In a world where it's trendy for restaurants to list purveyors on chalkboards and to partner up with farmers, Nashville chef Tyler Brown takes the concept even further. In 2010, Brown began developing his own 65-acre garden just a few miles away from the Capitol Grille at the Hermitage Hotel, where Brown has served as executive chef since 2006. (NB: This is not the national chain Capital Grille, with an "a.") In the years since, Brown and his team have also invested in a 250-acre farm named Double H Farms, where they raise cattle to provide beef for the Capitol Grille and other local restaurants.
In the following interview, Brown talks about getting into gardening, how his relationships with fellow chefs (such as Sean Brock) have influenced his career, and the changing world of farming. He also discusses how working on a farm plays into his cooking (and vice versa), as well as his plans to create a small Southern beef label.
How did you decide that you wanted to cook?
Food has always been a huge part of my home life. My mother cooked professionally for a time and went to school at La Varenne in France. So it was always a huge part of our lives and meals. My father says that we as a family have such great relationships with ourselves and with others because of our mother's cooking. Fond memories of meals — holidays meals or certain traditions that we would have as a family — was just a huge part of my upbringing. We had dinner as a family every day. That's something that I hold very close because a lot of things come from that. It's not just nourishment, it's getting to know who your family is and sharing what happened in our lives. That always resonated with me, anyway.
So I started in the food service industry bussing tables, bar-backing, prep cooking, starting off as after-school jobs. When I started looking at colleges, my father and my brother are both engineers and that didn't interest me a whole lot. Nothing was exciting me that much except for the jobs I had already. I loved the food service industry. As a young kid, the opportunity to drink underage, older women, and just the craziness of the food industry was exciting to me. And my mom was like, "Why don't you take a look at Johnson & Wales?" So I went and I was like, "You know what? This seems really cool." I went to school and decided that maybe this is for me. The passion just really grew from there, more so than had already been instilled in me.
It was no real epiphany about exactly what I was going to do.
It was no real epiphany about exactly what I was going to do. It was basically what outweighed the partying. I was excited to go to college to party and stuff, but the other part, nothing really excited me that much. And so I made a choice, took a chance, and it turned out to be a good one.
That's good. And what ended up bringing you to the Capitol Grille?
I worked at Peninsula Grill in Charleston, South Carolina, for Bob Carter in '97 to '99, and there I worked with Sean Brock as well as a number of other folks. I left there in '99 to be the sous chef at the Fearrington House in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Sean left to go to the Jefferson in Richmond, Virginia. Then he came to work here [at the Capitol Grille] and be the opening chef. I moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, in the meantime, to open my own restaurant. I ended up learning a great life lesson about partnerships.
Well, the gist being it doesn't matter if you're putting 120 percent into your business if your partner is not meeting you in the same respect. But anyway, so we learned a great life lesson about that. And Sean had come to Nashville to open up the Hermitage Hotel as the chef there in 2003. I gave him a call and was interested in another job. He had a job and so I moved out there and started working with him. Then, in 2006, Sean left to go back to Charleston at McCrady's, and I took over as executive chef.
Capitol Grille, Nashville. [Photo: Facebook]
So that friendship helped influence your career path.
Oh certainly, yeah. The relationships and the network that I obtained working at Peninsula Grill has provided every opportunity that I've had since then. It's been a really neat thing and a great family. Lifelong friends have come through that.
That's really cool. Is that common, do you think?
I take great pride in the people we provide a living for.
I think those that covet relationships focus on the people that are around them. That's something that's been a big part of my career. I've really enjoyed the people I've met and the whole slice of life that you get to see in a restaurant. You get to see blue-collar [people], white-collar [people] in that business, especially in a hotel business. I love that. I take great pride in the people we provide a living for. That means something to me. I spend that much time with people, I want to keep in contact with them and be a part of their lives.
I totally get that. And how did the initial idea to plant a garden come about? That was in 2010, right?
