Matt Lackey, the 27 year-old executive chef of high-end Nashville restaurant Flyte World Dining and Wine and Young Guns semi-finalist, really has two jobs. For at least five days a week, from the crack of dawn until the early afternoon, he tends to his three-acre farm, which he inherited from his grandfather two and a half years ago. There he grows vegetables for the restaurant, maintains an orchard of fruit, looks over a creek bed rife with mushrooms, and powers his grandfather's tractor with oil from the restaurant. After he leaves the farm, he heads into Flyte, a restaurant he completely revamped when he came aboard two years ago by focusing entirely on local produce, dairy, and protein.
Prior to Flyte, Lackey attended culinary school and then went to work for chef Sean Brock at both McCrady's and Husk, where he cemented his love for sustainable agriculture. He discusses his experiences there, the Nashville food scene, and much, much more ahead.
How did you get involved with Sean Brock and Husk?
Matt Lackey: I knew that when I finished up school, I wanted to work with him. He was looking for a few different positions. I went down and they had already filled the positions, so I ended up hanging out for two months as an intern, and in that time period he found that I had a niche for growing vegetables. So I took over the seed bank, where we were introducing heirloom varietals of seeds. So I did that for a little while, and he said, "Oh yeah, I completely forgot you're a cook. I forgot all about that." So I ended up getting a job at McCrady's working under Travis Grimes, now the chef de cuisine at Husk. I worked underneath him and Sean for about a year and a half at McCrady's. Then Travis asked me if I would come and help him work at Husk.
What do you think you learned from that experience?
I've worked at a decent amount of restaurants that are high-caliber, but opening a restaurant that's considered the best Southern restaurant ever before the doors are open...I'm like "Shit. This is a lot of pressure." So it was a lot of fun. Travis Grimes is insane. He and Sean are the most amazing gentlemen I've ever met in my life. I was at Husk for about a year. I decided to move back to Nashville but I was very worried, because Nashville was not where it's at right now.
But this was not that long ago.
No, this was about a year and a half ago. Nothing had been said about Nashville. It was like right when I moved here, all of a sudden Nashville was kind of a food scene.
What do you miss about Charleston?
The seafood, and the McCrady's food. McCrady's is really, really awesome. My Grandmother owned a diner, my grandfather ran the farm and supplied the majority of what they ate. You know, I was always sitting in a kitchen, or I was on a farm helping my grandfather and feeding cattle or pulling vegetables, or whatever it might be. And I think there was a little bit of a disconnect in my head, as to how important it was, until I went to work for Sean, and that's where it all kind of molded together.
How did you end up at Flyte?
There was only really this—this was a restaurant that was kind of dedicated to local, but didn't really know what truly being dedicated to local really was at the time—and City House. The story on City House is it's a really awesome restaurant. The cooks stay. So I thought I'd come here and check it out and play around and just kind of get my feet wet and learn about some of the farmers before I try and find another restaurant. And then they named me Executive Chef, so I kind of just hung around ever since.
How did you go about making those relationships with all of the farmers here, coming from Charleston?
It was a lot of work. It was running around, talking...the farmers that were already coming in here were able to send me in the right directions. Probably the most influential person is Farmer Dave. So I spent a lot of time with him, trying to learn who he felt was influential in the agricultural scene. The rest was just making phone calls. You'd be surprised how many times you get yelled at.
Do you think a lot of farmers just aren't used to dealing directly with restaurants?
Oh no. No farmer in Nashville is used to dealing with restaurants...They deal with CSAs. Moving here, it was like, "We have our CSAs to take care of, and you get the leftovers." The CSAs, that's the livelihood of the farm. That's where there's immediate money to buy seeds, pay the water bills.
How much different is the restaurant now, then when you took over?
I would say a significant amount. The quality just wasn't there. And to me, personally, in a restaurant, you can't take five amazing ingredients and put one shitty ingredient in there.
And the owners here let you do what you want to do?
The owners here...they learned very quickly that there's really only one way I know how to do it, and I can't do it any other way. So, they've been really supportive, and allowing me to do what I think is right.
Was it hard coming in as a young chef, and taking over, and being like "This is the way I'm doing it"?
It was very, very difficult. Because they thought that I had passion for food but thought that I was an idiot when it came to the business side. They thought "this kid..." But there was no food cost, there was no inventory to be taken. Which is the most important thing in running a business, you have to do that. They were like "We just do it this way," and I'm like "Well that's the dumbest thing I've ever heard in my life." So the first four months were really difficult...from being able to get the farmers, to being able to train the staff, to get the actual systems in place, for it to be a real restaurant. It was a lot of work. And it's still a lot. I'm still always just trying to figure it out.
What was the customer reaction when you started changing things?
We lost a lot of people. We lost a lot of customers, the regulars that came in for the fucking chicken spring roll. They had an item on their menu that was Sysco chicken. They take chicken. They would deep fry it. They would put shitty hot sauce on it. Shitty bleu cheese. Mix all of that together, roll it up in an egg roll, and then fry it. And we lost 40 percent of our regulars because of that. Because of that item, we lost that many. And they raised hell. And I said..."I could care less if these people ever come back to this restaurant."
And then when did it turn around?
In about four months we saw the bad reviews leave, and the good reviews begin.
What do you think are the biggest challenges you face now? Now that you're over the first hump.
Dairy. I'm getting local dairy, but it's not easy. It's very difficult. That's one of the hard things about here, is that no one wants to...no one deals with chefs.
And when you want local, what are your hard guidelines? Does it have to be in-state or within a certain mile range?
The majority of the stuff, I want to be able to go to the farm any time I feel like it, and see the animals or check on the vegetables and talk to the farmers. I have to be able to trust them. If I have to drive to Indiana or something like that for somebody, I will.
What's next for you?
I want to start farming fish. Sustainably. That would mean more than anything to me. If I could raise my own fish, to sell at the restaurant, that would be the best.
Do you think that's a feasible goal? Have you started working on it, yet?
I have a business proposal. I need the money. I've built a good enough relationships with agriculture in general, that any questions I have, I have someone that I can talk to that's an expert on it. My true dream is to open up my own restaurant that that is surrounded by an ecosystem. I feel like I'm not seeing enough urban ecosystems providing for a restaurant. The other part of it is that I would like to help underprivileged children—just being able to eventually have them come in and teach them about farming, and try to break this rotation of children not knowing where their food is coming from.
How does Flyte fit into those dreams?
I think I always try to take care of Flyte, to the best of my abilities. It is my first project. If...what's a nice way of putting it? If I'm able to make this place do well, then I can make anything work.
Do you think there is a legitimate narrative about this city becoming more of a big food city on the national scene, and do you think Flyte is apart of it?
I hope so. I mean like I said, if it's up to me, then yes. I think Nashville is on its way.
What do you think the opening of Husk means? Do you think it'll be like a game-changer for the city?
So what I've kind of decided is that Sean's going to be able to take it to a little bit more of a National level. And we'll actually get more local talent. I think people will start moving here. I visited Portland a few years ago and I feel like we're on par with where they started. And they're obviously doing great. I hope to see Nashville become the next big thing. And at this point, it really has a lot more to do with the community than it does with the chefs. I think the chefs here are dedicated, and think it now has a little more to do with the community and being a little bit more involved.
Update: The people of Flyte would like to note that they have never served Sysco chicken and that they didn't lose 40 percent of their customer base when the chicken spring roll—a popular menu in the lounge since the opening of the restaurant—was taken off the menu.
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