The honky-tonk band playing at Robert’s Western World on a recent Thursday night is about 30 minutes into its set when Deb Paquette, the chef-owner of Nashville restaurants Etch and Etc., busts out on the tiny dance floor in front of the stage.
Patrons drinking local beer and eating the bar’s signature fried bologna sandwiches watch the impromptu performance appreciatively as they clap along to the beat. The appreciation turns to awe when Paquette does a full-on gymnastics split.
“I don’t get up as fast as I used to,” the 61-year-old chef says shrugging, as she returns to the table where her husband, son and vodka and soda await.
“She’s a spitfire,” her husband, Ernie, shouts above the music.
A couple of hours with Paquette easily confirms this.
Take her food, for example: It is deliberately, unapologetically original. Bold. Artsy. Uninterested in the now-ubiquitous farm-to-table dishes that so many other chefs are plating, Paquette delights in creating food that is “fun and exciting.”
Which is not to say that she avoids farm-fresh items.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
Unloading a plastic grocery bag of chanterelles she’d foraged from her backyard, about 30 miles outside of Nashville, Paquette promises to showcase them in a dish with “good, earthy Nashville flavor.”
“Here’s the most recent haul,” she says, whipping out her smartphone to show video of the shrooms growing wild deep in her backyard. For as long as the season lasts, her menus will include chanterelles in some form or another.
Paquette’s cooking career began in the early 1980s, when nobody in town was doing the kind of food that she liked to do. As a result, Paquette says she was “able to explore and have a lot of fun with it [her cooking].”
In spite of the playfulness of her plates, Paquette’s dishes aren’t haphazard. Ambitious and picturesque, they are also balanced, something Paquette believes is essential to good cooking.
“To be able to balance many flavors on the plate, you have to have a lot on the plate,” explains Paquette, adding that she encourages the “kids” in her kitchen to “create a palette of flavors so that they’re balancing sweet, sour, salty…”
Although Paquette is still working the line most days, she encourages her staff to play, be creative and find inspiration anywhere and everywhere.
As someone who has been in Nashville for decades, Paquette has seen the city change and grow. She’s seen it emerge as a real food and drink destination – even if she doesn’t get to experience the wonders of the city as often as she’d like.
Nashville’s local scene
When she does venture beyond the walls of her two restaurants, Paquette can be found supporting local businesses; in fact, she makes a point to support women in her industry because she believes that they all have something in common.
“Our jobs are usually a little bit harder, and I think we feel we have to strive a little bit harder to get where we want to be.”
Jackalope, a local brewery, serves up suds made by women in a place operated by women, and this is reason enough for Paquette to visit.
The cold beer is good, and so is the food-truck scene outside the space. The Grilled Cheeserie food truck, which serves pimento mac and cheese between slices of thick sourdough and cheesy tater tots, is one of Paquette’s favorites. If she can indulge in the dairy-rich bites alongside her chef friend Maneet Chauhan, well, that is a very good day.
The two do a lot of food-related events together, and Paquette loves Chauhan’s “fabulous” Indian restaurant in Nashville, Chauhan Ale & Masala House. Not stingy with praise, Paquette calls Chauhan “an excellent entrepreneur, a go-getter,” and someone who is simply fun to be around.
As she describes the lay of the land and her appreciation for this restaurant (Bastion, run by Josh Habiger, “a great chef who I so admire for his talents”) or that coffee shop (Frothy Monkey; “the roasters are great guys”), it’s easy to see why Paquette is so at home in Nashville.
Paquette doesn’t just know the Nashville scene. She doesn’t just serve incredibly inventive and delicious food day in and day out. She doesn’t just mentor young women chefs and support local businesses.
She has fun.
She dances like nobody’s watching.
Chef Paquette’s Nashville picks
Etch Restaurant, 303 Demonbreun Street, Nashville, TN 37201, +1 (615) 522-0685
Etc., 3790 Bedford Avenue, Nashville, TN 37215, +1 (615) 988-0332
Jackalope Brewing Company, 701 8th Avenue South, Nashville, TN 37203, +1 (615) 873-4313
Speakeasy Spirits, 900 44th Avenue North, Nashville, TN 37209, +1 (615) 678-8986
The Grilled Cheeserie, location varies
Robert’s Western World, 416 Broadway B, Nashville, TN 37203, +1 (615) 244-9552
Chauhan Ale & Masala House, 123 12th Avenue North, Nashville, TN 37203, +1 (615) 242-8426
Bastion, 434 Houston Street, Nashvile, TN 37203, +1 (615) 490-8434
Frothy Monkey, multiple locations