When enjoying a restaurant meal in Nashville, we expect our chefs to bring their best to the table night after night with fresh, local ingredients, inspired recipes and thoughtful, dedicated service. Usually, this is exactly what we get. For a passionate, creative chef what could be more important than overwhelming the customer's eyes, taste buds and waistline? For many local culinarians the desire to serve also motivates them. They take action beyond the kitchen, past the front-of-the-house and out into the larger community. We count many Nashville chefs and restaurants among those people who try to prepare the perfect dish while working simultaneously to make our city a better place to live. For this issue - which will lead us into the holiday season - we picked three faces unique to Nashville's food community. We applaud their personalities, their well- known menus and, most importantly, their laudable dedication to serving not only their customers, but their neighbors as well.
Brian Uhl has made his mark as a chef specializing in wild game dishes at some of Nashville's best fine dining restaurants including F. Scott's and the late, great Wild Boar. However, the chef's wide-ranging credentials also include a stint with Jean-Louis Palladin in New York and working under the French Laundry's Thomas Keller. Uhl's national reputation has been bolstered by appearances and mentions in publications from Bon Appétit to The New York Times. He is currently the Executive Chef of Midtown Cafe, Sunset Grill and Cabana, the Hillsboro Village hotspot, which he owns.
Uhl became connected with Nashville's Second Harvest Food Bank years ago. "I really got involved heavily back in '99 through Taste of the NFL," he explains. The organization hosts an annual Superbowl party the night before the big game in the city where the contest is held. It's a strolling food and wine tasting with chefs representing every NFL team city in attendance. The ticket prices and a silent auction support food banks in the league's various local communities. "Me and Mark Rubin (Director of Second Harvest's Culinary Arts Center) have known each other for years," said Buhl. "Most recently we've done the Jeff Fisher cooking wild events." The ex-Titan's coach's annual gatherings supported Second Harvest and featured a cocktail reception, a silent auction and - of course - a game-centric menu that allowed Buhl to show off his signature skills. "I really like what Second Harvest does for the community," says Buhl. "The facility itself is pretty amazing and it's nice to be able to be there for people when they need it and to know that it really helps a lot."
Vinny Tardo started working in his family's Italian restaurants at the age of 12. He studied film acting and directing in college, but eventually gave up the camera when he was offered the opportunity to cook at the Otesaga Hotel; a Four Star, Four Diamond resort in upstate N.Y. Tardo is the middle child of three boys who have all gone on to become chefs and their natural competitiveness helped to push him into a chef's apprenticeship. Tardo ultimately became the Executive Chef at Saffire in 2009. "I moved to Nashville in 2008, sensing that Nashville was a food town on the upswing," he explains. "I wanted to be a part of making that happen here."
Tardo's involvement with the American Liver Foundation came about as a happy coincidence of joining the Saffire team as a sous chef in 2008. The ALF's - the one that gets Tardo excited and talking fast - Flavors of Nashville is a fund-raising gala that finds top Middle Tennessee chefs competing in a tableside battle, creating five-course tasting menus that pull out all the stops. "The restaurant has been supporting the charity since 2005," explained Tardo. "By my second year, I was the Executive Chef and was thrilled to have been invited again. This will be my fourth year working with the foundation." While the competition is strictly friendly, Tardo always finds himself cooking to impress. "I have always been very competitive. I try to create an atmosphere at the table that is visually stunning with some inventive food that gives people a really memorable experience." However, no matter how heated he gets when it comes to bumping elbows with his peers, it's clear that Tardo ultimately plays for bigger stakes. "I really like that I work for a company that is so involved with the community and I'm proud to continue the TomKats (Saffire's parent company) tradition of giving back."
Provence Breads' Director of Operations, Kim Totzke, has been cooking her whole life. Like many gifted gourmets, Totzke traces her passion for food back to family. For her that meant time spent in the kitchen with her grandmother, playing a game that would find the blindfolded youngster describing the taste of various bits of food her grandmother would feed her. From these earliest experiments, Totzke has developed her palate and married it with a technique and imaginative menus that have won her fans all over the city. Totzke's resume documents a relentless upward mobility, punctuated by highlights that include her work with local legend, Deb Paquette, her memorable tenure as executive chef at Yellow Porch, and her stint as general manager/co-chef at Ombi.
Totske's latest charity finds her singing the praises of Community Food Advocates, a relatively new endeavor that is fighting for food equality for the city's poor. CFA's mission is "to end hunger and create a healthy, just and sustainable food system. " While the slow food movement may be the biggest promoter of sustainable agriculture, healthy, local food isn't any good to someone who can't afford it. CFA has recently teamed up with Delvin Farms at their East Nashville Farmers Market to offer a unique opportunity to folks on food stamps. "They get fourteen dollars in tokens for every ten dollars swiped on their food stamp card," explains Totzke. "They're able to get four dollars of additional value and that can make all the difference when it comes to buying healthy, sustainable food. " The program neutralizes the high price of organic foods, but more importantly it takes away the sting of hunger from the tables of our struggling neighbors. Although the organization is still finding its feet, Totzke is anxious to help them in their fight for affordable healthy foods and their strategies to wipe out food deserts in the city. "I like it because it's a food charity which is a good match for the food industry," Totzke explains. "It's a very good network of groovy folks and I always love feeding people!"