A Little Help From My Friends
In 2004, Tandy Wilson was a sous chef at Margot Café. One day a farmer walked in with some White Russian Kale (before kale was cool). Tandy regarded it with bewilderment and haphazardly stuck it in a container of water. Three days later he figured he had to cook it. The rest in history—for both kale and Tandy. Fast forward eight years to Chef Tandy Wilson’s City House restaurant where cases of White Russian Kale, hardy and sweet, are used each week. Kale is now celebrated, as is Wilson, who brought home the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: Southeast this past spring. While much deserved praise goes to the chef and his staff, Wilson also believes that it’s in large part due to the farmer because excellent ingredients make an excellent meal. That principle has guided him into cultivating a close relationship with certified organic farmers Tally May of Turnbull Creek Farm in Bon Aqua and Tana Comer of Eaton’s Creek Organics in Joelton. In this special collaboration, both farmers are afforded the opportunity to grow year-round in a way that helps the chef while honoring the land.
There is a good in everything—even the side bits (as Wilson calls them): outer cabbage leaves, plant thinnings, beet greens, young carrot greens, imperfect (yet still delectable) vegetables and fruit. For many other chefs, these bits would be destined for the compost bin, but Wilson dives in and uses it all. You’ve heard of “snout-to-tail” use with pork, this is “root-to-leaf,” which contributes to City House’s fragrant stocks, bright pestos and dressings, as well as savory soups and stews. This simpatico relationship also generates Wilson’s creative seasonal dishes such as Cavatelli with Dragon’s Tongue beans, late summer tomatoes, and pecorino, or the acorn squash with sorghum glaze, October beans, and biscuit crumbs. And let’s not forget the catfish and grits with red onion agrodolce and kale (courtesy of farmer Tana).
The rewarding journey of farmer-chef friendship got its start in desperation, notes Tally May. During the recession, sales through her Fresh Harvest Co-op had been declining. Friend Tana Comer, who grows for both Margot Café and City House, suggested contacting Tandy. As his business and the relationship grew, Wilson needed more produce, but Tally needed another hoop house and was too broke to get one. Tandy quickly volunteered to help. In November 2012 he made the purchase and put it up, with the help of his City House crew. Having that dedicated hoop house made all the difference in Tally’s world. “I feel like I owe Tandy my right arm,” she says. Tana nods, “Tandy and his crew have been there for me too. They’ve helped me update my hoop houses. I’ve been able to expand my operation.”
The three have to laugh about the ascendency of kale. These days, big cases of kale go into City House’s kitchen. Only now, growing it is a coordinated effort; before each growing season, Tally and Tana figure out together how many rows are needed, how to stagger the plantings, and when to introduce other leafy greens, such as escarole and chard.
These relationships have brought about a shift in Tandy’s culinary approach. Vegetables have take center stage. For a chef who has been known for his hog-happy, snout-to-tail cooking, that’s huge. “It’s kinda funny,” says Tally, “good ol’ boy pork-lovin’ Tandy has got two vegetarian female farmers watching his back.”
City House | cityhousenashville.com
1222 4th Ave N | 615–736–5838