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Grilled In a Minute: Deb Paquette

Beverly Stephen, Anastasia Schuchman - August 30th, 2013

When she arrived in Nashville in 1982, Deb Paquette recognized just how difficult it might be to put Tennessee’s capital on the culinary map. The city was best known for its knee-slapping country music, not its elevated cuisine. Nevertheless, Paquette opened ZOLA in 1997 and soon, eyes around the country began to turn toward Music City’s local favorite and its tenacious chef.

A native of Florida, Paquette―known to many as “Momma”―graduated from The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and was the first woman in the state of Tennessee to qualify as a certified executive chef. The same year she opened ZOLA, the Middle Tennessee Chef’s Association awarded her both chef and restaurateur of the year. Thirteen years later, Paquette felt a need for some change and decided to part ways with the iconic establishment.

After selling her restaurant, Paquette took time to travel with her husband, Ernie. When she returned to the states, she jumped back into the deep end, opening Etch, an upscale restaurant with a casual vibe. “I kind of want to do stuff that’s a little different, that’s on the edge,” she says. Creating dishes that push culinary limits is what landed her as “Nashville’s Best Chef” 16 times by Nashville Scene, among numerous other accolades.

Coming up this year, Paquette and her team are beginning to work on a new project with the Country Music Hall of Fame. Details to come.

Watch the accompanying video here.

Nashville has gotten quite a bit of press lately. Do you think the culinary scene is ready for the hype? Nashville is an intriguing place. Just read our food blogs. The press has gotten big. The tornado has touched down. Garden & Gun magazine has been fantabulous in spreading the word. We needed a Southern magazine with finesse to tout good verbiage! They have fabulous writers, and it’s so well put together. Thank you, G & G.

I personally believe we are there. In the past few months, we’ve had some fabulous restaurants open, and everyone in the city is psyched (and more will be coming). Chefs are no longer afraid to venture on down to our smiling city!

Has the TV series “Nashville” had any impact?
Of course it helped. Everyone is looking for famous faces in Green Hills mall! Who doesn’t love good ol’ Southern drama!

Earlier this summer, Sean Brock opened Husk in Nashville. How do you think having such spotlighted chefs like him move in will affect the culinary scene and the chef community there?
I’ve been here since ’82, and it has been difficult to put Nashville on the map, partially due to the media always pushing meat-and-three and music. We have great food here, and quite the diversity. But it has always been the “hillbilly” perception that kept us from culinary stardom.

With big players, like Sean Brock, the movement of “elevated Southern cuisine” has captured an audience. Local has taken on new meaning. We have some cool places here that provide us with every part of the pig and great menus. Chefs are reaching back to re-create their grandma’s recipes. Watermelon pickles have made a resurrection! (Of course, with some foo-foo vinegar and a ghost pepper!)

So, the effect of Sean on our market will be great. I knew he would come back someday, and we are glad he has. He’s a mover. When he was at the Capitol Grille, he was in the mad scientist stage. People were intrigued. More will come now, knowing it’s “safe” to play in Nashville. There’s a huge food audience here.

Bob Waggoner has also come back from Charleston, and his followers are very excited. He’s helping to promote Nashville with his TV persona, focusing on local chefs and local products. His smile is contagious!

Why do you think Southern cuisine is enjoying a resurgence?
The resurgence of the South…didn’t Charlie D. put that in a song? He was so ahead of his time! Southern cuisine is full of fat, and who doesn’t love that? “Fat is where it’s at.” We just redesigned it to be better for you, and chefs make it so damn tasty! And throw in a mess of greens and some hot sauce! I have to say the better quality of farm animals has given rebirth to the South’s finest: Barbecue!

How do you incorporate Southern traditions into your menu? What are you doing to preserve old techniques and traditions? I’ve done crazy Southern crap for years. It’s part of who we are! I incorporate it into my Turkish and Moroccan dishes. We use a lot of the same things: okra, black-eyed peas, peppers…

I’m an old technique…not too many 56 year olds kick ass on the line. (Great exercise!) Preserving old techniques is what holds us together; it’s our creative juices that expand upon what our ancestors gave us. Look at fermentation: most people do not know the power of fermented foods!

