The Food Sheriff

INSPIRATION — LIKE WISDOM — COMES FROM STRANGE places. You have to be open and aware to recognize it when it crosses your path. For Jesse Goldstein, known to local foodie cognoscenti as “The Food Sheriff,” the world is a pupu platter of wow.
     “A friend in East Nashville had this tattoo that said, ‘Leap and the Net Will Appear’,” the Southern force of food recalls. “I thought about that at the end of the year, thought that I needed to do something different.”
     The year was 2013. Goldstein had spent 10 years as the brand manager for Tom Morales’ various enterprises, starting out “in the field,” running a kitchen for TomKats’ movie catering division. He later would lead the refurbishing of The Loveless Café’s storied home-cooking empire and also the relaunch of the SoBro Café at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
     Laughing now about his role in the epic TomKats brand, the blond ball of energy with the raging 360 take on what food can and should be marvels. “The best business is more than a business, it’s a cherished community asset,” he begins. “When someone comes to town, where do you have to take them? When you’re celebrating something special, or want a treat, where is that place you have to go?
     “After restarting the Country Music Hall of Fame, The Loveless entered the picture,” Goldstein says. “Tom had ideas. He had friends who could help. And it was a cherished community asset.
     “My motto from Day One — and every day after that — was simple: ‘Don’t fuck it up.’ It wasn’t about changing it to change it; it was about figuring out how to keep everything that was great about it . . . only make it better.”
     Casting his aquamarine eyes to the side and back, he looks down, then offers a commiserating aside. Part of his Day One strategy was hearing out the veteran waitresses and staff about their concerns, strengths, and thoughts.
     “We sat with all the employees to hear what (they thought) didn’t need to change, what needed changing,” he explains. “One of the waitresses came up after we were done, and said, ‘Do we have to keep dumping the jam back into the tubs at the end of the day?’”
     Goldtstein pauses for effect, letting this revelation sink in. He understands how much diners don’t think about what goes on behind the scenes — and how much is taken for granted. As the horror slowly rises, he leans a little closer. “I told her, “ ‘Oh, yes, we’re definitely going to stop doing that.’ ”
     Goldstein, affectionately deemed The Food Sheriff by his brothers, has a down-home way about him that makes everything seem all right. With a robust smile, two arms filled with genuinely artistic tattoos — including a truth-in-advertising “One of the Lucky Ones” on his right arm — and hands that fly as he talks, he is the “secret weapon” for many of Nashville’s best food-based “assets,” including Goo Goo Cluster, The Peach Truck, Arnold’s Country Kitchen, Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint, Biscuit Love, Olive & Sinclair Chocolate Co., and Cochon Butcher, as well as creating the wildly successful cocktail collective 3st of the Month.
     Standing inside his custom built-out lair in a fairly nondescript section of the decidedly unculinary Trinity Lane, he is mixing elixirs — small batch gins, bespoke bitters, a dash of tonic — to create a fresh “little something” to quaff while discussing his evolution from hippie kid to culinary visionary to design/conceptualizing expert before integrating all of it as a denizen of “marketable branding.”
     Industrial though the former machine shop and manufacturing general store may be, Goldstein is cozy. There are 300 bottles of exotic liquor in a black rack behind him, hundreds of Goodwill glasses on shelves behind that — for serving, showing off, and photographing the bespoke cocktails he’s known for — and a custom kitchen filled with top-of-the-line Kitchen Aid appliances for staging cooking demonstrations, recipe creation, photo and video shoots, and the very occasional private event for the likes of high-end handmade designer Alabama Chanin or James Beard Award-winning chef RJ Cooper, whose stints at DC’s Vidallia, NYC’s Le Bernardin and Atlanta’s acclaimed Brasserie le Coze and Ritz Carlton Buckhead have amped the buzz on his Nashville restaurant debut Henley at The Aertson Hotel in Midtown.
     “With that great big personality, Jesse has such a detailed eye and palate,” Cooper says. “His creative drive and energy blows me away. And he has this genuine care of what is happening in this city.”
