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Nashville Chef Channels Creativity into Community

Nashville Chef Channels Creativity into Community
Written by Chris Chamberlain

Continued from Resetting the Table Series:                                                                                “Restaurants Helping Hospitality Workers and Their Communities”


In Nashville, the Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee did indeed turn to restaurants for aid in their efforts to feed affected members of the community, many of which had been impacted by both the COVID-19 crisis and the devastating tornado that swept through the city in early March. In partnership with the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation, a program was established to fund hourly workers who would otherwise have been displaced from their restaurant jobs to help prepare meals which were then distributed to those in need by Second Harvest.

Some of Music City’s most respected chefs and restaurants signed on to be part of the effort, including Sean Brock with his brand new eatery, Joyland, Margot McCormack of Margot Cafe & Bar, Derek Brooks of the Capitol Grille at the venerable Hermitage Hotel, Marc Rose of the new Graduate Nashville hotel and Matt Bolus of The 404 Kitchen.

Chef Bolus was pleased with the chance to create the need to retain more of his staff during the pandemic. “A lot of thought went into it. Financially, we run things pretty tight,” he explains. “We plotted out how many weeks we could sustain not being open. It was a game of ‘we’ve got a bucket full of water that has very known holes in the bottom of it, and it’s dripping out at an unknown rate.’ Our goal was to put as much water as we could back into the bucket. It was more about surviving this, and profit is a dirty word right now. It’s not even in the mix. Everything we’re doing right now is to pay our vendors, our employees and our bills.”

Some of that water was provided by the extra work on behalf of Second Harvest. “There’s a need for that,” notes Bolus. “There are more people in trouble, and they approached us about that. We had an open kitchen since we were working out of [404’s sister restaurant] Adele’s doing takeaway. It turned out to be a win/win/win situation for our community, our local farmers and our employees. It allows us to keep supporting our favorite vendors like Bill and LeeAnn Cherry at Bear Creek Farm and Farmer Dave. There’s no money involved for the restaurant in that, but we’re able to spend money with our core vendors and our own workers to prepare 400 meals a week.”

The funding for the effort comes from various sources, as Bolus relates: “We’re working with rethink New York, the organization that Daniel Humm is on the board of, and they’ve provided a lot of really generous additional funding. Second Harvest basically gave us a budget of a dollar per person per meal, and that’s on top of whatever we can get donated. Luckily, we’re closed on Sunday and Monday right now, so this allows us to give people hours to come in on Monday to cook these meals, box them and distribute them. It’s keeping 2-3 people working extra hours a week instead of sending them home. That’s a feel good move, because with profit being such a bad word, overtime is an even worse word,” Bolus says with a chuckle.

What Bolus and his team have been able to create on a limited budget is astounding. He describes the menu on any given week: “We did roasted cornish hens with a gnudi and tomato sauce and basil. We’ve done sausage and rice with sofrito. We were working on bolognese for one of them because LeeAnn had a bunch of ground pork, and we were like ‘Yeah! Why not?’ I mean, it’s not 404 food, but it’s delicious, and it’s local, so it’s something we’re proud of!”

Bolus sees even more benefits from his involvement with Second Harvest. He describes, “One of the things I hope that people get out of this whole pandemic thing is the sense of community and family. We all got to spend a lot more time with our family, and that’s the only way we’re going to get through all this is by supporting each other. We had cooks sign up to do it, and we kind of had to draw straws. We didn’t have to force people to do it for sure. I’ve also seen team members helping each other, collecting money to buy food for somebody else on the staff who needed it. Nobody asked them to do it, but I want to hold on to those people forever!”

Bolus sums up his involvement this way: “We’re in the hospitality business, right? We’re in the business of feeding people, whether that be $1000 tasting menus or the local shelter that gives out meals, let’s do that. It’s the core of our business, plain and simple what we do. And it feels good just to be able to cook for people.”

Resetting the Table: Restaurants Helping Hospitality Workers and Their Communities

Previous Interviews                                                               Upcoming Interview

Isaac Toups                                           Kelly English                                         Griffin Bufkin

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