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A Tornado, a Pandemic, a House Fire, and a Bomb: One Chef’s Chaotic First Year in Nashville

Gray & Dudley executive chef Matt Bell has endured Nashville at its roughest since arriving in February, but he remains hopeful for 2021

Joshua Asante

Before moving to Nashville in February 2020 to take the helm at the 21c Hotel’s ground floor restaurant Gray & Dudley, Matt Bell was chef-owner of South on Main in Little Rock, Arkansas, since it opened in 2013.

A native of Missoula, Montana, Bell attended culinary school at the Texas Culinary Academy in Austin. He then moved to Little Rock, where he worked in restaurants before joining the kitchen staff at Ashley’s in the Capital Hotel. He rose to the position of sous under chef Lee Richardson, another Southern culinary legend. When Richardson left Ashley’s, Bell took control of the kitchen before taking advantage of the opportunity at South on Main.

Within a month of moving to Nashville, chef Matt Bell and his wife Amy Kelley Bell have endured what all of Nashville has, surviving the impacts of tornado, derecho, pandemic, and a bomb. They’ve also endured a house fire. Here is Bell’s account of what it’s been like to move to Nashville as a chef in 2020, in his own (slightly edited) words.

—Delia Jo Ramsey

It was one year ago this week that I decided to sell my restaurant, South on Main, in Little Rock, Arkansas, and accepted the position of executive chef for Gray & Dudley at the 21c Hotel in Nashville. My wife and I had fallen in love with the city almost a decade before, visiting every few years for fun or to participate in events like Nourish Nashville, a benefit for the Nashville Food Project. Like many, I had hope in January that 2020 would be a transformative year for me professionally and personally.

I arrived in Nashville February 10 to start work, preparing for Valentine’s Day, nervous and determined as I hadn’t had a new job in seven years. After that first big night on Valentine’s Day, I settled in and tried to find a groove in this new town and with this new job. At the end of February, we began hearing about a few coronavirus cases in Seattle, but it didn’t seem to register as an imminent threat.

My wife and our two pugs, Hank and Gus, moved into the hotel with me a few weeks after I arrived in the city. I was having a difficult time falling asleep one night when the emergency alert on my phone went off. I went downstairs to check in with the front desk as tornado sirens blared outside. We ended up working through the night to help calm concerned guests. Having lived in Arkansas for almost 15 years, I lived through many a tornado, but I didn’t have any idea how much destruction we would wake up to.

While Gray & Dudley didn’t see damage, thankfully, dozens of restaurants just a mile or two away were devastated by the natural disaster. Geist, Silo, and Jack Brown’s in neighboring Germantown saw extensive damage, as did Burger Up, Nashville Urban Winery, and so many more around the city. The next morning brought hope. Watching the Nashville community, along with my friends and colleagues, come together to support each other made me feel like we made the right decision to make this new place our home.

World Central Kitchen called, and the Gray & Dudley team jumped at the opportunity to do our part to help. The first day after the tornado, sous chefs Brad Webb and Eddie Badillo made sandwiches for WCK to distribute to people in need. We opened our dining room to serve “family meal” for anyone affected or displaced by the tornado, with donations from Bear Creek Farm, Greener Roots, and Southern Natural Farms.

A few days after the tornado, the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Tennessee. Within days, the hospitality industry came to a halt. I have worked in restaurants for over two decades. Most of my friends are in the industry, and most of my time has been spent working to grow and learn. I think the longest I had ever taken off work was 10 days. As I watched restaurants across the country close, I tried to remain hopeful that I would work again soon.

My wife, our dogs, and I were the only guests left at the hotel as it closed its doors March 20 due to the shutdown orders. We drove back to Arkansas and began to pack our home and prepare to finish the move to Nashville. We sold our home in Arkansas on April 1, drove to Nashville, and closed on our new house April 2. We tried to look at our time in quarantine as an opportunity: We spent that time unpacking and getting settled into our new home. I didn’t start a sourdough or a virtual cooking show (partially because only two burners on our 1960s electric range worked), but I did build my first fence. After a month of walking the dogs every day while we stayed in the hotel, I was relieved to have a yard to let them out in. The things I enjoyed about cooking and food made me ache for friends across the country, struggling to sustain themselves through this first month of the pandemic. I turned to home projects to occupy myself and keep my mind from becoming anxious with the possibilities our industry faced.