Yeah. So the hotel started a relationship with The Land Trust for Tennessee in 2010 where we would give our guests an opportunity to donate $2 for every night they stayed in the hotel. The day that we announced this program, I was like, "Man, I need to know more about the Land Trust." So I came back down to my office, got online, and a picture of this place Glen Leven came up. It's an old Revolutionary War land tract, 65 acres, 4 miles from the hotel. I called our managing director at that time, Greg Sligh, and I was like, "Hey, what are they going to do with this property? It looks amazing. We should put a garden there." He said, "Well, it's the first day of the relationship, let's pump the brakes a little bit and see what happens."
So about six months passed. I was out for a little while with some health problems, and when I came back, Greg called me and said, "Hey, I spoke to the folks at the Land Trust about your gardening idea and they loved it. So let's go ahead and do it." So I was ecstatic, but at the same time, I had only grown two tomato plants in my life, so I needed to know something about gardening. So I reached out to a mentor and a friend Jeff Poppen — he's also called the Barefoot Farmer — one of the foremost biodynamic farmers in the country who happens to have a large CSA around here. I reached out to him to see if he would be interested in helping me get started and he was. And so we got a bunch of composts on the land, turned it, and the next Spring had a garden. Then we just progressed from there.
So if you hadn't really done it before, was it something you always had on your mind that you wanted to get into?
There was a time in my career where I just didn't really care where the produce came from.
Not necessarily. There was a time in my career where I just didn't really care where the produce came from; I was just looking for something perfect coming through the door. As long as it was perfect, bring it on in. Then I matured a little bit and evolved, recognizing the importance of community and looking out beyond the restaurant and my business. Like what do we have around us and all the farmers, purveyors, producers. And then building relationships with them and really trying to cultivate those and learn what it takes to make their life go 'round. What part I play in their lives and vice versa. So that was very interesting to me. I was soaking up everything that I could.
Then I had taken a trip to California to Manresa and spent some time with David Kinch. He took me to his farm, Love Apple Farms, and that was my first sort of introduction to biodynamics. I was blown away and had so many questions. Just came back really inspired and wanting to figure out everything that I could about it. Then, like I said, the relationship with the Land Trust came about and I was able to apply everything I'd been reading for a couple years to this and really dive in.
Tyler Brown at The Farm at Glen Leven. [Photo: Capitol Grille]
And you deal in heirlooms and older techniques, right?
Field peas are sort of like trading baseball cards.
Yeah, absolutely. One of my passions is field peas. What I love about it is you talk to all the farmers or older folks [for whom] field peas have been a part of their lives, whether it's on the table or whatever. They generally will have one that their grandmother grew or was in their family garden or something that they're very fond of. I love that. It's sort of like trading baseball cards. There's tons of varieties all over the place, and every one seems to be the best. That's an example of what excited me about heirloom varieties. And looking at heirloom tomatoes, all the different ones that are out there, I would go to the farmers' market and try to identify every one that I possibly could and then seek out more things. Through that came eggplants and squashes and watermelons. Before you know it, I had a variety things that I would like to try when it came time to start our garden.
It sounds like you spend a considerable amount of time on your farm each day as well as in the kitchen. What's a day like for you? How do you balance it?
It's a juggle, for sure. It takes a great team to be able to make the whole thing happen. There's been a progression from the beginning of the garden to where we are now and how we involve people in the community and volunteers, and then ultimately working my staff into it. [Certain people on] staff are scheduled for two hours, four days a week, and are responsible for the harvesting and the growing.
It certainly takes a lot from my wife's patience and everybody here. But a lot of times I'll come into the restaurant in the morning, get a feel for what's going on, go out to the garden, spend some time there, depending which time of year. In the Summer, if I'm going to go to the garden, it's the first thing in the morning and for only a couple of hours, it just gets so blistering hot out there. Either that or in the evening. So you just sort of juggle around with the season and find your time to get out there and make it happen. But yeah, it's a labor of love, for sure, and a steep learning curve. And now we purchased a 250-acre farm about 40 minutes west of here where we are raising cattle and creating our own beef label.
Right, why did you decide to do that?
