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VOL. 36 | NO. 49 | Friday, December 07, 2012

Adding a new twist to Southern favorites

By Hollie Deese

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Lump crabmeat hushpuppies from Bacon & Caviar Gourmet Catering.

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Nashville is at the center of a trend, and it doesn’t have anything to do with music, television or, sadly, pro football. Music City’s food is suddenly a shining star, and seemingly everyone has noticed.

“We do a lot of events for people coming into town to celebrate Nashville, so they wouldn’t come here and not do Southern,” says Jim Hagy, owner of Chef’s Market Café and Takeaway in Goodlettsville. “Southern food is really hot right now. It is a national trend, kind of everywhere.”

The goal is simple. Make amazing food like mama would, then serve it in a way that elevates it to four-star status.

Bill Reynolds, owner of the Cajun-influenced A Dream Come True Catering in Nashville, has experienced first-hand what sprucing up the presentation can do for the popularity of a dish.

“You you don’t want just plain old country cooking, you want to feel that it is special,” he says. “When I put gumbo on a buffet line with a coffee mug next to it, Nashvillians walk right by it. But, pass out gumbo shooters, and you can’t put them out fast enough – just by taking a Southern item and turning it into something cool.”

‘Upscale funky twist’

Locals have come around to the trend, eschewing generic plates and embracing the local cuisine that for so long was considered nothing special. Paul Johnson of Bacon and Caviar catering in Nashville saw the need when he and partner Ed Smith launched the catering division in 2008, then built their whole philosophy around it. Their business has grown 30 percent each year for the past four years.

“I think people get right away what Bacon and Caviar means,” Johnson says. “We do really Southern food with an upscale funky twist to it. We have the two barbecue restaurants, and lot of it is barbecue related, but we push it to a different level.”

Think a cornbread BLT with pesto, bacon, feta and red onion or smoked catfish paté with red onion and cream cheese remoulade.

Monica Holmes, event planner, caterer and owner of the Clean Plate Club, says Southern staples such as beef tenderloin, shrimp and crab cakes are perennial holiday favorites.

She often adds a twist. For example, Holmes will soon cater a holiday party at the Parthenon in which she’s planning on combining Southern and Greek elements with shrimp and grits made with oregano and feta cheese.

Amy Parman, an event planner at CJ’s on the Square in Franklin, also gives a big thumbs up for Southern food at holiday parties.

“It’s a fact. You see a lot of chicken tenders, fried green tomatoes and biscuits,” Parman says.

Charcuterie is also making waves and will more so in 2013.

“You see people wanting to experiment with different slices of meats, pork fat, pork belly, and now you are seeing lamb belly coming in,” Hagy says.

Rustic feel, easy flow

To go along with the homey feeling Southern food can bring, Erika Hunt of Classic Party Rentals in Nashville says customers are clamoring for a shabby chic look for their events, which melds perfectly with the warming nature of food. Many clients bring in rustic farm tables and soft lighting this holiday season as opposed to green and red festive overload.

“People like to use the higher-end stuff for holiday parties, the crystal vs. the glass, the silver vs. the stainless steel to get that rich feeling,” Hunt says. “People want more of a cabin, winter wonderland feeling using berries and warm lighting. I am noticing people are very sensitive to it being a holiday party as opposed to being for one specific holiday, and that goes for corporate parties but also intimate gatherings at people’s houses.”

Long buffet tables – and their accompanying long lines – are out in Nashville these days, replaced by food stations.

“Stations have grown,” says Reynolds, who has been doing them for 20 years, including for the Lipton tennis tournament in Miami. “For years, we have been doing stations, and now they have become very popular. When I first came to Nashville, buffets were much more common, but most of the venues can’t seat all the people at once.”

Stations also allow for 50 percent seating as more partiers mingle and walk around.

The goal for any holiday party is to give the client what they want, no matter what that might be.

“Everyone knows their team,” planner Randi Lesnick says. “Anyone I deal with says ‘These are huge drinkers. Or these guys are a meat-and-potatoes crowd. Or these people love to dance.’ They know who their people are and that is what they try to cater to.”

Linda Bryant contributed to this story.