Deb Paquette has been a prominent figure in the Nashville restaurant scene for over 25 years. Having helmed the much-loved Restaurant Zola for 13 of those years, she closed its doors at the beginning of 2010 to head out on a new adventure. But due to circumstances and the right opportunity, she found herself back in the Music City, and at the helm of a brand new restaurant, Etch. Now, at the one-year mark, she talks about a life (literally) working the line, the need to groom new talent and making people's tongues do "the happy dance."
First, congratulations on making it to the one-year mark. Do you feel it's been a success?
Well, you just never know. But yeah, it's been great. No complaints, except for a little overworked.
How has the response been?
Very overwhelming. I'm a loud mouth, I like to tell stories, and I'm crazy. But deep down, I'm humble, I'm martyrish, and it's been more than I thought it would be. I can't believe how many people leave here happy. Having my own restaurant for 13 years, I wasn't out front. Maybe that's the difference, that I have more exposure to the public now and they can tell me right off what they think. But it's been great. Our staff has been fabulous, I think 75 percent of our original staff is still here. And I couldn't have a better group of people to work with. They are very supportive, and they really believe in the product we're putting out, and that's really important.
But you also have to understand that it's not for everybody. The number one rule you have to learn is that your restaurant is not for everybody. Not everyone likes all of the bold flavors, but some people think that's intriguing. I'm a big bold person, I love bold flavors. If I go somewhere where the flavors are very simple, I might not go back there. But I'll go eat Vietnamese and Korean. Those flavor balances, that's what I try to do with my food, make people do the happy dance with their tongues. My mantra is to cook food that people can't or won't cook in their own home. I want them to come out and be able to try something a little off the beaten path. It's challenging and it's hard, and it's also a gift. And I'm very thankful for that gift.
But I'd have to say the only real drawback of this year is that they just don't make things like they used to. Things used to last for 10 years and now they break in the first!
So you've had a few appliance issues?
And building issues, lots of little things. It's a new building, so in starting up, you don't know what's going to work and what's not.
What other challenges have you had to deal with as a new restaurant?
The challenges as far as business have been minor, things like parking, handling ticket times, and making sure that most everybody likes what you're doing. The huge problem is finding young people who want to work. And I know that's across the board in every city, but our city's hospitality industry is growing so fast. I'm helping groom kids so that I can have somebody, and then they'll probably fuckin' leave me. But that's okay, at least they've learned something. I tell people when I hire them, if you can hang for a year, that's fabulous. Plus that way they don't learn all my bad habits. But part of your job as a chef is to groom a few, and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.
Have you seen an influx of potential new hires coming from out of state?
They are slowly drifting in. Resumes come from out of town, and kids who maybe lived here when they were younger are starting to move back. But I think with the way young people were brought up through the 90s, and the instant gratification, they all want to be famous in a year. It just doesn't work like that. You have to pay your dues. I worked the line until I was 55 years old, at my own restaurant. I've always worked the line, and right now is the first job where I'm watching, guiding, managing, telling jokes, kicking people upside the head with my roundhouse.
How does it feel to let go a little bit?
Oh, it's good, it's different, but I had a really guilty conscience when I first walked out the door and said, at 56 years old, I'm not cleaning the kitchen anymore. And I cleaned for the first half of the year [at Etch]!
You recently expanded the restaurant space, adding additional seating, a new kitchen and more storage room. What were the reasons for the expansion?
Well, the space was available, and the people opening the restaurant next to us didn't want it. We had actually talked about it for a long time, saying that if that space becomes available, what would we want to do with it? Possibly 'hurry up and go' food, or maybe a bar. But seats make more money than a bar in this setting. So we added a private dining room, a new kitchen and more storage. It's great to know that we have only been open a year and we're already able to do this. I think we've already sold the room starting in a couple of weeks, and the kitchen should be ready in about a week. We had to get a bigger dish area because we couldn't handle what we have. I can't wait. Have you ever known anyone so excited to get a new dish washing machine? You have to realize, the dish washers are the core. You don't have them, you can't run your restaurant. And we make sure we take care of our boys.
Any plans for future expansion, particularly new restaurants?
Not at the moment, I need to spend a little more time here. It's time to change the menu, I've got a few employee changes, and we're working on building up our bakery area. There's a lot of other things I need to take care of here before I can step back. Music City Eats is coming, and I've got some charity events. We're holding a special event on Sept.15 benefiting Second Harvest Food Bank as part of our partnership with Taste of the NFL and its Kick Hunger Challenge. We'll also unveil the new restaurant additions then.
Will the menu change over completely?
No, there are a few things that will stay, because they have become very popular. Some things will change due to seasons. It's just time, I've built up a good regular base and they have asked for it. I'm at their beck and call. Plus it keeps the waiters and cooks going.
As you've watched Nashville's restaurant scene evolve over the years, have you seen a major change, especially recently with all of the media attention, in the dining public?
Yeah, the real change is due to things like Food Network and Travel Channel. Everyone loves food, and now they can see on TV what really goes on in a restaurant. And I think people finally realized that they can expand their horizons. So here I am, they can come here. But Nashville was considered nowhere-land for a long time. Crazy stuff has been said. We have always had Southern Living, but it didn't push the right buttons. Garden & Gun pushes those buttons, showing more and more about what's happening here. We are all having fun, doing crazy stuff. And people realize that now, with all of this media attention. And that's what it takes, the media. Having a PR person for the city, we didn't have that before, and now we do. And other chefs are coming here, like Maneet Chauhan. They're coming, and it's great, and I hope it lasts.
It just sucks that I'm fuckin' 57 years old, and I had to wait until now! I've been here since I was 25, but I'm glad for the people behind me. But with all the new restaurants, rules and regulations are going to get tighter. And you know, I hate rules.