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The Catbird Seat's Erik Anderson and Josh Habiger on Nashville, Collaboration, and John Mariani

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Josh Habiger and Erik Anderson
Josh Habiger and Erik Anderson

[Photos: The Catbird Seat]

Chefs Erik Anderson and Josh Habiger have cooked in some of the country's best restaurants, and eight months ago, they opened their own place in Nashville, Tennessee. Called The Catbird Seat, it's a tasting counter that fits 32 diners and introduces a new format of dining to that city. As is the case with restaurants up north like Ko and Brooklyn Fare, the chefs' goal here is interactivity, free expression, and the ability to cook day-in and day-out. Fresh off their Best New Chef nod from Food & Wine, Anderson and Habiger talk about how they met, what they love about Nashville, and what they hope to achieve at their new place.

How'd you guys meet?
Erik Anderson: We both used to work at a restaurant called Auriga in Minneapolis. It has since closed, and now they have a place called Piccolo. Josh spent some time at Craft and then at Alinea.

And how did the idea for this particular project come about?
Josh Habiger: We liked working together and got along and felt like we complimented each other in a lot of ways. We had this idea to do this kind of a restaurant, since we wanted something interactive and had had our frustrations with front of house staff. What if we did everything? What if we reset the silverware, plated, did everything? It's not completely original at all, but we wanted to do our version of it.

I had taken a hiatus from cooking and came down here to help open up a bar called the Patterson House. Eventually I pitched idea for the restaurant to them, and they got the money together for us.

EA: We're actually in the space above the Patterson House, which used to be an old hair salon.

Did you feel it was a risk opening this kind of a restaurant in Nashville, as opposed to somewhere like San Francisco or New York, where it's more common?
JH: You know, I really liked the idea of opening here. The community is super supportive. In cities like New York it can feel like people are going out to eat just to talk about where they've been to eat. Here, it's really about doing it and having a nice time. It's not so much about showing off.
EA: If you're doing something well and aren't an asshole about it, they want to see you grow here.

Can you explain how you guys collaborate on menus? Is it every a struggle or do you find that it's usually seamless?
EA: We both worked at a hotel together, where we spent time bouncing ideas off of each other. We'd do tasting menus for certain people and go course-for-course. We developed that there, and that's gotten stronger over the years.

And in terms of the style of food, what are you guys trying to do here?
JH: We take elements of places that we worked at, I think. I worked at Craft for a while, which was technique-driven. I worked at Alinea, which was progressive. Eric spent time at Noma before the restaurant opened. I think it's fair to say that we're a synthesis of many styles.
EA: There's either good food or bad food, and we strive for the former.

What's your take on this recent interest in Nashville's food scene?
JH: It's all really good for us and good for business. I don't think this is touched on in these articles, but I think it's important to point out that young people really want to change Nashville and do things in a cool, fresh way. That applies to all sorts of disciplines. There's renewal here. Nashville is the new Brooklyn, that's what I want to say [laughs].
EA: I think it's just emerging. It still has a lot to go. It takes time for people to readjust and for this to build.

Not sure if this can be answered, but what do you think makes these new, young places uniquely Nashville, as opposed to an emerging scene somewhere else?
JH: I think that's a great question. I think part of why our restaurant is working out is that we can do the format you see at restaurants like Ko and Brooklyn Fare but at a lower price, in a really interactive way, and it's extremely laid back, sometimes to a fault.
EA: Yeah, we drink and sometimes say things we shouldn't to customers. We don't filter ourselves so much. We try to be extremely engaging. We won't give you a one word answer. We'll try to make you understand what it is you're interested in, if you want to.
JH: We don't want to be absent from the restaurant, either. This is intimate so that we can be there and engage you.
EA: The act of putting heat to something, cooking, is what we love. We're not doing this because it's cool to do it now. We do it because we love it.
JH: We get to fucking cook every day! We don't want to be in some office filing and setting up binders. I mean, we have to do some of that, but the restaurant is small enough so that we can spend the majority of our time making food.

You could feasibly have opened up a high volume restaurant with less ambitious food.
JH: Maybe down the line that'll be more of a priority, but right now we have the restaurant of our dreams.
EA: I'll do it as long as my knees hold up.

Let's talk a little more about your emphasis on interactivity.
JH: We look at everyone, talk to everyone, and adjust our service to each party. If you don't want to talk, we'll respect that. You have to understand what people want out of the experience.
EA: We give them as much as they want to give us. If you're deep in conversation, we won't bother you. If you want to know about an ingredient, we'll go grab it and talk to you about it.

What are your goals for the restaurant? Do you see yourself staying in Nashville?
JH: We definitely want to stay in Nashville, especially if there are more opportunities.
EA: We still have a lot to do here. We started eight months ago. We don't really think about awards. We think about making it a better and better restaurant.

Finally, how do you guys deal with critics?
JH: There's nothing we can do differently, honestly. Except if John Mariani comes in, because that guy can suck a dick.
EA: He sends in a rider, like a band.
JH: But as far as the rest of them, we do look at a sheet that tells us who is coming in.
It's very few people a night, so if we want to know who someone is before they come in, we can.
EA: As far as local critics, we have like three, and they're all extremely nice.

Any last words? Anything you'd like to get off your chest?
EA: I don't think anything that you'd want to print.

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