Well, there's a lot of folks that raise beef. That's a big part of the agriculture and economy in middle Tennessee. But it occurred to me that there wasn't a whole lot of people doing that on a small level. You find a bunch of people doing heritage breed hogs and all that stuff, but you didn't hear a whole lot about beef So it was really intriguing to me. We started out slowly at Glen Leven, where we have 65 acres. And, like many things, the more I dove into it, the more interested I got and wanted to see it through. And then it turned into, hey, maybe we want to create a small Southern beef label. Or let's try to provide steaks for ourselves. We've kind of been on that journey.
As I get into it, I find more and more how the whole industry is changing in respect to grass-fed beef, grain-fed, old-school, new-school handling practices. It's a neat time in that industry to get into it and put my take on it from a chef's perspective.
How is it changing?
The culture is so stuck on looking at farming through the same lens and not adapting.
Well, I think people are much more aware of their grasses, their soil, the whole farm, and how each moving part plays a huge role in how they affect each other. Getting away from tons of chemicals and spraying on our fields and grasses and pastures. We talk about the next generation of farming and cattle raising. I think a lot of people have left the farms because they can't make a profit. I think there are ways to do that, ie: rotational grazing and looking at it a different way. But the culture is so stuck on looking at it through the same lens forever and not adapting. At least that's what I'm finding. But some are. And that's what it takes. With society being concerned where their food is coming from, people have just got to be curious and willing to take a look at it differently.
Double H Farm. [Photo: Capitol Grille]
Right. You mentioned that as a chef you're able to come at it from a different perspective. Can you talk a little more about that?
I know what a great steak looks like and tastes like, and I know what I'm looking for. When you're talking to folks who raise cattle, a lot of times they just raise it to a certain time and send it off to a feedlot. Very seldom do people finish their own beef. Or do they have a real opinion about what their beef looks like and how it's finished out and what the marbling is and all that stuff. They're just looking at it from the animal standpoint, whereas I'm looking at what it looks like on the plate, what the mouthfeel is, and the flavor and stuff. We've researched this heritage breed called the red poll cattle, and I feel like it has a very distinct or discernibly different flavor than other steaks you might put next to it on a plate.
And, conversely, how does working on the farm play into or instruct your cooking?
A number of things. One, a huge appreciation for what it took. One of my goals with the farm was 1) to create an heirloom period garden, 2) be more a part of the community through this, and then to understand or put some light on the disconnects between the farmer and the chef. An example would be the first time we harvested potatoes, and there's tons of little potatoes around. One of the gentlemen that we're harvesting with, he's like, "No no no, leave those, nobody wants those. I'm like, "Hell no. I'm paying a premium for these little things that are the size of my thumb. Those are the premium products here, something we're going to waste."
A lot of farmers don't want to fool with taking their produce to restaurants.
A lot of farmers don't want to fool with taking their produce to restaurants because the chefs are all picky about what they're getting. They don't want to take the time to look at what [chefs are] looking for and the perfect size of a turnip to be harvested at. A lot of times when you're growing something like that, you're growing it for weight. So a big turnip would equal a better turnip sometimes instead of a perfect small, baby turnip. So a lot of little things like that have certainly shaped my view.
And so I know that Double H is still in relatively early stages. What's your end game with all of this? Are you trying to be 100 percent supported by these farms?
Yeah, our first goal is to provide steaks for the hotel, [to] be our primary provider of those, at least in the restaurant. But then also to create a small Southern beef label that we are able to sell regionally. We sell our ground beef right now to Husk and then to another restaurant called Lockeland Table. The dream is to be able to take that and go forth. The sky is the limit, you know? We'll just have to see.
I keep reminding myself, "Be careful what you ask for." Those are words to live by at this point. But I think that there's room for where our food world is right now with respect to what people are into and their interest in the story behind the food. I think this has a place in that story. It's one that's certainly worth my time and efforts and excitement. It's been an unbelievable opportunity, an unbelievable education. The greatest thing for me is all of this information that I'm able to soak up and digest and forget and remember again and then pass it on to folks. And spawn conversations and see where opportunities are.