It seems appropriate to feature Kay West during Thanksgiving week as one of StyleBlueprint’s Faces of Nashville. Kay has been a professional writer in Nashville for 30 years, and she’s influenced where people eat and drink in Nashville for over 15 years. During her stint as the restaurant reviewer for the Nashville Scene, she could be counted on to tell it like it was, even if it meant collecting threats along the way. Now, as a stringer for People Magazine, Kay’s tenacity in scooping the story is legendary. StyleBlueprint recognizes Kay West, gorgeous, witty and bright, as one of our Faces of Nashville.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in an older, suburban middle-class neighborhood in Wilmington, Delaware. The street I lived on dead-ended into the property line of one of the DuPont estates where they boarded horses. The public high school I went to was on the other side of the estate and the DuPonts were quite generous in giving the school land for tennis courts and athletic fields. The best thing I can say about Wilmington is that it had an Amtrak stop, and even before I had a driver’s license I could take the train to the big city of Philadelphia.
You’re one of Nashville’s most prolific and talented writers, and from my understanding, you did not attend college. How did that decision affect your career path?
I come from a family of writers, but I’m just the one who pursued it as a career and was lucky enough to get published. Since I was a little girl, watching black and white movies with my grandmother, or That Girl on television and reading about the Algonquin Round Table, I knew one day I would live in New York. As soon as I graduated high school, I moved to Manhattan to pursue writing and adventure, not necessarily in that order. I was lucky to land the receptionist job at a national magazine two days after I got there. My parents weren’t bothered that it happened to be Penthouse magazine because they were just so happy I had a job. At that time, Penthouse and Playboy went head-to-head, so to speak, for great writers, columnists, critics, cartoonists and photographers. But it was a great place to be. As the youngest person on staff, I was really mentored and nurtured and learned so much on the job. I worked my way up to Associate Editor and also started freelance writing for Soho Weekly News, the alternative to the Village Voice. That was possible back in the 70’s. I don’t think a young woman could get a receptionist’s job at a magazine today without a degree. In fact, all of the other editorial assistants that I started with at Penthouse had degrees in journalism or English literature. I was very lucky, worked hard and was just extra determined to make something of myself doing what I loved.
When and why did you move to Nashville?
I came to know the Nashville music industry through Penthouse and covering country music. I was recruited by Joe Galante and Randy Goodman at RCA Records to move to Nashville and take the position of Director of Publicity. I knew nothing about publicity, but I needed to extricate myself from a relationship I was in, and everyone in Nashville seemed so nice. I thought I would come down for a year or so, learn something new, and then go back to my “real” life in Manhattan. Thirty years, two children, two houses and many fabulous friends later, I’m still here.
You were one of Nashville’s most controversial restaurant reviewers when you worked for the Nashville Scene. Tell us about a memorable review.
The review of Mario’s was the one that caused the most commotion, because for so long his restaurant had been considered the best in Nashville, catering to the rich and famous. And my experience there—on both visits—ranged from disappointing to horrendous to ridiculous. I really felt like the place was coasting on a reputation for a long time, with lots of smoke and mirrors, and I wrote that. The day it came out, I was in Houston visiting my sister, and editor Bruce Dobie called me freaking out because the proverbial caca had hit the fan and Mario was driving all over town, picking up all the copies of the paper and throwing them in dumpsters. He ended up suing us, and we ended up ‘clarifying’ some points. The negative reviews got the most attention, but I am proudest of the fact that I believe I really supported and championed the growth of independent restaurants and young, creative chefs.
Is there any food you won’t eat?
I will really try anything, and have. One of the best things I had recently was an Ear Burger at City House. Tandy breaded and fried a pig’s ear, put it on a really plain burger bun and dressed it with grainy mustard and homemade pickles. It was so good, though I couldn’t think about what I was eating. The one thing I can’t abide in any form, though, is beets. A nasty childhood memory lingers on. I think every chef in town has tried to prepare them in some fashion that might help me get over it, but so far no luck. I wish I could, they look so pretty.
What is the greatest piece of advice you have been given?
The day I left home for New York, my four younger siblings and mom stood at the front door crying. As I got into my friend’s truck who was driving me there, my dad pressed a letter into my hand and told me not to read it until I got there. That night I sat on the floor in my teensy studio apartment in New York, crying my eyes out while I read this letter that was full of love and advice. I still have it more than 35 years later. The last sentence of this letter says, “Pick your friends carefully and value them fully, as they will mean everything to you.” He was right.
Greatest piece of advice you can give about your profession:
It’s better to be second and accurate than first and wrong.
As a writer for People, what is the most bizarre thing you have done to land a story?
I’ve done many crazy things in pursuing leads, or trying to break the news first, which is crucial with all the dot-com sites. You’re only as good as your last post. When Taylor Swift was turning 21 last year, the NY office was determined that we find out how she was celebrating. We made calls and did some detective work, but Nashville is such a small and protective town that people are reluctant to talk. It was rumored that she was having her party at her penthouse condo in the Adelicia, but it’s not like you can just waltz into that building. It had snowed that day, and my car was in the shop so my daughter drove me to the parking lot below the building so I could look up at her windows. All the lights were on and it looked very festive, but I couldn’t see any people, so I went back to my editors and told them I didn’t feel comfortable saying the party was there. One of our biggest competitors did not have any such reservations and posted that the party was at her condo and that her most recent paramour, Jake Gyllenhaal, was there. My editors were mad until we found out neither one was true, and her people ended up giving us exclusive details about the party. Which goes to prove my advice to young writers.
Do you have any irrational fears?
I have a fear of those huge, round storage tanks and big plants, like steel mills.
What books can be found on your bedside table?
Currently I’m finishing Let’s Take the Long Way Home, a memoir of a friendship between two women, and I’m getting ready to crack Jane Leavy’s biography of Mickey Mantle, The Last Boy. I always have a couple of books by my friend and pastor Becca Stevens within reach for those worrisome hours in the middle of the night when I need faith and a friend.
Favorite thing to do on a Saturday night?
I love to be with my friends—either out to a restaurant or have a group here at home for dinner. I love entertaining at home, that whole ritual of getting out the china, silver and linens, setting the table, cooking, standing in the kitchen yakking, laughing and drinking wine.
What is your “must-have” purchase for winter 2011?
I am in pursuit of the perfect white blouse: simple, classic, maybe a bit of sheen and stretch. I’ll know it when I see it, and when I do, I’ll probably get two!
Where is your favorite off the beaten track place to eat in Nashville?
It’s not so off the beaten track, since it seems like every lawyer in town beats a path down there at some point in the week, but I need my Prince’s Hot Chicken fix at least once a month. Breast, hot. As Mayor Purcell says, it’s not called Medium Chicken.
Favorite vacation spot?
I have two—Seagrove Beach for sand and sun, and Estes Park, Colorado, for the mountains, hiking and climbing. Both places revive me.
Name three things you can’t live without (excluding friends, family and God):
- Thistle Farms Lip Smoothie
- The New York Times
Here is a special Thanksgiving recipe from Kay. One thing we have in common is our love of Brussels Sprouts:
Kay will be signing her new book, 50 Things Every Young Lady Should Know at Woo Skincare and Cosmetics on Saturday, December 3rd from 1 p.m. -3 p.m.
For a behind-the-scenes look of this photo shoot, go to Ashley Hylbert’s blog: click here