Tucked amidst the murals and Instagram moments and wandering crowds of 12South is a Nashville mainstay, a restaurant that has served Music City’s best Brussels sprouts and beef tongue and cobblers (all individually, of course) for six delicious years. It’s a cozy atmosphere with a comforting, inviting vibe, and today, we are thrilled to introduce you to the woman who has helped shape and evolve many aspects of the restaurant. Karen Van Guilder Little is the sommelier and general manager at Josephine, and she’s also married to the chef. She has an interesting background in music, a lifetime love for food and beverage, and a bevy of knowledge about wine. We’re delighted to introduce you to Karen Van Guilder Little, our newest FACE of Nashville!
Tell us about your background.
I grew up mostly in East Tennessee. My dad was in the Air Force when I was really little, but by the time I was in the first grade, we were in Knoxville. My whole family is from Knoxville, so they are all still in that area. I went to school at the University of Tennessee (Go VOLS!) where I received a bachelor’s degree in clarinet performance and a master’s degree in music history. After school, I moved to New York City where I lived for 10 years. I worked for ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) and Lincoln Center for several years and got to immerse myself in the world of classical music, which I loved. I miss the music part of that life sometimes, but I love my food, wine and hospitality life, too.
After leaving New York, I spent 10 years in Pennsylvania running a couple of different restaurants with my now-husband, Andy. After the last place we worked in Pennsylvania closed, we were looking all over (with open minds) about where we would go when the opportunity to move to Nashville and open Josephine came up.
What was it that shifted your path from music to food and beverage?
I have always had an interest in food and wine, even when I worked in the music industry. I had a good friend who was also interested in wine, and we would spend the weekends trying out all sorts of bottles and cooking for our group of friends. When we dined out we were always critiquing our experiences and making plans for the next place we were going to eat and drink before we were even finished with that meal! At my job (at Lincoln Center), I would find every opportunity to get myself on a committee that was planning a gala or work my way into the food and beverage part of an event if I could. I was the person planning the office get-togethers and holiday parties.
When I was burned out on living in New York City, I thought a good transition for me might be to buy a bed and breakfast in Pennsylvania. I took a job at an inn as an innkeeper, and I’m so glad I did that before jumping all the way in. It turns out I hated running an inn. I just wanted to do something with food and wine. Luckily for me, that place had an amazing restaurant, and that is where I really started my food and wine career.
How did you and Andy meet?
We met at that inn in Pennsylvania where we worked together. He was the chef there when I started as the innkeeper. My job as the innkeeper entailed baking all of the cookies and tea cakes for the afternoon tea we served each day. We ended up in the kitchen together a lot and the rest is history …
Tell us a little about your role at Josephine. What does a sommelier role entail?
Most of the sommelier job is interesting and pretty fun. It can include tasting and choosing wine for the wine list, working with the chef to create a wine list that works with our menu, training the staff about wine, and talking to guests about pairings and maybe even teaching them something they didn’t know. Then there is, of course, the mundane part – ordering, inventory, restocking, managing the list … but even that isn’t too bad. I am also the General Manager at Josephine, so I also spend my time managing the staff and working on anything and everything that can come up in a day. Luckily for me, my husband is the chef, so he handles just about everything there as well.
What is your favorite thing about your job?
The people. Meeting new people is a great perk of this job.
I know there was one specific wine that kick-started your career path. What one wine would you recommend at Josephine right now?
Jean Foillard Côte du Py Morgon. It’s a Cru Beaujolais, and it is great with all sorts of food. It is an elegant wine, but it also has a little bit of power behind it even though it’s a super juicy Gamay.
Where else do you like to eat and drink in Nashville?
Well, besides Josephine, I’d say Folk, Bastion (Jeremiah makes a great cocktail in the little bar), Hattie B’s, Sperry’s (old school!), ‘za (the new pizza place from the folks at Biscuit Love), Arnold’s Country Kitchen, Pastaria, Chauhan Ale & Masala House, and AT HOME! One place I keep meaning to try is Peninsula, but I just keep going back to my usual haunts.
For those of us who are wine novices, do you have any tips for choosing wine at a restaurant or shop? Things to look for or avoid?
At a restaurant, ask the sommelier what they are drinking right now. They will steer you towards something interesting, and it’s not going to be the most expensive thing on the list. Don’t be shy to let them know what your price point is. If you feel uncomfortable saying it out loud, just point to a bottle on the list and say that you would like to stay in that range.
Do say what kinds of flavors you normally like so we can get you something that will suit your palate. If you bring in your grandma and she drinks white zinfandel at home, then maybe I can steer her to a nice German Riesling with some residual sweetness. If you normally like a Pinot Grigio but want to branch out, let’s try an Albariño tonight.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given and from whom?
When I was maybe 25, I went to my boss at ASCAP to gripe about a coworker who just wouldn’t stop coming to me with their problems and kept cornering me to dump their troubles on me. It was so time-consuming and draining for me. It was making me uncomfortable, and I wanted my boss to do something about it. She said to me, “What are you doing to make this person feel like they can keep coming to you?” I was so angry that she had made it about me. I wanted her to say, “I’ll take care of this. I’ll get them off your back.” It took me a while to realize that I was allowing them to continue to use me in that way. So while it wasn’t a piece of advice exactly, this was a way to get me to realize that I have control of situations. I can set my boundaries, and I can make rules in my life.
What are three things you couldn’t live without, aside from faith, family and friends?
Well, if I can’t say my husband, family and best friends, then these things:
1) Our cats (we have three: Gigi, Palmer and Hogan)
2) Books. I absolutely could not survive without books. I am a voracious reader and will read almost anything.
3) Travel. It opens our minds to new ideas and opens our hearts to new people.
Thank you so much for sharing with us today, Karen! And thank you to Leila Grossman for the beautiful photos.
Dr. David Yi is a self-described life-long learner with an unwavering desire to be the best at everything he does. And at TriStar Southern Hills Medical Center, he’s committed to making a difference in the lives of his patients. Meet this dedicated and passionate FACE of TriStar! Click HERE.