In 2018 Nashville pastry chef Lisa Donovan won the James Beard Award in the personal essay category for her Food & Wine essay titled “Dear Women: Own Your Stories.” With Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger, Donovan is doing just that.
The memoir traces Donovan’s path to becoming a celebrated pastry chef, including at Sean Brock restaurant Husk in Nashville, where she developed her signature buttermilk chess pie and endured a particularly toxic working environment. Throughout, she relates her own narrative and relationship to food to those of her mother and grandmothers.
In this excerpt, Donovan recounts the career influence of another woman: Nashville chef and restaurant owner Margot McCormack. Donovan’s first job at McCormack’s Margot Café is a far cry from her time at her first steady restaurant job at TradeWinds, a “22-seat Italian cigar den housed in a double-wide trailer on a dirt hillside corner” in Valparaiso, Florida. But while invigorating, she realizes that her role as a restaurant server with sights set on a career in the industry might be incompatible with her other roles: spouse to John and mother of two. —Monica Burton
Schlepping pastry and bread and cakes out of an apartment on the west side of town, waiting tables at a shit-hole tavern, I was very far from Margot McCormack’s world. All the while, on the east side of town, there was a restaurant serving classic French food, simple and fresh and perfectly executed. I did not even know restaurants of that caliber existed until I walked in to apply for a job at hers. If I remember correctly, I had heard from a friend of a friend that Margot was hiring but that she was, notably, “a battle‑ax” and “a straight‑up bitch.” I would soon learn that this meant those with that opinion simply did not have what it took or were not passionate enough to deserve to stay in her orbit. She had high standards, and she did not care if you liked her. Thank god. I was immediately attracted to Margot’s focus. And completely intimidated. Gratefully, I’m not easily scared off.
Margot Café is known as the South’s Chez Panisse and Margot its Alice Waters. Born and raised in Nashville, Margot was a chef in New York City when being a chef in New York City meant something. She came up in the era of Kitchen Confidential lore. And she behaved like it. She opened Margot Café & Bar in 2001, and it is still a pillar of high standards and delicious food to this day. I wandered into that restaurant in 2005, a few months after my daughter Maggie Donovan turned one and when the restaurant itself was just four years old — which is a strange thing to realize in retrospect. Four years into a new restaurant is its mere infancy — you’re just learning to walk, just learning how it all works, just learning how to maintain your vision. It felt so established already to me, like I was walking into something that had existed for decades; that is how clear Margot’s vision was, and that was how strong a leader she was. Yet looking back, she was really just finding her feet as a chef-owner, and that changed my perspective on so many things I felt at the time.
Standing all of maybe five foot four, Margot wore a tight, curly, black haircut and a perpetual disapproving squint, her apron high and tight and a pair of black, plastic slip-on Birkenstock kitchen shoes that she always slid off and on her white crew-socked feet while she sat with us during lineup, her legs always spread wide and her torso hunched over them with a menu in hand and a cocksureness that I could only dream of having. When her business partner, Jay Frein, an affable guy with a lot of money (hence his perpetual good mood, I figured), hired me, Margot was not the slightest bit interested in me or my shit. Jay hired me even though I lacked so much as a drop of knowledge on classical savory French food or wine or professional service. But he thought there was something there, which Margot, it became apparent, did not.
There was a requirement to purchase and study the Food Lover’s Companion so that we knew exactly what Margot was talking about at every lineup and, of course, to actually know what the hell we were talking about table side. I could not afford it, the book (or, if I’m being honest, the time to study), and never could find my way to purchasing it during those first few crucial months. She knew it. And, even though I borrowed the book from a fellow server who had been working there since the first day and knew every possible menu variation, I simply could not learn fast enough. The menu changed every day, and every day there were new things about which I knew only the basics — I certainly could have been better prepared each and every time. She relentlessly grilled me during lineup some days, asking me, with a pretty impressive snark in her voice, to detail the ingredients and preparation of every single menu item, stopping me short and lecturing me when I would forget there was lemon juice in the aioli or for stating that the ice cream was made with both whole milk and cream, not just cream, and how could I, how dare I, mix up gribiche with escabeche, what was I? An idiot? She frequently brought me to tears over details that I now know are crucial to a decent server’s basic arsenal about a chef’s repertoire.
I do not get brought to tears easily. Yet Margot got me there at least once weekly, often thrice weekly. I was frustrated by my inability, by how professional and experienced everyone was at their jobs, by how long it was taking me to catch up. They were able to talk about wine as if they had all been fucking vintners in the vineyard while eating and studying every variety of grape at the same time, bent over an oak barrel, little wine whores who could tell you about a Uruguayan Tannat grape as if they were as common as a Concord, me never thinking about it beyond the “this is good, see if you like it” education that Tom had given me. Their whole lives seemed to be about studying food as if they themselves were going to be the ones to cook each dish.
It was fucking terrifying. And thrilling. And I was proving to be fucking terrible at it. This was a very big step from serving twenty-year-old fornicating-under-the-table Vanderbilt students who were high or drunk and just wanted to lick alfredo sauce off each other’s faces for a laugh and leave two-dollar tips on a hundred-dollar tab, but it was a step I cared about and tried to take as steadily and as sincerely as possible. Even in my TradeWinds experience, I had never seen this world before. No matter how much I had studied and obsessed over baking, that was a wholly private — even emotional — education. This job was a crash course in getting my shit straight and learning about a food world that was real, that was dedicated to the same things I was dedicated to without even realizing I had a place I belonged to. I had a chance to be a professional if I wanted it. And there I was, fumbling every day in front of an audience of intelligent and bright humans whom I desperately wanted to count myself among.