The second month of quarantine was a blur of zoom calls and virtual happy hours, trying to connect with and support friends and family from afar. My time without working began to weigh on me, as I’m sure it did for many of my friends who were out of work. This business is filled with detail-oriented and driven people who love to work. We are not the type to lay idle. Chefs, line cooks, servers, hosts, everyone in this industry is feeling the intensity of the situation we find ourselves in. There was a point early in quarantine when we all tackled new projects and tried to find joy in the break. After the first few weeks, I began to fear starting a “long term project.” Doing so would be accepting this as our new normal. I was not yet ready to accept a possibility where there wasn’t a future for us in hospitality, despite facing a looming reality that everything is changing.

I watched people I know and love fall into debt with rents, mortgages, car payments. Chefs, food runners, bartenders — no matter the position, no one is exempt. The whole ecosystem of restaurants, bars, and hotels that is dependant on Nashville tourism was crumbling. I can only speak for myself, but tears were shed during these months as I talked with my mentors and friends in the industry. We had no choice but to look for hope on the horizon.

Three months after Gray & Dudley shuttered, I got the call that I will start work again on June 10 and the hotel will reopen in July. I was elated to hear we planned to reopen and work our hardest to safely welcome guests back. A dear friend and mentor, Cassidee Dabney (Blackberry Farm), invited my wife and me to visit her for a weekend in Maryville before I headed back to work. On June 8, while enjoying some time outdoors in eastern Tennessee, my wife got a call that our home was on fire. I’m pretty sure my exact words were, “that seems right.”

Because of the pandemic, all of our neighbors were home. The smoke was spotted before the fire grew. The smoke damage, however, was extensive — our home will have to be gutted. Strangely, it put a lot in perspective. We were all together, myself, my wife, and our two sweet pups, and that was all that mattered at that moment. The whole weight of the pandemic seemed to shift a little after the fire. I cannot say it helped, exactly, but maybe for me it was necessary.

I got back to work in July. The restaurant industry is always a beast, but this was an entirely new challenge. How do you meet the people where they are while maintaining a six-foot distance? How do you share you smile with a guest with a mask on? There were more questions than answers, but that is nothing new for our industry. It felt good to be back, putting out metaphorical fires instead of the real one we faced in June. Every hour we are open is an hour a teammate is working, and I felt an incredible sense of relief. I told myself that if we just kept working, it would all be over soon. Every day of July felt like a win.

For the remainder of the year, weekly and monthly check-ins with industry friends turned to daily calls, where we bounced questions and ideas off of each other. Will takeout be the answer to save this industry? Or outdoor dining? Do we give in and accept the criminally steep fees that delivery apps offer? The collective power of the industry was working to find answers.

The ugly truths of the restaurant world are laid bare for all the country to see. Margins are too slim, work is too hard, and government support is never coming. Every time we thought we’d found a way to get through the current reality, something shifts, and new problems arise.

Even when the economy has been at its best, our industry’s relationship with drugs and alcohol has been a major problem. With no hope on the horizon, we watched our friends and colleagues lose the battle to their addiction. Relapse, suicide, and closures became daily conversations with each other. The constant pivot becomes a weight too heavy for us to bear.

As December began, I saw even more friends close their restaurants. It is a strange feeling of selfishness to be relieved to be working while you watch your people close their restaurants one by one. Talented and driven people are losing their dream and I am writing Christmas takeout menus. This business is often about overcoming obstacles to deliver to the guest, so I moved forward.

I truly looked forward to Christmas morning with my wife and pugs; I was ready for a day off. I woke up around 6:30 when the dogs jumped off the bed, I assumed to go outside and then shake me down for an early breakfast. I was feeding them around 7 a.m. when a friend texted my wife to ask if we were okay. We immediately guessed that there had been another natural disaster. I checked my phone and saw the first photos of the explosion. I was confronted with a clear picture of the parking lot I park in every day.

I began to panic and called our director of operations, and we tried to find out what was happening. She and I agreed that we needed to get someone down to the hotel to check on Tanner, our overnight front desk person. I called him several times as I drove toward Nissan Stadium and finally got a hold of him. He was with several guests at a gas station on Spring Street, across the river from downtown. From the gas station, we helped guests get rides and I offered them blankets I brought, and finally, it was just Tanner and me. I was relieved he was okay as I drove him to meet his father.

I couldn’t have predicted ending this year with a bombing on Christmas Day, less than a block from my place of work, but after the year we’ve had nothing would surprise me. I keep coming back to the words of one of my mentors, David Thomas: “The way you react to adversity can define you as a person and also set the tone for your entire career.”

As we begin a new year, I am setting the intention to find hope and keep ourselves focused on what truly matters: each other. If this year has taught us anything, it is that human connection and our ability to show each other love and hospitality is everything. It is what we miss most and what will lift us out of the darkness of this year.

*At the time of publishing, the 21c Hotel in Nashville, along with most of Second Avenue, is still an active crime scene, so the hotel remains closed until further notice.