Over the last few months we have been checking in with chef Sean Brock and the staff of Husk Nashville as they ready the opening of that city’s most-anticipated new restaurant in years. In a final dispatch, we find out how the team is feeling with the restaurant’s opening a few days away. Previously: The Importance Of Choosing A Chef De Cuisine | Construction! | How To Hire A Staff That Gets It Right From Day 1
Update: According to Husk Nashville chef Sean Brock, the first day of service is now Thursday, May 23.
Less than a week before the anticipated opening date of Husk Nashville — Monday, May 20 — everybody is pretty damned nervous. The staff isn’t worried because they don’t know what they are doing. On the contrary, they know exactly what it takes to open a restaurant and now things are temporarily out of their hands as construction, permitting and staff training hurtle toward conclusion. Most of the nerves are manifesting themselves in the form of a genuine excitement among the opening staff, but there are also some issues that are just a real pain in their collective asses.
David Howard, the president of Neighborhood Dining Group, is nervous about the scope of the renovation. “This project changed a lot thanks to uncovered issues. It turned out to be a lot more work and investment than expected, but we will end up with a fantastic project! Unfortunately, we are not in control of our own business at this time since this week is all about permitting and licensing.”
After managing just about every detail of the project from site selection to restaurant design to staff selection, Howard is itching to regain control of the process as soon as the various permitting agencies sign off. “When people say they want to open a restaurant, this is the stage where they have no concept of the workload, frustration and expense involved as you pay premium prices for the flurry of activity that leads to completion.” Luckily, Howard and his team have opened multiple restaurants, and he is very comfortable with his general contractor who he brought with him from Charleston. Howard worked with John Paparozzi on the original Husk remodel in the Holy City, a project that they completed in half the time of some other builders’ estimates.
“It’s a weird feeling knowing that nobody has a reservation yet and we’re about to open. But we don’t want to get anybody angry by canceling their plans if we put off the opening because of factors out of our control. There’s an old saying in the restaurant business. ‘Lose people at the door, not at the table.’ But in this case, we’re intentionally losing them at home so that we’re completely ready when they arrive.”
“We plan to be operating at 100% when the first guest comes through the door,” promises Howard. “We may still have a few items on our punch list, but the client-facing experience will be ready.” Dan Latimer, the GM of Husk Charleston, is the man most responsible for that customer experience. And he’s nervous.
“I’ve been living in Nashville since April 23, training our staff. We need to get them prepared to tell the stories of Husk. I don’t need to teach them how to lay a fork down; they’re already professionals. But I need to introduce them to our purveyors so that our servers can share that information with the diners and create that connection and educate customers about the philosophy of Husk.” This is made easier thanks to a conscious decision to hire local servers who share their beliefs about the absolute importance of farmers.
While Latimer might want more time to train his staff, he’s pressing to open as soon as possible just like the rest of the management team. “I tip my hard hat to the general contractor and his crew of 60 workers on the job site. They are getting it done, but we’re not cutting corners to get it open.
Executive Chef Sean Brock might be a little bit nervous about the opening date, but he has chosen to pass that stress on to the kitchen and front of the house staff that he is in the middle of training. “I just scared the shit out of them. I told them the story of Husk and what our daily life is like. They knew our expectations when we hired them, but now they know exactly what we like and don’t like in our staff.” However Brock is confident that they will be able to handle the workload, because the executive team intentionally selected disciplined professionals during the hiring process.
What does make Brock nervous is being able to find enough produce to stock the larders at Husk. “Nashville sure doesn’t have the same growing season as Charleston. It’s easier there because I’ve been there for seven years. Farmers here are just starting to appreciate the volume that we need. When we find an ingredient we love, we buy all of it! But we’ve made it clear that we don’t want to compromise any relationships between farmers and their current customers. We just want to help the market grow by becoming a good customer.”
If Husk opens as planned on Monday, Brock has no idea what the menu that he and Chef de Cuisine Morgan McGlone will present to the first diners. “We don’t buy food to supply the menu. We gather the ingredients and figure out what we want to cook.” The staff is used to this seat-of-the-pants approach because the menu at Husk changes every day for lunch and every night for supper.
Brock has spent much of his time in Nashville visiting farmers markets to find growers, including a local company that is consulting and helping to plant the restaurant’s garden located right outside the front door. Even more important than the contacts he makes at the markets (“there’s not a lot there yet this early in the year”) are the relationships he has made directly with the farmers that will eventually supply the restaurant. “Bear Creek Farm has been one of the biggest excitements so far. They produce some of the most delicious beef I’ve ever eaten and they are just so cool and passionate to work with!”
He has also been a fan of the organic produce from Jeff Poppin, The Barefoot Farmer, who uses biodynamic methods to grow some of the region’s most outstanding produce at Long Hungry Creek Farm in Red Boiling Springs, TN. “It’s been so cool to get to know him and I can’t wait to cook his food in the restaurant.” Brock treated himself to a new vehicle to help transport vegetables from these farmers to the restaurant, but he spared every expense in his choice. “That’s my new ’83 Chevy Scottsdale truck. Isn’t she a beauty?!”
Despite all the uncertainties revolving around opening night, Brock and the rest of the team seem to be reveling in the energy. “Cooking here is a lot like playing jazz. It just happens without too much thought. We design everything that way to make sure we stay true to ourselves.” Although the staff might be a little jittery as they rush to get everything just right, there is a palpable sense of positive anticipation that is driving them forward. Whenever the front door to Husk Nashville does swing open, be it on May 20 or a few days afterwards, you can be certain that the whole orchestra of staff inside will be in tune.