THE PIONEER WOMAN

East Nashville food pioneer Margot McCormack on her namesake restaurant’s past and future

  • "It’s a nice, sunny day,” Margot McCormack says, reading glasses pulled down to the tip of her nose as she scans the list. “Y’all can work on those Italian whites.”
          You can feel the Southern seasons changing on this Saturday evening in late September. McCormack, lit in maize sunlight streaming through the windows of her 17-year-old 5 Points restaurant, knows it’s time to sell through the summer wines to make room for the new. It’s an ethos she’s held since even before her groundbreaking East Nashville eatery opened. Its menu changes nightly, in part because it’s dependent on what is freshest from local farms and butchers, and in part because her restaurant lacks the space for a walk-in cooler. Before every night, Margot is made anew.
          But even as the first couple of the night sits at the bar, McCormack holds a campfire meeting with her wait staff, poring over the menu, listing ingredients and their backstories. The ribeye beefsteak tonight comes from a nearby farm, which grows its own grain, processes its own meat, and delivers it to the doorstep. “An exquisite business, right there,” she says. There are Joelton apples in the salad and Gorgonzola in the onion bisque. On the other side of the divider, a diner leans over eavesdropping, taking notes for his upcoming meal. Later, to the woman with him, he will say, “Well, it all sounds good, but when Margot says the ribeye is the thing…”
          “All right, let’s have a great night, then,” McCormack says. The staff leaves their seats. Another new night at Margot Café & Bar begins.

    ‘THIS IS IT’
    McCormack, 54, grew up in West Meade to a middle-class family. Her father was in advertising; her mother, a homemaker. The fare was decidedly non-foodie, and yet Mom was intentional about the ingredients that went into the family’s all-American cuisine. McCormack remembers her traveling between five different markets.
          “She was very farm-to-table before that was ever a movement,” McCormack says.
          Over coffee at her sister restaurant, Marché, on Main — which itself has been around since 2006 — McCormack says it was never her plan to go into food. She went to UT in the ’80s for literature, set on being a writer. Restaurant work was something she fell into during school to pay the bills, a job that was active: “Sitting at a desk is not attractive to me,” she says. It was at the national chain Bennigan’s, in which she started in the pantry chopping salads, where she learned the basics — both of food and of the food business, the latter of which she would take with her into her first head chef position years later.
          What you need to know about McCormack is that she is not normal. She talks with the same lack of emotion associated with mathematicians and philosophy. While at UT, she says she worked 40 hours a week and took 20 credit hours a semester for four years, forgoing summer breaks. She graduated with multiple minors and 70 extra credits. “I just loved learning,” she says, as if to explain everything.
          Within three months at Bennigan’s, McCormack, with no previous food service experience, was running the kitchen, a position in which she would remain through the entirety of her undergrad.
          But even then, McCormack says, it was just a job: “I just wanted to write books.” After school, she returned home intent on finding work in the field of her formal education, but when the only offer was as a stringer with the late Nashville Banner newspaper, she returned to restaurant work. And the best place to do it at the time was at Faison’s.
          Jody Faison, the restaurant’s eponymous proprietor and, as McCormack describes him, “God,” was a Nashville institution in his own right. His house-cum-restaurant was frequented by both Nashville celebrities and drunk Vandy alums. It was into this environment that she was hired on and, after two weeks, given the head chef position.
          If there is a significant moment in McCormack’s life, a moment that set her on the path that she continues to this very day, this is it. Faison, a chef who trained at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), turned her on to American epicurean luminaries like Alice Waters and, with his restaurant’s proximity to Music Row, the people who frequented that world. Rosanne Cash and Steve Winwood would pop by for dinner.
          “My whole world went from corporate chain restaurants to these independent restaurants,” she says.
          “This is it,” she remembers thinking. “This is what I want to do.” With Faison’s encouragement and blessing, McCormack again left Nashville, heading to the CIA in Upstate New York, where she would study traditional French cooking for the next 21 months.

    BECOMING PART OF THE SOLUTION
    Margot McCormack says she knew she’d always end up in New York City. After the CIA, she found a cheap apartment in Brooklyn’s Park Slope and took a fancy job at a Manhattan restaurant where, once again, she started at the bottom.
          When she wasn’t working, she was exploring, and one day, she stumbled onto a charming Bohemian garden restaurant called Danal. When her mother visited, she took her there. As moms are wont to do, McCormack’s couldn’t help but talk her daughter up to the owner and restaurant namesake. And it’s lucky she did: Its head chef position was open, and McCormack, following a strong interview, slid in with the restaurant’s cozy staff.
          It was at Danal where McCormack had a canvas on which to work with her own vision. Marché’s now-famous croissant French toast? Introduced first as a Danal signature. But it was the administrative side of the restaurant business that offered her greatest lesson.
          “[Bennigan’s] doesn’t have great food, but they have great practices and procedures,” she says. “There’s so much more to being a chef and running a restaurant than just cooking.”
          As a head chef, she married great food with great business acumen. Did Christmas do well despite the restaurant’s Jewish ownership? L’chaim, there were the holiday decorations. Demand grew to such a point that the establishment opened for dinner with a menu entirely of McCormack’s creation. It would change by the night because — a harbinger of things to come — the space had no walk-in. Of her three years at the helm, “It was absolutely pivotal,” she says.
          But by 1995, McCormack was ready to return home. In Nashville, little had changed in the five-odd years she was away. High-end dining was still a steakhouse. The only bastion, it seemed, was in the Green Hills restaurant F. Scott’s, where she took a job and mulled over a return to New York. One day, while bitching to a dishwasher about the bleakness of the town, she got her comeuppance: “‘If you leave, you’ll just be part of the problem,’” she remembers “Tree” telling her. “From then on, I changed my brain and committed to being here.”

