Part Three: It’s All About The Shrimp
After Saturday night’s Savor Nashville celebrity chef dinner, during which everyone was reminded how awesome food can be outside the city of Nashville, Sunday afternoon was a chance for the locals to show off. Ten restaurants, one room, one dish: a shrimp and grits cook-off at the Hutton Hotel in West End.
The judges would be the hosts from the night before: the five celebrity chefs who just 18 hours earlier had wowed with their abilities now seated calmly, awaiting each plate, pencils in hand. The restaurants ranged from the high end to the common country kitchen: 1808 Grille, Bound’ry, Brandon Frohne, Cabana, Delicioux, F. Scott’s, Arnold’s Country Kitchen, Nashville City Club, Prime 108 at Union Station, and Red Pony Restaurant. Each was set up at a table, all tracing the perimeter of the room.
Shrimp and grits are not, in my opinion, a natural pairing in that you wouldn’t automatically consider seafood and cornmeal a natural pairing. But host John T. Edge, an acclaimed Southern food writer and columnist for The New York Times, put it best when explaining why it worked for the setting. Shrimp and grits are perfect for Nashville in that they encompass what Southern cuisine is about, he said: basic but bold flavors, recognizable, playing off each other, simple enough to be playfully prepared in any number of ways.
The number of ways we got them would be 10. Working our way around the room, we found them paired with pork belly, bacon, ham, corn, red and green peppers, pickled radish, and more. Because there was so much action, it was hard to notice that the event was two hours long, or that I had eaten 20 shrimp for lunch. (This was a sobering realization later.) The most unique was undoubtedly Brandon Frohne of The Dogwood Room, who presented the dish in shooter form, with a sweet cornbread cake (“hillbilly crack,” he explained, and for all I know he’s right) and shrimp accompanied by a test-tube filled with a summertime concoction to take alongside the dish. It was modern and unique, and he won The People’s Choice Award for best dish and second place overall.
The winners were announced at 4. Third place went to Prime 108, and second to Chef Frohne. Both were modern and elevated interpretations of what shrimp and grits can be, with unique ingredients and presentations that seemed to leap off the pages of Food & Wine. It wasn’t a surprise to me that they resonated well with the five people who would know and be able to appropriately judge elevated food. The celebrity chefs loved them.
But they loved another more. In a room with nine of the nicest restaurants in the city, I didn’t give Arnold’s Country Kitchen a chance. It was the last we ate on the day and by far the simplest: two shrimp plopped on a pile of grits. There was no chow-chow, no fried ramp, no test tube, no bacon-infused bourbon shooter. It was everything Arnold’s is. You want shrimp and grits? Here are shrimp, and here are grits. It wasn’t intimidated by its peers, scared of its roots, or pretending to be something it wasn’t. In a room with nine of the nicest restaurants in the city, it won.
It was a strange dichotomy, I told Jessica on our way back to the car, that second place, Chef Frohne’s dish, was so modern, so different, so potentially polarizing, while first place was the simplest of all: a couple of shrimp on a bed of grits from a country kitchen on 8th Avenue. They had been liked and appreciated almost exactly evenly—one getting the nod over the other for one reason or another. It didn’t seem likely that two dishes so different would end up so similar. But there it was.
This weekend was enough to convince me: Nashville has what it takes to be one of the South’s preeminent culinary destinations. It doesn’t have to be intimidated by its peers, either. There’s no reason to run from its roots or pretend it’s something it isn’t. The city is enough. Country music made Nashville famous for what it can do in a studio. Shrimp and grits, and everything else great about what you can find on Southern plates, might just do the same for what it can do in a kitchen.
To see a photo gallery from this event, click here.