Photos by Martin Cherry
T ucked under a canopy of trees in the Five Points area of East Nashville is a restaurant that was converted from a house just a couple of years ago. Co-owners Matthew Spicher and Corey Ladd felt that the home—complete with a custom-built tree house out back—that had been in their family for 25 years was the perfect spot for a restaurant that specialized in “elevated” late-night dining, the type of place that could fill the void between the neighborhood’s upscale anchor restaurant, Margot, and the bars that keep the area buzzing into the wee hours.
From the beginning, though, Spicher and Ladd knew they wanted the menu of the Treehouse to focus on local, seasonal produce, which they say is just “the right thing to do.” “It’s a way of life for us, to be socially responsible, and it makes good business sense, too,” Spicher says, “and there’s definite taste difference in food that’s fresh and local.” As the business evolved, it became clear that diners needed and wanted more good food options at earlier dinner hours. The restaurant has enjoyed a brisk business and critical acclaim from the beginning.
So, when opening chef Todd Alan Martin announced last fall that he was ready to leave Nashville at the beginning of 2016, Spicher and Ladd knew they had to take great care in finding a new chef who shared their philosophy on food, could continue the momentum the restaurant had built, and make his or her own mark on the dining scene. As luck would have it, Jason Zygmont was looking at Nashville for a move, his interest fueled by the burgeoning food scene.
Zygmont spent the years before coming to Nashville working in a number of well-regarded kitchens, including Noma in Copenhagen, Per Se in New York, and Hugh Acheson’s Empire State South in Atlanta. When Acheson was looking to for a new executive chef for his flagship restaurant, Five and Ten in Athens, Georgia, a few years ago, he tapped Zygmont for the job. Zygmont was a natural at the restaurant, which blends traditional Southern foods with flavors of Europe, where Zygmont had traveled extensively.
At the Treehouse, Zygmont notes that the menu isn’t “Southern,” even though the ingredients are primarily local. And the influence has expanded to include other cuisines, notably south Asian. “I’d call it ‘American food,’ because it really is a melting pot of flavors from all over the world,” Zygmont says. “I like to focus on an ingredient and build around it, using whichever flavors are best.” The small kitchen at the Treehouse—which limits space for gadgets—also challenged Zygmont to approach ingredients with thoughtfulness to prepare each in the simplest and best way.
Zygmont has spent much of this year learning what’s available here seasonally and building relationships with local farmers, which he says is essential. “The advantage for me is knowing that I have a good supply of ingredients. And the farmers like to know they’ll be able to sell everything they produce,” he notes. Zygmont visits the farmers’ market every day to meet producers and see what’s available. He also credits Nashville Grown for connecting him with other local farmers and making it particularly easy to get the produce he needs.
But again, Zygmont stresses that though the food is truly farm-to-table, it’s not “elevated Southern” and that he does use ingredients that must be sourced outside his preferred range. “Just because it’s local, that doesn’t mean it’s good,” Zygmont notes, saying that he can’t get essential spices and a handful of specialty ingredients locally and wouldn’t use a producer or ingredient that wasn’t good simply because it’s local. But that hasn’t been a problem thus far; he says there’s been no shortage of quality ingredients available, though he has often used up every bit of what a farmer has produced and wanted more.
Zygmont is working now with farmers on what he’ll need next year, which will help both the restaurant and the producers in planning ahead. He’s also got a few special requests. “Green strawberries were a challenge to find this year,” he says, noting that he had to make some adjustments to menu ideas. “I also love fairytale eggplant and am hoping to get a lot more in the future.” He’s also working with farmers now to ensure a steady supply of sunchokes. Additionally, Spicher is readying the family’s farm in rural Williamson County to produce crops for the restaurant, as well.
As any native to this area knows, though, the winter months can challenge even the best cooks. There’s a reason why black-eyed peas, ham and greens are staples of the New Year’s menu and it has less to do with luck than what was left in the cellar to eat just a few generations ago. When asked about what diners will see on the Treehouse’s winter menu, Zygmont says it will reflect what’s still being produced locally, but he’ll also bring in what’s good from southern Georgia and Florida. He says, “If it’s within an easy day’s drive, I still consider that local.” But expect to see plenty of creative uses of greens, root vegetables, peas, mushrooms, fermented foods, meats and preserves coming from farms right here in Middle Tennessee.