Photos by Martin Cherry
W Walking into The Cookery on 12th Avenue South near the intersection of Wedgewood Avenue, you’d never know the journey that owner Brett Swayn took to get the place up and running.
It wasn’t so much the remodel or the menu development, which were also daunting tasks that were conquered with great success, but a personal journey for the Perth, Australia-born man who set out on what he says is “the longest walkabout [I’ve] ever heard of.” “One day I decided to leave home,” Swayn says. “I said I was leaving to go do my own thing. At the time my thing was music, but I really wasn’t sure where it was all going. I didn’t return for 20 years.”
For those who don’t know, in Australia a “walkabout” is a sort of rite of passage that takes place during the formative years of an aboriginal male. The young man strides off into the wilderness and spends months on his own. For Swayn it was a metaphor for a journey that eventually led him to Dallas, Texas, where he says he hit bottom and finally found the help he needed to repurpose his life. The help came in the discovery of the Christian faith.
“I didn’t grow up in church,” he says. “I didn’t really know what any of it was about. Even when Jesus came to me and I was born again, I didn’t learn what those words meant until sometime later.”
Swayn says his rock bottom wasn’t what you might think. It wasn’t drugs or alcohol or other vices that plague some people; it was more like a soul-crushing existence and an inescapable feeling he’d wasted his life.
“I felt like I was dying on the inside,” Swayn says. “That’s the best way I can describe it. I felt like I’d had an opportunity at life and I’d missed it. I missed it!”
What happened next, over a few years, shaped the direction of his life and clarified for him what he needed to do for others. The path led him to Nashville. But why?
“It’s hard to understand it,” Swayn says. “I just know that I had a vision of myself working in an office and I knew that office was in Nashville.”
On the patio of his restaurant he sits in the sun on a breezy day.
“If you close your eyes right now, not knowing what time of year it was, you could feel the wind and feel the temperature and probably guess it was spring. Sometime in April maybe,” he says. “That’s how I felt when I saw myself in the office. I just imagined it was Nashville. So here I am.”
But it wasn’t as easy as that.
He stepped off a Greyhound bus from Dallas to Nashville penniless and without a real plan. He says he got some comfort from his first glance at the Nashville skyline, seeing the Lifeway building’s giant cross beckoning him downtown, perhaps easing any potential doubts about his purpose here.
“I got off the bus and walked around a corner and ran into a homeless man,” he says. “He told me the [Nashville Rescue] mission was somewhere that I could eat and sleep. I was so happy to hear that. Later a guy told me he’d take me down the street and show me where all the other homeless hang out.”
It wasn’t until that moment that reality hit Swayn. He was homeless.
“Hearing that made me realize it,” he says. “I’m homeless! How did this happen?”
Fast forward a few months when one of what Swayn calls a series of miracles happened for him. Staff members from Fleming’s, an upscale Nashville restaurant, came to the Nashville Rescue Mission where Swayn was still spending his nights and, after meeting him, offered him a job at the restaurant as a prep cook and cleaner.
Remembering how he’d felt opportunities were once wasted, he decided to give it his all and make the most out of this miraculous circumstance.
Within two years Swayn was sous chef and was running meals for the homeless out of the restaurant on Thanksgiving and Christmas. That felt good.
With his feet on steadier ground now, he set out to make a difference by founding Lambscroft Ministries, a Christian organization dedicated to helping the poor and homeless in their times of need. Swayn got help from the like-minded Terry Kemper, who helped him launch the project. She lost her battle with pancreatic cancer in 2014, and Swayn still keeps her portrait up on the restaurant wall today.
Lambscroft operates the “Upper Room” in the gymnasium behind Woodbine Presbyterian Church, where they house and feed up to 90 homeless men and women per night all year long. The ministry also provides “disciple” houses for those who need help making the transition from the streets to self-sufficient lives. Lambscroft is also involved in providing worship services and Swayn says fellowship is something that is incredibly important to the efforts.
“We always appreciate donations of money and items,” he says. “But we also need people to spend time with these guys. Just come and hang out. Yes, the monetary donations are important, but if you have to choose, I’d rather you come and get to know someone.”
And then there is The Cookery.
Thirty-six seats, six stools, worn floors and rustic tables in a cozy and inviting room with a scrumptious assortment of burgers, salads, potatoes with all sorts of goodies stuffed inside, and desserts that are well worth the extra calories—and behind the wall in the kitchen, a room filled with homeless culinary students getting a new lease on life, thanks to Swayn and his determination to give the same opportunity to others that Fleming’s and the rescue mission once gave him.
The full-service restaurant and catering shop doubles as a culinary school for selected homeless citizens, where they learn professional culinary skills so that they may obtain work and transition into full, happy lives. Breaking the cycle of hopelessness is among the goals, according to thecookery.org website.
When Brett Swayn finally returned from his “walkabout” 20 years later, he says his mother met a whole new person.
“She told me she always knew I was a spiritual boy. I’m not sure what that means,” he says. “But the person I was when I left and who I was when I came back to visit are two totally different people.”
While she may have known all along he had a spiritual streak, she couldn’t have imagined what her son would experience in his darkest days in Texas and how he’d have the faith and determination to change his circumstances, then take it a step further and help change the circumstances of so many more in Nashville–half a world away–who have been lucky enough to cross his path.
The seven-month culinary program at The Cookery costs $3874 and includes housing, equipment, six months of culinary training, one month of transition time and ServSafe certification for the student, as well as healthcare and doctor visits. To sponsor a culinary student, contact Lambscroft Ministries or The Cookery. Donations can be mailed to Lambscroft/The Cookery, 1827 12th Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37203.