In Off Hours, Eater Nashville goes behind the scenes with folks from across the food and restaurant industry to take a peek at life outside of their chef coats and aprons. We’re digging deep to find out where they go to eat and drink around town when they’re not at work, who their dream dinner guest is, and what’s on their grocery list. Today’s installment: Deb Paquette, chef and owner of Etch.
Deb Paquette has been cooking in Nashville for 43 years. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 1978 and getting a hospitality degree from Florida International University, the self-proclaimed “Mediterranean funky” chef moved from Fort Lauderdale to Nashville where she navigated her early career as a banquet chef at the Hyatt Regency, then the tallest building in downtown Nashville.
Following executive chef stints at Cakewalk and Bounty in the early ‘90s, Paquette went on to open her first restaurant with her husband Ernie: Zola, known for its paella. Etch, her current restaurant, opened 12 years ago, at a time when Brussels sprouts were having their moment in Nashville. Some dishes became instant classics, like the roasted cauliflower with truffled pea puree and feta crema. Her deft attention to flavor and consistency grew her cohort of longtime regulars and still entices a new crop of curious diners.
Although food trends continuously evolve, Paquette’s commitment to her restaurants is what retains her longtime regulars and entices a new crop of curious food fanatics. Here are some of her Nashville favorites and more.
What are your three Nashville go-to spots?
Otaku. I love the laid-back ambiance and seeing all the young kids enjoying food that is good for them. It reminds me of my younger years when I would dress like an “early hippie” and fun to see that still happening. The ramen is divine.
Korea House is pure nostalgia for me — I have been going there B.C. (before children). As soon as they could handle a spoon and spicy food, we took them as much as possible to encourage foods from all cultures. Jennifer, our waitress, watched our babies grow up. Ernie and I would pick up a bottle of wine and bring our own glasses. Jennifer would plop down with her glass — drinks for 3. As our kids got older they made their own voyages to Korea House, especially for the cold cucumber soup in the summer.
Years back, I commented in an article about the restaurant’s delicious japchae. A few weeks later, Ernie and I stopped in and she yelled across the room, “What did you do, Debra? We’re selling too much japchae — everybody wants japchae!” She’s a gem.
My first visit to Chauhan was so wonderful, and each visit still is. The staff are always happy to see you. It is just a really fun place dedicated to making people happy. I also adore Maneet. I love to support people who make you feel special, and they certainly do. I wish I could cook Indian food as well as they do.
What’s your favorite under-the-radar restaurant?
A fabulous Korean restaurant in White Bluff, Tennessee called Fat Tiger. It’s a very low-key, cabin-type building that sits on the side of Highway 70. They stock really good beers and the food is awesome.
A lovely couple, Starlite and David, run the place. Starlite grew up with a Korean mom, and her American husband does all the cooking. His broths are to die for. I get the kimchi soup with pork ribs and Ernie gets the fried chicken with Korean barbecue sauce — sweet and hot! It is the only fried chicken Ernie will eat. Their sauces are spot on.
What motivates you to keep cooking in Nashville?
I have been in this city a long time: I have guests who come in and have a story about something I made 15 or 20 years ago. I have guests who know my kids’ names. This is truly what my hospitality career is about — building great relationships. I’m also motivated by working with the line cooks and getting them to understand how each sauce must taste good by itself and taste good all together. I am a boot camp chef. I teach newcomers how to have a relationship with the world they have chosen to work in. If I don’t show motivation, how can I expect them to be motivated?
How do you approach developing your menu?
Each new menu involves two to three weeks of research and a lot of coffee and popcorn. I become a hobbit in my cave…I have cookbooks from all over the world, and I also check out restaurant Instagram pages for visual inspiration. At the restaurant, I poll our servers and cooks for dish ideas, and I attempt to visit as many restaurants as I can. The ideas fill up pages on two to four legal pads. Then, I condense ideas, and when it all starts to make sense, I formulate which recipes will fit specific dietary needs (e.g., no dairy, gluten, meat, nuts, etc.).
What’s the oddest order you’ve ever received from a guest?
I had requests to change a dish by the same guest on a weekly basis. I’d receive a call or note in the mail with her requested changes to the dish — less of this or more of that — and she’d sometimes bring in her own almonds to put on the food. I later learned this happened at other restaurants where she ate.
What’s the most underrated ingredient in the kitchen? Overrated?
Sweetbreads — please let more people enjoy them! I really want to put them on the menu. As for overrated, it’s asparagus. I’ll leave that one alone.
Describe your dream dinner party guest list.
Sting, Obama, Dolly Parton, Rachel Maddow, José Andrés, and whoever invented Levi’s.
What would your last meal on Earth menu be?
I am a person who really is aware of what she’s eating most of the time. I don’t eat a lot of meat sandwiches but I really love them, so what I would like is a big fat ass pastrami sandwich with extra-extra mayonnaise, red onion, arugula, and a plethora of pickles to choose from. For dessert, I want a big bag of peanut M&Ms and maybe a Linzer tort with vanilla bean ice cream. And of course a really great Paso Robles Cabernet. I would die a very happy woman. And if I could have a second dessert, that would be sex before I die.
This interview has been edited for clarity.