Chef, Farmer, Rancher and James Beard Award Nominee
By Hope S. Philbrick
Capitol Grille Executive Chef Tyler Brown was recently named a semifinalist by the James Beard Foundation—the food industry’s Oscars—in the “Best Chef: Southeast” award category.
Brown joined the Capitol Grille at the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee, in 2003 and has been executive chef since 2006. Previously, he was sous chef to recent James Beard award winner Chef Sean Brock of McCrady’s and Husk in Charleston, South Carolina. Since taking the helm, Brown has established the Capitol Grille as a leader of southern cuisine and sustainability.
In 2009, he added the title of “Farmer” to his résumé when he worked with the Land Trust for Tennessee to create a sustainable farming project at the farm at Glen Leven, which is located four miles away from the Capitol Grille. In 2012, he also added “Rancher” to his growing list of titles when The Hermitage Hotel purchased a 245-acre farm in Dickson County; Double H Farms raises cattle to produce sustainably raised beef.
How does it feel to be named a James Beard semifinalist?
Certainly an honor. It’s an honor to be mentioned in that group of folks. [Fellow nominees are Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Diner in Raleigh, North Carolina; Steven Satterfield of Miller Union in Atlanta, Georgia; and Tandy Wilson of City House in Nashville, Tennessee.] There are lots of great things happening in the southeast regionally. Close friends share the nomination and it’s an honor that far supersedes any professional goals that I had for myself when this journey began. I’ll enjoy this moment and then get up to face the day tomorrow.
How did you find out?
I received a text from one of my close friends, Chef Sean Brock, that said ‘Congratulations.’ Two seconds later I got another ‘Congratulations.’ I was on the farm and wondered, ‘What is everyone sending me these things for?’ Sean said, ‘You might want to check the Internet.’
You started at Capitol Grille working under Chef Sean Brock. How did you make it your own when you took over as executive chef?
Sean and I worked together in Charleston before this experience and a lot of our influences are similar. I was raised in a family where breaking bread was very important and I’d like to instill that in my family. When people take time to share in that forum so much comes out—more than ‘Hi. How are you? Hope you’re well.’—all the different places a conversation can go. You really get to meet someone, observe their mannerisms, it says a lot how they push their fork around. Certain foods or drink or conversations spark memories. It really influences me as a chef. The greatest thing I hope to get out of this career is human interaction.
How do you describe your approach to cooking?
The cuisine we serve is Southern regional. It’s what we come into contact with, vegetables at the farm and the cattle we raise and all the opportunities between those things—in the garden, a lot of other plants come up and those edible volunteers have the potential to make it to our plate.
Being a chef is a lot of work. Why also add “Farmer” to your job title? What’s the motivation?
Well, a little bit in fact was curiosity—trying to grow an appreciation for and understanding of where things come from and what it takes to raise them. What an amazing education it’s been. Also, as a boy playing in the sandbox I always dreamed of having my own tractor and the opportunity to drive one was a dream come true.
I also enjoy educating others. The other day at the farm I was with a group of 7th graders from a local charter school. They had the opportunity to discover different vegetables and why we enjoy them and it was fun for me to see how it affects individuals and that moment when a light bulb goes off.
How do you divide your time? What’s a typical day?
Different times of year it changes. We’re coming up on spring so there will be a lot of planting work in the garden. The breakdown is two full days a week at the farm and three at the restaurant, give or take at certain times. In October we purchased a new farm where we’ll have cattle so the ratio is going to change.
Think you’ll be on the farm more and in the kitchen less?
Yeah. The goal is to provide all our own beef to our restaurant and grow a small Southern beef label so we can sell product locally and regionally to other restaurants and individuals.
What vegetables do you grow? Is the farm organic?
It happens to be organic, but that label drives me nuts. We use biodynamic. It’s just something I’ve been influenced by; each person who utilizes biodynamics has to come up with their own understanding and belief of why that works for them and why it’s important to them, as with anything in life. At the far stretches sometimes people feel biodynamic is odd or weird, but in reality it’s just the basis of organic gardening, to focus on soil composition and different elements of compost. It’s been very successful for us.
Ninety-nine percent of all our vegetables are heirloom. We find seeds through research, sometimes speaking to people about what their grandmother used to raise in her gardens. I love to find seeds. We have lettuces, radishes, peas, sunflowers, 200 different tomato plants—not 200 varieties; we can’t be as effective as we want with all the different varieties, there’s a learning curve—mustard greens, kale, corn, cantaloupe, watermelon, squash, pimentos, blueberries….
Wow, lots of variety. Are you growing enough vegetables to fully supply the restaurant?
Things vary greatly based on time of year. Sometimes it’s less than one percent, but there are times when it’s 80 percent.
What has most surprised you?
Potatoes surprised me—the amount of effort and time that went into that harvest. We’ve had to work hard on succession plantings to have things available, so we might do three plantings a year of some things like squash. We have succession going and each year it’s surprising how vigorous or the lack of vigor we might have. We planted broccoli I thought we’d have in the fall but it didn’t come out until this spring, but now we have beautiful broccoli.
And now you’re also be a rancher. Why take on more?
Ignorance. [laughs] Once taking the journey to biodynamics and based on the whole farm operating harmoniously and working as a whole organism, once we had the vegetables down, I was curious about livestock and bringing that element to the table and provide ourselves with a protein.
What breed of cattle?
It’s an Angus-Gelbvieh cross. We also raise a heritage breed called Red Poll—the Queen of England still has a herd and it’s said to be an exquisite breed for beef and for dairy. We’re not doing dairy, not yet, that would be a dream. We chose them because it’s a great story and also because of the integrity of the beef and the way we’re raising them. We’re doing rotational grazing: We’ve divided our pasture into small paddocks and we rotate the cattle to keep them feeding off the most lush forage possible.
So it’s grass-fed beef?
The world’s not ready for grass-fed beef. Everybody’s not ready for that. I love grass-fed, but it’s a huge risk to serve 100-percent grass-fed beef to all customers. People are accepting of it, but it’s like comparing lamb and beef. It tastes very different and the texture is very different. It’s also very good, but we’re not ready for 100-percent grass-fed. We’re trying to mix a best of both worlds. So it’s rotational pasture feeding and growing the best grass we can, but also recognizing what hopefully our clientele and the masses are after. Grain is the “icing on the cake” after they’re pasture raised. Our cattle aren’t going to the feed lot, they’re getting a little dessert, some grain brought into whatever paddock they’re in. They eat grain only when we’re finishing them, so the rest of the time it’s hay, grass and minerals, and the last 90 days or so it’s grain. Once they’re about 700 or 800 pounds we start feeding them grain.
What’s the hardest thing been so far?
Making time, dividing the day. And balancing work with family—I have an eight-month-old daughter and a son who will be three in April. Them, the restaurant, farm and beef; it’s a juggling act if you will, but one that I’m happy to have.
How does Capitol Grille fit into the Nashville dining scene?
I like to think pretty well, we’ve been in town 102 years. We’ve been around quite a long time and I hold that with great respect. A lot of wonderful things are happening in Nashville, lots of chefs in town are close friends. The mentality here is ‘as the tide rises, everybody in the boat rises with it.’ We’re cheerleaders for each other and encourage each other and push the envelope and enjoy breaking bread as well. There’s competition in a good way. It’s almost a utopia, though I hate to say that, it is a perfect world scenario.
Capitol Grille at the Hermitage Hotel
231 Sixth Ave. N.
Nashville, TN 37219
-Photos Courtesy Capitol Grille at the Hermitage Hotel