To become acquainted with Nashville’s culinary scene, you must become acquainted with the local food, people, culture and history. It’s not the food that drives the narrative, but the people and culture behind it. For example, a stroll through East Nashville will lead you to some of the city’s top eateries, but along the way, you will notice Victorian architecture, a music studio where Johnny Cash made records and bungalows where the locals live. Through stories of the community, you will come to learn that Nashville’s culinary scene is more than what is on the plate. And there is no better person to share these stories than Karen-Lee Ryan. A former journalist, best known locally as a former writer and editor at The Tennessean and Tennessaean.com, Karen-Lee is the founder of Walk Eat Nashville, a local company offering culinary walking tours. Not your ordinary food experience, the walking tours introduce you to local foods and local chefs — and their stories. Today, we welcome Karen-Lee Ryan as our FACE of Nashville and ask her a few questions about the tours, our town and, of course, food!
What inspired you to start Walk Eat Nashville?
I was living in Washington, D.C., with my husband, and in 2002, I traveled to London and discovered London Walks, the world’s oldest walking tour company. On the flight home, I decided to start Washington Walks but soon learned that a woman had gone to London a year before me and started the DC-based company. I was so heartbroken.
Fast forward to 2014. I had just returned to Nashville after a stint in San Antonio. I thought about launching Nashville Walks, but the thing that had changed so dramatically during the 18 months I was gone was Nashville’s food scene. I started wondering if I could combine a walking tour with food. Walk Eat Nashville launched a few months later.
The business was a lot about using my skills as a journalist — researching and storytelling, just in a different format. It seemed like everyone was struggling to keep up with all the changes in our city, so I focused on stories that people who lived here might not know. There was intrigue about what was going on in the food scene and who was behind these businesses.
What stops were on your first tour in 2014?
The first tour went to Marché Artisan Foods, Five Points Pizza, Lockeland Table, High Garden Tea, Chocolate F/X and Bongo East. Now, I partner with more than 15 restaurants and specialty food shops in East Nashville and about 35 around the city.
In what other ways has the business grown/changed?
In addition to adding more restaurants, we tour more parts of the city multiple days a week. I started the business with weekly public tours on Thursdays and Fridays in East Nashville. Then, I expanded with a Saturday tour in Midtown and later, tours Downtown. I added guides to keep up with the demand for public and private tours. Walk Eat Nashville now has four guides and an operations specialist. Currently, all my guides are journalists or former journalists, including two of Nashville’s top food writers, Jennifer Justus and Chris Chamberlain.
What has been the biggest challenge in growing this small business?
Finding a balance between doing the tours and managing the business. I still lead more than a third of the tours. I love being out there. And, I am a doer. I love to do things related to the business. Learning to let go and let other people do was a challenge. I knew I was hiring awesome people who are more than capable of leading tours, but handing over some of the operational aspects is still hard for me.
What goes into planning a tour?
The planning involves so much more than food. We’re feeding curiosity about our city and creating memorable experiences for our guests. It is as much about the neighborhoods, the stories and the people as it is the food. And when it comes to food, we focus on variety. A lot of people think Nashville has a few specific foods, but the reality is that we have an incredible range of foods. I want to showcase the range. There is also a big focus on giving people the opportunity to interact with those behind the food scene.
During the tours, we walk about a mile and a half and share stories that weave the neighborhood together. Each neighborhood is different, and they have a different feel to them. East Nashville is full of entrepreneurs; Downtown is centered around music and visitors; and Midtown is culturally influenced by Vanderbilt and has restaurants that are iconic parts of Nashville (including Elliston Place Soda Shop, which is the oldest Nashville restaurant in its original location).
Do you have a favorite tour?
I love all my tours, but my heart is in East Nashville. I have lived here since 2005, and it’s where the tours started.
Would locals enjoy the tour?
Absolutely! There are often local guests on the tours. As locals, it is hard to keep up with our dynamic food scene, and we love introducing people to places and stories they may not know. The biggest compliment I get is, “I have lived here for so long and didn’t know about the things we saw today.”
Give us one word to describe Nashville’s culinary scene.
What is a recent meal that wowed you?
The chicken fried cauliflower steak at Butcher & Bee stands out. And, I recently went to the new brunch at Kuchnia & Keller and had the potato pancake with beef goulash and an egg — I’m still thinking about it.
Is there a hidden culinary gem in Nashville that we must know about?
Yes, Black Rabbit. It is such an interesting spot off Printer’s Alley downtown. If people know it, they think of it more as a cocktail place, but the food is spectacular. There is not a vibe like that anywhere else in Nashville.
And, while not hidden, it’s hard to talk about culinary gems without mentioning Margot McCormack — her food, her kitchen, her restaurant.
What do you think distinguishes Nashville and its culinary scene from other cities?
The passion of the people and the creative collaborative spirit set our city apart.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve received and from whom?
My parents raised me to believe that I could do anything I wanted to do and be anything I wanted to be. That always gave me the confidence to try a whole bunch of things in my career. And, my first female boss told me: “Proceed as the way opens.” That has kept me aware of the possibilities in front of me and encouraged me to take them, despite ambiguities and risks.
Where can we find you when you aren’t working?
You can find me at the Ryman, Shelby Park, Hatch Show Print, The Station Inn or almost any restaurant. Breakfast at Kitchen Notes, lunch at Husk, Lockeland Table’s Community Hour, Black Rabbit, Union Common and Butcher & Bee are some of my favorite spots.
What books are currently on your bedside table?
The Potlikker Papers by John T. Edge; Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live; a number of New Yorker magazines and National Geographic Traveler; and always a different business book — right now, it’s Now, Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham.
Name three things you cannot live without (excluding faith, family and friends).
Travel to nature, music and fabulous food.
We sat down with Dr. Sareda Nur, who works in one of the fastest growing specialties in medicine. A hospitalist at TriStar Southern Hills Medical Center, Dr. Nur shares a look inside this crucial work that makes a patient’s hospital stay as smooth as possible. CLICK HERE and get to know our newest FACE of TriStar.