More than six years ago, chef Jonathan Waxman and Kings of Leon vocalist Caleb Followill dreamed of starting a food and wine festival in Nashville unlike any other. Now in its third year, Music City Food and Wine is arguably one of the best culinary events in the nation, bringing together acclaimed chefs and musicians in a weekend-long feast, spearheaded by Vector Management and C3 Presents, organizers behind Austin City Limits Music Festival and Lollapalooza. In other words, it’s worth the $500 all-access pass.
“From my point of view, I think year three is going to be twice as good as the last two years,” Waxman said. “We’ve built the momentum. And you know, it takes a while for people to understand what this is. It’s a new idea that people didn’t know about. And now, people are really grabbing onto it. People are really digging the fact that it’s food, it’s music, but it’s also the culture of Nashville.”
Hospitable, diverse, approachable, musically inspired — these are the things that Waxman says make Nashville great. And he would know. Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Waxman studied music and politics before enrolling at La Varenne, one of the finest professional cooking schools in France. He went on to work at some of the best restaurants in California, and later opened several acclaimed eateries in Manhattan, including Jams, Barbuto and the now-shuttered Washington Park. A competitor (and top-four finalist) on Bravo’s Top Chef Masters, Waxman now lives what he calls a “tri-coastal” lifestyle, alternating among San Francisco, New York and the French Riviera.
Amid all the travels and culinary triumphs, Waxman chose to open a new restaurant in Nashville in 2014 because of how quickly he fell in love with the place. Adele’s, named after his grandmother, is located in the Gulch, a downtown haven for some of the city’s newest restaurants. While some residents fear that the influx of celebrity chefs threatens to hurt the mom-and-pop culture that attracted so many to the city in the first place, Waxman argues that there are certain things about Nashville that will never change.
“When you increase your population five, six, seven times in the span of just a few years, you draw people from all over the map,” Waxman said. “But through it all, there is a strong independent streak in Nashville. Many of my staff at Adele’s are writers, musicians, singers. They’re looking for their own identity and their own voice. When you’re finding your own voice, whether that’s in food or music or making shoes or whatever, that helps a community. The community will inevitably become more diverse and complex. It’s important to have strong voices. Strong voices lead to a stronger community.”
It’s that community and culture that he hopes stays front and center at Music City Food and Wine Festival. On September 19 and 20, the Grand Tasting Pavilion at Bicentennial Park will serve up countless tastes and drinks from restaurants, vintners and distillers while, on the periphery, demonstrations and panel discussions will take place featuring nationally acclaimed chefs, including Andrew Zimmern, Tim Love, Carla Hall, Aaron Sanchez and Tyler Brown (of Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Capitol Grille at The Hermitage Hotel in Nashville). If you’re interested in sampling some of the food from these chefs, consider purchasing a ticket (included in the all-access pass) to Saturday’s Harvest Night, where the plates are larger, the music stage is grander (this year’s entertainment hadn’t been announced at press time) and pours are more generous.
“These chefs keep coming back every year because they think Nashville is the best Food and Wine event,” Waxman explained. “It’s the camaraderie of the chefs, but it’s also the people. As a chef, you sweat and you put your heart on your sleeve, and someone says, ‘Thank you so much for coming to Nashville.’ You feel appreciated. That doesn’t happen everywhere. There’s a politeness and enthusiasm here. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen in other festivals, but it’s pretty ubiquitous in Nashville.”
But above all else, Waxman hopes the festival will be more than just a reason to try great food and wine. He wants it to inspire people to go home, face their fears and flex their own kitchen muscles.
“The problem is that most people think cooking is intuitive,” Waxman said. “But it’s not. It’s an acquired skill. We’re not going to be great anything — skiers, tennis players, musicians — unless we give it a lot of time and receive some mentorship. In the old days, you’d have your grandmother teaching you to cook. We’ve stopped that, what I call kitchen whispering. We’re all too busy for that, and I think that’s sad. I was lucky. I spent time with my mother and father cooking, and those lessons came back to me later on in life, even more than cooking school.”
If you’re interested in hearing a few whispers from Waxman, make sure to arrive early for his “What a Catch” demonstration on September 19 at 11:30. Whether you’re a first-time cook or a longtime chef, expect to learn a lot and be properly entertained, too. Part of the Music City festival’s magic is finding out that, in the kitchen, we’re all about the same.