Some of our favorite cocktails and restaurant dishes offer a powerful sense of nostalgia, the flavors and textures transporting us back to a memorable experience or the moment we first tasted them. But have you ever wondered how they ended up on the restaurant menu in the first place? We asked a few of Nashville’s most acclaimed chefs to tell us about some of their favorite menu items and the unique backstories that led to their creation.
Menu Items with Fascinating Backstories
Butchertown Hall: Enchiladas
Germantown’s Tex-Mex favorite, Butchertown Hall, is known for its Texas barbecue and craft tacos, but their enchiladas are also a standout. Filled with pulled pork, chicken, chorizo or portobello mushrooms, the dish also comes with rice and refried beans. But it’s the delicious sauce that makes Butchertown’s enchiladas so special, and it’s all thanks to Prep Kitchen Manager Zoraida Guitierez, who brings the authentic flavors of her Mexican heritage to the menu.
Originally from Veracruz, Mexico, Zoraida moved to Nashville in 2005 and has been contributing recipes to the Butchertown Hall menu since before it even opened in 2015. Butchertown’s tamales can also be credited to Zoraida, and both dishes come from her grandmother’s recipes, which have been passed down through generations.
Made in-house, Zoraida creates her sauce from scratch using mildly hot pasilla peppers, which are the dried form of the chilaca pepper. The peppers are a staple in Mexican cuisine and impart a slightly sweet, raisiny flavor that balances out the brisket fat — the secret ingredient that gives so many of Butchertown’s recipes their signature flavor.
Owner Seema Prasad fondly recalls the Sundays when Sous Chef Kenji Nakagawa, who’s from Japan, ran the Miel kitchen so Chef Andrew Coins could take a day off. Since Sundays are typically on the slower side, Kenji took the time to make beautiful staff meals. “Sometimes it was seafood chowder or pasta from the week’s scraps. Still, when he made ramen — real ramen — we begged to work on Sunday!” exclaims Seema. “Kenji has made every style of ramen for us — traditional, elegant, and pure in flavor with the best ingredients available.”
Kenji’s ramen was too good to keep secret, so Miel now offers entire weeks when the bar menu is devoted to ramen all night — and it arrives in front of you seconds from hitting the service window. “It’s nurturing, soul-satisfying, ‘enjoy now’ food,” Seema says. “It is the ramen of the tiny shops in Tokyo that have been around for generations — the ones where you climb up a ladder to the second floor, buy a ticket out of a machine, and present it at the counter for deliciousness.” Keep your eye out for Kenji’s incredible summer ramen, served cold to balance that outdoor heat!
Pearl Diver: Maya Bay
Often, traveling has an impact on our sensory experiences, imparting flavors from various regions and leaving us with memories of meals we won’t soon forget. Such is the case with nearly all of the cocktails on Pearl Diver’s menu, especially the Maya Bay, which stems from co-owner Jamie White’s adventures in Thailand. “There were so many amazing flavors,” Jamie says of his culinary experience. “Waking up and having mango and sticky rice, and eating Khao Soi (my favorite curry noodle dish), I knew that I wanted to create something with some of these flavors — light and refreshing with just a little bit of heat to cool off.” As soon as he returned to Nashville, Jamie got to work creating the drink he had in mind, and he named it Maya Bay after one of his vacation spots. “For a nice, hot, summer day, this is a perfect drink,” he says. “This is what I’ve been drinking at home during quarantine because it reminds me of great times.”
The Café at Thistle Farms: Chicken Pot Pie
The chicken pot pie at The Café at Thistle Farms is one of those seasonal dishes that’s simply too popular to take off the menu, even when the weather gets warmer. Not to mention, its origins fit in perfectly with Thistle Farms’ mission to offer lifelong support to women survivors of prostitution, trafficking and addiction. Created by a graduate of Thistle Farms named Donna, the comfort food dish was inspired by divine intervention. Literally.
Last year, when Thistle Farms’ Chef Courtney Sobieralski asked the team to contribute recipe ideas for a special fall menu, she couldn’t have anticipated Donna’s passion for creating the perfect chicken pot pie. Donna researched countless recipes, but she never found one that inspired the right level of joy and nostalgia that a great chicken pot pie can bring. That night, she went to bed thinking about it, and when she woke the next morning, she felt as if, while she was sleeping, God had placed the perfect seasonings on her tongue. She then worked to create the recipe based on those flavors, eventually landing on the perfect dish she’d envisioned all along. Her heaven-sent recipe took off, proving that cooking and eating are genuinely spiritual experiences.
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Chef Maneet Chauhan’s mom used to send her to school with Bhel, a popular “chaat” (savory snack) in India made with puffed rice and various other ingredients. By the time she got to school each day, all of the components had mixed to create a tasty lunchtime treat. That tasty memory inspired Build-A-Bhel on Chaatable’s menu. “The Build-A-Bhel is quintessential Indian street food,” says Maneet of the menu item. “We grew up eating these frequently, and you can always find them on street corners throughout India. Each region’s Bhel changes based on ingredients, and we added it to the Chaatable menu out of nostalgia.” Maneet prefers to keep her Build-A-Bhel simple, adding onions, chilis, cucumber, cilantro, tomatoes and mango, along with the traditional chutney and yogurt sauce. Since Chaatable’s iteration of the dish is based on seasonal ingredients, the summer Build-A-Bhel features options such as peppers, strawberries, oranges and corn.
Margot Café and Bar: Oyster Stew
We’re still reeling over the news that East Nashville favorite Marché has closed for good, but that’s not to say we’ve forgotten about the fabulous menu items at Chef Margot McCormack’s namesake restaurant, Margot Café and Bar. There are plenty of locally sourced, signature dishes to choose from, but it’s Margot’s famous oyster stew that has an interesting backstory.
The oyster stew recipe comes from Margot’s mother, who made it only once a year for Christmas Eve dinner. Though her mother typically spent a lot of time in the kitchen, particularly on holidays and special occasions, Christmas Eve was an exception. “With so much going on, and looking towards a big day of cooking and eating the next day, she was looking for something light and easy to feed us,” Margot explains. Her mother would buy containers of shucked oysters at the grocery store, then set about making the simple but delicious dish. “In a pot, she would begin by making a roux with a little butter and flour, then add milk to thin the base,” Margot tells us. “She would then flavor the base with a dash of Worcestershire, some Tabasco, salt and pepper. At the last minute, she would add the oysters and their liquor, which would thin the base to the proper consistency.” Margot explains that her mother preferred the stew on the thin side, and always served oyster crackers with it.
Now, in honor of her family’s French Christmas Eve tradition, Margot makes the oyster stew once a year for the restaurant’s annual Reveillon dinner. December can’t come soon enough!
Next time you’re dining at any of these local restaurants, order up these special menu items and savor each bite knowing that the recipes come from special places and are served with love!
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