By Kim Green
In style and ambiance, the Capitol Grille at the Hermitage Hotel – the only four-star restaurant in Nashville – does not immediately bring to mind rural Tennessee’s rolling farmlands, the scent of damp earth, the pungency of the barnyard. Nor does Tyler Brown, looking smart and (frankly) rather urban in his crisp chef coat and heroically curled handlebar mustache, seem much like a farmer.
Take a closer look, however, and the farm is everywhere: on the menu (a local root vegetable fricassee), on the plate (garden vegetable spaetzle with turnip and mustard greens) and in trace amounts underneath Chef Brown’s fingernails (after a rainy morning in the garden).
From Kitchen to Garden
The hotel had launched a program to raise funds for the Land Trust for Tennessee. Brown found himself ogling online photos of Glen Leven – a historic estate preserved by the trust located just a few miles from downtown Nashville – and dreaming of planting a vegetable garden there.
One day, the trust said yes to his plan.
“I’d only grown three tomato plants in my life,” he laughs. “I got all the soil ready, put too much [fertilizer] in there. So, beautiful, tall, green plants with very little fruit. I had a lot to learn.”
Unwilling to repeat the tomato fiasco on a large scale, Brown approached a veteran farmer to help him get started. In November 2009, they broke ground, turning tons of manure from an old barn into the soil at Glen Leven.
That spring, they planted a few vegetables and a whole lot of potatoes – an easy-to-grow crop for beginning gardeners.
An eager student, Brown soon learned to see the ground with a farmer’s eye and harvested four tons of potatoes that first year.
However, it was only July, and Brown’s only storage option was the barn at Glen Leven.
“I was extremely intimidated,” he says. “That example was a huge part of the learning curve. What do we grow? How much of it do we grow? How many lettuces can we use before they go bad?”
These questions didn’t come easily for someone with restaurant experience.
“As a chef, we’re somewhat control freaks,” he says. “We have a busy day, we can stay all night and make something happen, get it done. With gardening, you realize very quickly you’re not in control.”
Planning for Planting
When Brown started his career as a chef some 15 years ago, he didn’t worry too much about where vegetables came from, as long as they were “perfect and clean.”
“But agriculture isn’t clean,” he says. Now he’s up close and personal not only with where his vegetables come from, but also with the building blocks of nutrition and deliciousness: soil composition, irrigation, compost. He’s learning the best times to plant certain crops – for example, to plant collard and mustard greens in fall instead of spring, lest the harlequin bug decimate all.
It’s a huge challenge to bring all that produce forth and get it onto his cutting board at the Capitol Grille. But he says the rewards outweigh the effort and expense.
“Like today, it was raining like crazy,” he says. “I’m out there in the mud getting greens, and it starts hailing on me. You just smile. That’s what it’s about! You know, it’s not easy. But it’s just really exciting and moving.”
The experience of becoming a gardener has so moved Chef Brown that he decided to share it with middle-schoolers at Nashville’s LEAD Academy charter school. He helped the kids plant garlic, served them monthly lunches for a year, and talked to them about the vagaries of farming and cooking.
Part of the lesson, for them and for Brown, is that although people often tend to seek what’s easiest, the hard work most fulfills and renews us: the commitment of a garden, a slow-food dinner with family.
It might be less complicated to pick up the phone and place his weekly meat order. Instead, Brown has started learning to raise cattle at Glen Leven. And the Hermitage Hotel has purchased Double H Farms, a 245-acre farm in Dickson, to give his beef operation room to grow.
Brown’s dream is to create a sustainable small beef label for Capitol Grille’s menu and for sale to regional restaurants. He also hopes to plant an orchard and vineyard on the land one day – a longer-term commitment than he ever planned to make in Nashville.
“I didn’t think I’d be here forever,” he grins.
But with his feet firmly planted in Tennessee soil now, he’s got big plans, seeds to sow, and a beautifully unfurling vision of his future as a chef and a farmer.
Hungry for more? Check out restaurants across the state that grow their own ingredients.