The same outlaw spirit that imbues Southern music certainly exists in Southern food — arguably the most storied regional cuisine in America. And over the years, Nashville’s boasted quite a few chefs that push the boundaries of what’s expected.
Jason Zygmont, now leading the kitchen at East Nashville’s Treehouse, fits the part, though he doesn’t seem as intent on breaking the laws of tradition as expanding on them, with playful, even challenging (but still suitably Southern) food.
“I don’t know that my cooking necessarily says anything about me,” he says. “At least, there’s no conscious ‘statement’ that I’m going for. My mother came to eat here a few months ago. Her assessment was that we did things in a classic style, but maybe with a newer, elevated methodology, for lack of a better word.”
The 33-year-old chef ’s resume is impressive — stints under Southern food icon Linton Hopkins, Hugh Acheson, and national and international names like Thomas Keller and Rene Redzepi — but his real education, he says, came from learning to listen to his ingredients.
“When you’re young, it’s so often ‘add, add, add’ to a dish,” Zygmont says. “There’s a great chef I staged with, Dan Barber, who used to say a dish was done when there was nothing left to take away.”
Zygmont’s not afraid to trust the diner, either, which is something of a rare attribute in the more conservative culinary climes of 2018. Some chefs will try and pack an umami punch in every plate, hoping a safe, sated diner equals a happy one. Zygmont says his time with Redzepi at that chef ’s legendary Noma (including time in a test kitchen with the master himself) taught him three important lessons.
“First, don’t be afraid to adjust and augment,” says Zygmont. “Second, don’t be afraid to throw shit against the wall and see what sticks. And don’t be afraid to stop doing something that’s not working. There is nothing worse than going to a restaurant and experiencing very forced food, like the chef had an idea, and instead of going with the flow, they tried to force their will on the food. I’ve certainly fallen into that trap myself.”
A self-proclaimed fan of jazz and other improvisational musics, Zygmont says he sometimes sees elements of that same creative drive in his kitchen work.
“Baking is more like classical music,” he says. “There’s scales and measurements and times that you have to follow, or the whole thing will just break down. With savory food, as long as you have the fundamentals down, and as long as it’s cooked properly and the flavors work, you can make something tasty.”
NEW LIFE IN AN OLD FAMILY HOME
Co-owner Matthew Spicher — who, along with nephew Corey Ladd, launched both Treehouse and East Nashville newcomer Pearl Diver — sees Zygmont as a “game changer” for the restaurant.
“He has elevated the entire program,” Spicher says. “Bringing him on as a partner was the single best decision we have ever made.”
He and Ladd launched the restaurant in 2013, by remixing a piece of family history: a little house in the middle of 5 Points that was long home to Spicher’s dad (and Ladd’s grandfather), fiddle great Buddy Spicher. Two years later, original chef Todd Alan Martin left to move back to Seattle.
“We were as nervous as nuns in a cucumber patch about what to do,” Spicher says. “. . . Luckily, Jason was looking to move to Nashville, so the timing was perfect.”
Spicher and Ladd say the Clearview Avenue house has always been a small but significant neighborhood nexus, whether it’s been food or music being created.
“Dad had a recording studio next door, so I spent a lot of time there making records in the ’90s,” Spicher says. “We would occasionally go over to Shirley’s place [now 3 Crow Bar] and get beers after a session. Back in the late 1950s, Dad lived on Boscobel street at ‘Mom Upchurch’s Place,’ which is where a lot of musicians stayed while getting on their feet. Dad would walk to 5 Points to eat and hang out. There was a restaurant called Johnnie’s Place next to the Marathon gas station, and of course the Woodland Theatre. Little did Dad know he would circle back around some 30 years later and buy a house there that would one day become a restaurant. He just always thought the neighborhood was cool. He says it was hipster even back in the ’50s when rolled-up jeans and white T-shirts were the look. Which, incidentally, is what I wear now.”
Ladd and Spicher say that despite an overhaul, many of the original parts of the home still exist, if you know where to look.
“The idea of an open kitchen was great for Treehouse, because when you are at your family’s house, you walk through the kitchen and see what’s going on,” says Ladd. “[There are] little pieces of the house we wanted to salvage and reuse. There are places on the front of the bar that have doors with scratch marks on it from the dog that used to live in the house. The wood beams were salvaged and turned into the tables and chairs, as well as the bar top. The fire mantels were saved and placed in the bathrooms.”
Even the namesake treehouse remains.
“Dad built the treehouse for my niece, who lived with them through high school,” Spicher says. “It always made an awesome navigation tool as you were directing people to the studio. Treehouse was our attempt to immortalize part of my Dad’s work. He finds it amusing that his inept carpentry has made an indelible impression as a 5 Points landmark. We used to sneak up there in the treehouse and drink beers, and now folks sit under the Treehouse and drink beers … probably wearing the same rolled up jeans and white T-shirts.”