    A RESPONSIBILITY TO A COMMUNITY
    From this point, every bit of McCormack’s energy was put toward opening Margot. The relationships she cultivated all pointed toward it. The after-hours searches for properties centered around it. With partner and now-wife Heather, the two spent the next five years searching for a building until, in 2000, her then-sous chef, Etienne Janco, found a spot in East Nashville.
          East Nashville, at that point, still had a “danger element,” McCormack says, but a core group of artists and musicians were already living in the neighborhood. “They just didn’t have any places to go,” she says. The building, at 1017 Woodland St., was abandoned, and despite its having been a café 10 years before, it needed the next nine months to rehab. McCormack and Heather did it all, and when the license came through early, they hurriedly called friends and family for Margot’s grand opening.
          On June 5, 2001, mere minutes after liquor was delivered via sales reps’ trunks, McCormack served a meal for 120. At its end, she received a standing ovation.
          “It was amazing,” she says. “While we were building the restaurant, we made a lot of friends in the neighborhood, and I realized that it wasn’t just my dream anymore. I had a responsibility to a community that didn’t have a place.”
          Rather than a slow build, Margot took off like a rocket. It didn’t hurt that longtime Nashville Scene food critic Kay West — a contact McCormack cultivated at F. Scott’s — couldn’t stop writing about the place.
          “She was telling everybody that I was coming,” McCormack says. With dispatch-like regularity, nascent Nashville foodies received updates from the acquisition of the building forward. “Nowadays, that doesn’t happen, because there is so much going on,” McCormack says. Overnight it became the place to eat, and for the first two years, Margot was booked solid every night.

    ‘FOOD IS ABOUT EVERYBODY’
    At the moment of Margot’s opening, McCormack says it was the only restaurant of note to open in the preceding three years. Those times are long gone. In February, the James Beard Foundation, one of the most important food organizations in the U.S., announced its Awards semifinalists. McCormack for Margot got the nod, but so did five other restaurants, chefs, and hospitality groups from the city. In May, Food & Wine named Julia Sullivan of Germantown’s Henrietta Red as one of its Best New Chefs. McCormack herself has even contributed to the trend.
          With the restaurant’s history has emerged a legacy of fine chefs that have grown under McCormack’s tutelage. Ryan Bernhardt, proprietor of Inglewood’s TKO apprenticed under her. Matt Davidson, who moved on to Mas Tacos Por Favor, is a former pupil. “I respect [her] tremendously,” says Tandy Wilson, founder of City House and another Margot alumnus. “Food is about everybody, and she helped me understand that.”
          There’s no question McCormack is an exacting boss, but she has nevertheless bred a fierce loyalty among those who can hack it. Her employees, if they survive, stay. Both of her current sous chefs have been with her for the past six years, and general manager Destin Weishaar has been with her for 14. “I really believe in what we do,” he says. “I believe in supporting local farmers, which we’ve done since day one, and I believe in serving a product that you can stand behind. She instills that in us.”

    NOTHING IS CERTAIN
    By 6:30 p.m. Saturday, the restaurant is humming at half capacity. The rock shrimp appetizer is especially popular, as is, unsurprisingly, the ribeye. In the kitchen, McCormack rolls out pizza dough with quick, hard strokes before smearing a blend of ricotta and broccoli and sprinkling on cheese, then sending it into a waiting oven. There are a few terse words to staff in correction. “Y’all did a really nice job last night,” she says to another.
          McCormack says that, as a restaurateur in Nashville, you can’t rest on your laurels — ostensibly meaning now, in these days of million-dollar concepts that are launched by the week, laziness can bring an end to any institution.
          Nothing is certain, now, in the scene in which she pioneered. Her hallmark restaurant’s traffic ebbs and flows to unknown forces in the food community, and Marché’s future is uncertain after 2020, when its lease expires. McCormack herself doesn’t want to do this forever, and she says that she’ll retire after her son, Jacob, graduates from high school. She’ll be 65 at that point.
          “I’m a worker. I don’t see myself just sitting on a chair, taking up knitting anytime soon,” she says. “But there are other things I think I could do, like write a book.”
          It won’t be a novel, she says. Rather, it will be a cookbook, long overdue, that McCormack would pour into while living in a home, recently purchased, on Cape Cod, where she and Heather will retire. But first, as a long Saturday night is just beginning, she’s making food at the six-burner stove as another pizza is pulled from the oven. Only when she’s sold through her stock, whenever that is, will she take a breath, go to bed, and plan out the next night’s menu.