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Vivek Surti might not have a formal culinary education, but he’s no doubt a fixture on the Nashville food scene. He made a name for himself hosting inventive pop-up dinners through his VEA Supper Club, and he can always drop some helpful knowledge about the newest restaurants in town…
When Chef Karl Worley of Biscuit Love arrived at The Nashville Food Project’s kitchen, he scanned the recipe that had been handed to him. Then he reached into the fridge with the authority of a man who has reached into a lot of fridges and pulled out a hunk of butter. He dropped it into a giant pot, covered it with sliced potatoes, and dinner was underway in a sizzle.
Karl and Biscuit Love manager Heather Savey agreed to help in the kitchen to prepare a meal for the Thursday food truck run to Mercury Courts, a weekly rate complex that houses low-income Nashvillians sometimes in transition from the streets. But Karl has manned a food truck in downtown Nashville during many a music festival. He opened a restaurant with his wife Sarah based on their truck's concept, and lines of diners now wrap around the building waiting to get in on weekends. Bon Appetit magazine recently named it one of the top 50 best new restaurants in America (and the East Nasty as the best sandwich in the country). So even though he can cook a meal for 75 people with one hand behind his back, it’s still a marvel that he would come here after working all day to work more for those in need.
“I love it,” he said. “Everybody’s into the mission and seeing the mission through.”
The kitchen visit isn’t the first time Karl has helped TNFP. He participated in the annual Nourish dinner for the past three years with a star roster of chefs such as Tandy Wilson of City House, Sean Brock of Husk, Levon Wallace of Cochon Butcher, Rob Newtown of Nightingale 9 and Wilma Jean in Brooklyn and Scott Witherow of Olive & Sinclair. Though the food is top shelf, the barn at Green Door Gourmet where the event took place this year, swelled with a down-home love in knowing that even being there helps further our mission of bringing people together to cook, grow and share nourishing food, with the goals of cultivating community and alleviating hunger in Nashville.
As the Nourish dinner began this year, Karl and the other chefs worked together to plate one another’s dishes. It’s the type of pitch-in collaboration found in our kitchen or in the gardens where diverse groups come together to volunteer.
“Food is a universal love language,” Green Door's Sylvia Ganier said the night of the dinner. “It’s a language that The Nashville Food Project speaks fluently.”
Inspired by that work, the chefs tucked bits of their own story into their dishes at Nourish. Tandy Wilson used mint from his father’s garden in a plate of squash, pea farinata and buttermilk cottage cheese, for example, and Karl prepared a sophisticated yet homey take on cassoulet with Southern ingredients of sausage, duck confit and black-eyed peas.
After servers delivered his course, Karl stepped to the stage and announced he would donate brunch at home to the top bidder for 25 people. It sold for $4,000.
“I never would have dreamed that people would pay that much for breakfast in bed,” he said.
Poverty and the issues surrounding it hit close to home for Karl.
“I grew up really poor,” he said. “We were never hungry, but we had months of brown beans and cornbread. Like, every night.”
Karl’s mother worked at a diner, where he often kept busy as a kid while waiting on her shifts to end. His grandfather had owned restaurants, too. But Karl left his hometown of Bristol at 19 on the first train out, literally. He took a job as a railroad conductor out of Cleveland, Ohio.
“I had been to Florida for like two days. Otherwise, I had never been out of East Tennessee,” he said. His first time through the drive-thru of a Cleveland Burger King, he was nearly laughed out of the line for ordering biscuits, gravy and sweet tea, menu items you couldn't find on the breakfast menu there. But it was also the place where he connected to home when he craved the beans and cornbread his mother made. “I hated it growing up,” he said. “Now it’s my go-to comfort food.”
After a move to Atlanta and then Nashville and jobs that included selling used cars and working for a builder, Karl dabbled in culinary school at Nashville State before dropping out. Then when he met Sarah, the woman who would become his wife, she warned him that things couldn’t get serious because she was headed to Johnson & Wales culinary school in Denver. “What if I go to culinary school, too?” he asked her. And this time, the plan stuck.
At The Nashville Food Project kitchen, Karl took an off-recipe approach to seasoning their cabbage and sausage stew with a few shakes of hot sauce, garam masala and curry powder they found in the kitchen cabinets. As with most meals at TNFP, the ingredients came from various sources – tomato jewels from Tallahassee May’s Turnbull Creek Farm, cabbage from Delvin Farms, carrots and cabbage from The Nashville Food Project’s gardens and sausage from a large donation from Gaylord Opryland Hotels. Tracing the food back to its origin is a big part of why Karl likes to support the cause.
“We forget where the food comes from,” he said, “and how it’s cooked.”
Heather pulled cornbread from the oven, and they tasted their stew a final time. They would soon send their work from the kitchen into the community as another set of volunteers arrived to take the meal to Mercury Courts.
“Man, that smells good,” said Toni Rogers, walking into the kitchen. She’s been delivering food to Mercury Courts on the same night of the week each month for several years. Over time, she’s made friends and learned the names of residents. Food, she said, served as the entry point to get those conversations going. Just as Karl and Heather compared family notes on how they prepared meals, Toni would do the same with Mercury residents.
“Once everyone is together and with food, there’s that ‘meal community’ kind-of thing,” she said. “Even if you’re not in a house, it’s the same spirit.”
Click here to see the cabbage and sausage recipe that provided the basis for Karl and Heather's dish.
If you are a chef interested in visiting TNFP kitchen, or if you know a chef you’d like to recommend, please email email@example.com. Thank you!