Before Nashville was an “It” city, before Nashville realized fine dining didn’t have to be cream-sauced ’n’ butter-basted, Margot McCormack opened a quaint restaurant in a slightly sprawling, cottage-feeling former gas station. Margot Café & Bar served French cuisine in the range of Berkeley’s legendary Chez Panisse, which resulted in Time magazine dubbing McCormack “Nashville’s Alice Waters.” Using locally sourced ingredients, she stressed fresh and flavor and focus on preparations, building on her classic Culinary Institute of America training.
But just as importantly, the dark-haired chef who opened Margot Café in East Nashville in 2001, long before hipster status descended on the neighborhood, wanted to give back to the community. Beyond sitting on the board of the Nashville Farmers Market, McCormack can be found trading with local farmers for Margot and the all-day bistro Marché.
As Time wrote, “McCormack’s technique, influenced by years working in New York, helped usher a new era for food in the country music capital. . . . Over time, her local, sustainable, farm-to-table cooking — ‘all those catchphrases,’ she says — earned her restaurant a reputation as Nashville’s answer to Chez Panisse, the famed Berkeley dining destination.”
So when the woman who hosts theme dinners honoring Julia Childs and Bastille Day turns her attention to tomatoes, you can imagine the excitement it generates. Leave it to Margot Café to come through with a special dinner to celebrate East Nashville’s annual Tomato Art Festival, an annual repast that considers the succulent red fruit as something meal-defining.
“We’ve done gazpacho, pasta telefono with fresh tomatoes and fresh mozzarella that gets all stringy like telephone wires, margherita pizza, bruschetta, steakhouse salads with Vidalia onions, tomato bread pudding, even green tomato curry,” McCormack, a multiple James Beard Award nominee, says of past dishes. “They’re all pretty simple things, but done with varietals, different kinds of tomatoes.
“We try to have as many varietals to make the dinner unique as possible without hitting you over the head with a tomato,” she explains. “Tennessee for a long time was Bradley tomato country; but over the last several years, Cherokee Purple, Black Cherry, even Green Zebra Striped are becoming popular. It’s like a kid in a candy store — you don’t choose just one.”
For the restaurant, the dinner is its way of being part of the festivities. But on a personal note, the tomato stands out as a symbol of transition for the chef. “When I came back (from New York, where she’d run the East Village jewel Danal’s kitchen), it was winter time and I was given the task of taking over F. Scott’s kitchen,” McCormick recalls. “I told them, ‘We’re not going to serve things out of season. That wasn’t what we were about.’
“I had a couple who came in every Friday night who wanted tomatoes on their salad,” she continues. “It was a big deal, and I remember thinking about those grocery store tomatoes (you can buy year-round) — and what a perfect tomato in season was like. I was not accepting anything less.”
Not that she had to! McCormack, who has grown over a hundred plants at a time, admits the best way to enjoy a tomato “is right off the vine, with a little bit of salt. It really is just like candy.”
This year, she’s raising a completely reasonable 10 to 15 plants. But don’t think her passion has waned any. As she explains indulgently, “They’re just so good. Everybody wants to grow tomatoes and be able to pick their own. This year, we’ve got these Sun Golds, these little orange balls, like a cherry tomato. But you pop one in your mouth, and it is like candy.”
As much as she savors her tomatoes, McCormack isn’t getting ahead of herself. Cautioning that July Fourth is just over and Bastille Day is to come, she’s not truly drawn out her menu for this year’s tomato feast.
“We have BLTs,” she says. “BLTS are so classic, and so perfect. . . . We take it one menu at a time. But tomatoes are woven into the entire meal.”
Pausing, she laughs a little. “Think of this meal as the little cherry tomato on top of several days spent celebrating the tomato,” she says. “It’s that one last little thing that marks the festival.”
Indeed. So, on Saturday, Aug. 12, after all the merriment and “festivus tomatous” fades, the ambience will continue in high style. Once again, look to Margot Café & Bar to host their annual Tomato Dinner from 5:30- 9:30 p.m. The emphasis of the meal will be what many might consider the humble tomato, just arriving in its peak glory, and prepared — in classic Margot style — in myriad ways to elevate its flesh to something divine.