I had a lot to learn beyond the actual trade and technical points of the work, and that was where I may have found the most trouble. There was an entire dance of restaurant industry social protocol that I was also messing up left and right. I basically kept to myself in the way of personal information and what I was willing to give of my free time, and I tried to just focus on the work when I was there. This is a major demerit in any restaurant, but especially in a small, chef-owned one. Margot Café was a world, an entire world, she had built for herself, and it seemed expected that everyone, every single person in that building, would share their lives and off-duty time like a family. This seeming requirement was bizarre to me. Even with all the beauty that Tom and the TradeWinds crew brought me, we still had lives outside of that trailer that had nothing to do with our coworkers. At Margot, being pals and hanging out with everyone outside of work was not something I realistically had time or energy for, but it was something that they all did, routines they all naturally fell into. They all went to get beers and smoke cigarettes across the street at a bar called 3 Crow nearly every night, or they lingered on the patio at the restaurant to wind down after work — the most pressing things they had waiting for them at home were a few Chihuahuas whom they treated like human children. There was nothing wrong with that, but I had an actual family, with real live children to take to school in the mornings, and I knew better than to think they would understand. I would calculate my till, tip out the bartender and the back waiter, make a bit of pleasant conversation, and then go home.
I left work when it was over because I had kids to care for, kids I missed every second of the day when I was not with them. I could not attend a lot of the many (MANY) work parties, and it came off as me not being a team player, as if I were snubbing them. But my life was not that of a typical restaurant worker, and that would prove to be an obstacle for me for most of my career — trying to make my family work while I made my career work was always more of a struggle than it should have been. It’s very different now; everyone seems older and wiser, and they (finally) have families and seem to understand what it feels like to have priorities that don’t involve taking tequila shots after a long shift and waking up at two p.m. with just enough time to shower and get to work by four p.m. I did not play the industry game right and that was in part why Margot was not impressed. Trying to have a family and work in hospitality seemed to be a fool’s choice. Yet there I was, that fool, strangely dedicated and committed to making my way because I had now found the work I realized I was built for. All my past oddities actually existed in one profession and I felt I had found my people, even if they didn’t know it yet because of how elusive I appeared to be.
After I had excelled enough as a server to prove to her that I cared and deserved to keep my job, Margot sat me down at my first employee review and said, “Look, Lisa, you clearly are getting better at this job, but I need to make something really clear to you. You have just walked into MY dream and I need to know that you understand that because it’s not obvious to me that you do.” She was no‑nonsense, to put it mildly. She cared totally about her restaurant, a trait I could not fault her for. But there was still an expectation that I would fold into her life, not just do my job well. I was focused on my family’s survival and trying to keep my own dreams alive while I put food on the table at home.
Years later, after she and her wife, Heather, adopted their son, Margot and I ran into each other, and she had the frazzled, exhausted, and slightly crazed look of a new mother on her face. She hugged me, not a usual Margot move, and said, “You know, I had no IDEA what your life was like until now. Good job keeping shit together while you raised TWO kids, Donovan. I’m impressed.” It was a moment of recognition that I did not know I needed — not of being acknowledged as a good mother, I don’t need anyone’s opinion about that (they wouldn’t know anyway), but of her thinking I was a good worker. I finally had confirmation that she knew how much I cared, despite how different I was from everyone else she employed at the time.
I think that as Margot watched me grow into my career she became proud of me, and even if it took some time, I think she realized what I was working for and who I was despite her initial impression of me. Under her, I worked for someone I greatly admired, someone who earned everything she had in her life, and she worked daily, hourly, minute by minute, to make sure it was protected. She had earned the right to her dream, the one I had a walk‑on role in.
Not only was I inspired by the standards she set inside those walls and at every single table and with every single plate that left her kitchen, I was inspired by the fact that she made something come true for herself. The singular thing she had missed about me at first, but seemed to understand eventually, was that I was likely paying closer attention than anyone else. I watched and learned and was quietly writing blueprints for my own life. I started to dream again under Margot’s roof. I started thinking more permanently. And I became dedicated to quality and hard work for the sake of the work, not just for the sake of survival.
It has to be said, for those out in the world who don’t understand what financial insecurity and poverty do to a person: almost the entirety of my ability to think better, to finally focus on the beautiful work and intentions Margot had created in the world, was because I was actually, for the first time since moving to Nashville, making enough money to do more than hustle and pivot. John had gotten a tenured-track position at Middle Tennessee State University, and all our hard work and sacrifices were beginning to pay off — it was the first time we were able to exhale as a family and think bigger. It is hard, nearly impossible, to dream and plan and dedicate energy toward successful endeavors beyond a paycheck when you are broke and hungry. It is nearly impossible to think beyond each day when you are pinching (and rolling) pennies to make it through the week. Those couple of years working for Margot and MTSU were a big shift for us. We moved to east Nashville, and my job became one I worked hard to keep. It became a job where I wanted to thrive, a job where learning and growing were given priority — and were expected, at that. Margot and I would find our way to a long, very loving relationship full of mutual respect and mentorship. I now carry her voice with me as a guide. And, when I can’t guess what she might offer, I call her to have her tell me.
From OUR LADY OF PERPETUAL HUNGER: A Memoir by Lisa Donovan, to be published on 8/4/2020 by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright (c) 2020 by Lisa Donovan.