direct flight said he came to town to eat. According to reporting by the Tennessean, he flew in for the Catbird Seat, a tiny 22-seat tasting-menu restaurant.
While more than 100 restaurants opened last year, continuing a trend of recent years, the Catbird Seat, which opened in 2011, probably has done more to put Nashville on the map in a global and progressive way than any other restaurant in the city. It’s a food incubator where chefs spend about two years expressing their vision before handing the reins to someone new. Reservations get snapped up quickly, and yet it’s still a place where you can wear jeans.
When chef Trevor Moran came to Nashville in 2014 and started work at the Catbird Seat soon after, he says, he didn’t know a thing about the city. After his stint at the restaurant ended, many in town expected him to pack up his knives and head out. But five years later, he’s still here with plans to open a spot serving his kakigori and Japanese-style dumplings.
And even though the dust has settled and the romantic sheen of this place has worn off, he still finds it exciting to be in Nashville. “Nashville’s personality is definitely one of the reasons I’m here,” he says. “It’s youthful and exciting and feels like it’s at the start of something always.”
Who doesn’t love to go to New York to eat Chinese food or to the West Coast to eat sushi or whatnot? We want that here in Nashville too.
He wore a T-shirt and shorts while looking over plans for his new spot with Max Goldberg of Strategic Hospitality, the group behind his new venture as well as the Catbird Seat and several other restaurants in town. But Moran’s casual look shouldn’t be mistaken for a lax attitude. He’s driven by a desire to make food that’s fun but also right for the time and place, and meticulously executed.
“Who doesn’t love to go to New York to eat Chinese food or to the West Coast to eat sushi or whatnot? We want that here in Nashville too. We don’t want to have to always go somewhere to try the best of something,” he says. “I’m gonna take dumplings and shaved ice and make them as good as anywhere in the world if I can. And I’m excited to see Liz [Johnson] and Will [Aghajanian] [the latest Catbird chefs] come into town and do the same thing—take this much more avant-garde but still really fun experience to the people here.”
Johnson and Aghajanian started service as the Catbird Seat chefs in February. Johnson was named a best new chef by Food & Wine, and Aghajanian has cooked at Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York, as well as overseas. They met while working at Noma in Copenhagen. But they didn’t know much about Nashville when they arrived. “I’m going to have to import everything,” Aghajanian recalls thinking at first.
But that’s not the case. A key part of the city’s appeal for creative chefs today is that you don’t have to go far to be in the country or on a farm, which have increased in numbers over the past several years, often with fresh young faces tending the fields. “Maybe the biggest change I’ve seen from a food perspective in the last six years is what’s available,” Moran says.
Strides in the technology and communication behind shipping and logistics also have allowed products to arrive here more quickly. “You can make a phone call at 4:59 and by 10 in the morning have the most incredibly fresh fish,” Moran says. He also appreciates Nashville’s openness and energy. “You’re given freedom to experiment and stumble every now and then and not get eviscerated,” he says. “I can’t imagine being given this opportunity in many other cities. That for me is the real draw.”