Eat more sauerkraut and drink more beer! I love the Old Country! And I’m sure the results of sauerkraut and beer are just the same as hundreds of years ago―removing the bad bacteria from our bodies is a blessing!

Have farmers been a large part of the resurgence? Farm-to-table has come to fruition. I’ve been using the same farmers for 20 years, since back when there were only three to supply most of us. We kept them in jobs, and they continued to plant what we needed.

Now over 40 small farmers are all working together to provide us with what we want. This is crazy good. But now we have chefs farming! Who has the time?!

In Southern folklore, the traditional food is still there, and it’s important. It’s the basis to how we got here and to what we have.

Tell us about some of the more traditional ingredients you use. I love okra, which is a traditional Southern food. And what I’ve done over the years is, instead of stewing it, which of course I adore, I grill it. I brush it; I put it on the grill. And I did this 15, 17, 18 years ago, when nobody was using okra. It amazes me that within five years, everybody was grilling okra! But I was just sitting there, one day, in my kitchen and I threw it on the grill and ate it. It has just been with me ever since, and I’ve served it forever.

At some point, I was able to hook up with a farmer who goes to Burma, and he got these okra seeds. They produce okra that’s this long [Paquette gestures 12 to 15 inches with her hands]!

I got people to eat beets. To this day many people will come up to me, you know, 15 years later, and say, “You got me to eat beets.” One reason is because I told all the ladies, “If you’re in an emergency and you need lipstick, you just whip out a beet.” It works! So, if I go into the dining room and I know that I have to see a few people―and of course, at my age, you’ve got to wear a little lipstick—I’ll just go over and I’ll rub a beet on my lips or I’ll stick my finger in the beet juice, and they’re red for at least a good 10 to 15 minutes. Just look what it does to your hands!

Anyway, early on, I said, “How do I get people to eat beets?” So, I made a salad where I crusted the beets with some Panko and some pecans, and deep-fried them. Originally, I did a sorghum vinaigrette, but then I changed it to a pomegranate/sorghum vinaigrette, so you had that bitterness in there, to balance the sweetness of the ginger goat’s milk cheese. I would take candied ginger and put it with goat’s milk cheese and put it between the layers of the nuts. People just went gaga. So, if they didn’t like the beet, they could just eat the cheese. But together, it was like heaven.

Nashville seems to be growing into having more cosmopolitan tastes; do you feel it’s been an education process for you, in terms of teaching your customers about broader flavors?
I’ve noticed, and I think everyone else has, too, that food TV is being watched by everybody. I know elderly gentlemen who are retired. They sit at home, and they watch the Food Channel. It’s pretty amazing. I think that’s been the biggest kick in the butt for the industry—that it’s right there in your own home, every day. You know, I watch “Chopped” at midnight.

I’m a teacher. I’d have to be a teacher for adults though, because I drop the “F” bomb way too much. It’s part of every chef’s vocabulary. You’re in a room with a bunch of chefs, and you’re going to hear that word in every conversation at least 12 times out of each person’s mouth. Recently, I was on Heritage Radio Network and I said “ca-ca” and the guy goes, “You can say sh-t. It’s OK, Deb.” So anyway, teaching people through food―I love that people like to try new flavors, and that’s what I try to give them. I want them to have stuff that they can’t just go home and fix. And if they want the recipe, I can modify it for them. I’m easy, you know. I’m in the hospitality industry. It’s what I do.

Tell us about your new project with the Country Music Hall of Fame?
My company is great: It’s young men in their 40s—with just a lot of energy, and they believe in people; they believe in me… We’ll keep growing.

So for this new restaurant, we’ll be the management company, developing the menus and the design. Hopefully, the final paperwork will go through and so it’ll be a new project. It faces Fifth Avenue, where our $585 million Convention Center is hanging out. It’s incredible. So, we’re looking forward to that.

Anyway, we met, and they’re great to work with. They believe in their people, they’re kind, and we’re having a good time. A really good time. A lot of work—85 to 90 hours a week. My sous chef and I work like that, and, of course, it has a lot to do with our personalities. We have trust issues, they tell us. Imagine, a chef with trust issues!

Read more about Paquette and the Nashville scene in And Now the Food Sings Too.