     “My mom was a midwife who delivered 5,000 babies,” Goldstein says proudly. “She delivered the baby of a baby of a baby she’d delivered the year she retired, and my dad was the captain of the volunteer fire department. They’d met in art school, and had two sons when someone told them about Penland School of Crafts in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was near a co-op Quaker community.
     “They went to visit — and moved,” he continues. “We raised goats, drank their milk, and made cheese. I was the last generation that could grow up poor and still not know it. We were raised to apologize to the weeds and thank the vegetables.”
     It all tumbles from his lips like so much popcorn falling from the basket, a little salty, very warm, and absolutely delicious. Goldstein’s narratives — like the logos he’s designed for the Vui’s Kitchen, Citizen Kitchens, Funk Seoul Brother, and GReKo Greek Street Food — are transfixing. Sophisticated without flexing, the expansive creative comes by it honest.
     “(My parents) predated hippies, but got claimed by them,” he exults. “We had tubs of miso in the house, and grew all kinds of vegetables. My mother was amazing. If there was something we didn’t like, she’d go, ‘OK . . . ’ and make it another way.
     “She always had another way. One summer it was corn — or the greens, which were just weeds! She’d just pull ’em up. I remember how she made lamb’s quarters.”
     He pauses for a moment, still savoring the flavor all these years later. For Goldstein, all of it is visceral: the tastes, textures, scents, presentations, combinations.
     Looking away, he says with another laugh, “The farm to table movement? Like this is something being invented. That’s how we ate. Honestly, what’s important is this: How are you treating things? Bless the weeds, thank the vegetables.
     “Good food is simple food. A) Start with good ingredients, B) Then don’t even fuck with them. Let those ingredients be what matters.”
     Coming from a small public high school, Goldstein heard someone mention Johnson & Wales College on Career Day with the comment, “Jesse likes to cook.” The more he thought about it, the more he liked the idea. And when he arrived at culinary school, like turned to love.
     There was a certain irony to that love, though. “It was a very sensible decision,” he says. “I went to culinary school, but I really wanted to go to design school — only I was afraid of computers.”
     Upon graduation, Goldstein needed to find his place in the world. The standard college placement parade of organizations looking began. As he remembers it, “There were so many situations, in their coat and tie, very uptight, and it just didn’t feel right.”
     Until that day . . .
     “There’s this guy slumped back on the couch in his Birkenstocks,” he recalls. “It was the first time he’d ever gone out on recruitment. I liked him immediately.”
     Tom Morales needed someone to cook for his rapidly expanding movie catering business. When locked on locations, the high-level Hollywood people require a certain level of hospitality and cooking. It was an unlikely job with unique challenges. “We’d have sites with no running water, different locations every day, no ice machines,” he says. It suited the brash young man still finding his way.
     And because Goldstein has a wicked work ethic, he insisted his new boss “keep me working.” A stint at Nashville’s now long-gone Starwood Amphitheater saw the young Turk catering to many of the late 20th century’s most iconic rock acts, which was a very soft open for what was to come.
     But the adventure of every day being different suited Goldstein, and started to set him up for what would become the wildly eclectic Food Sheriff Department. As he recalls of the rigors, “My last film was Shaft in January Y2K. The film was so over-schedule, the other caterer had quit and the people (on the film) were pissed because there was work they (were scheduled for and) couldn’t get to.
     “It was 3 degrees with a wind chill of negative 30, and only one burner to boil water,” he continues. “You would literally go into the walk-in freezer to warm-up. They placed us two blocks away, and people were bitching their fish was cold.
     “You realized what we were doing wasn’t just feeding, we were keeping the vibe up. Giving people something to nourish them, but also make them feel good. That makes you fearless.”
     In Goldstein’s case, fearless was for other adventures. When the film wrapped, he headed to Charleston, S.C. But Nashville was in his blood. He returned in 2003 to help Morales take over the food at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. He started with the edict, “Once this is done, we have to be ready the next day. Everything has to be ready: new staff, uniforms, menu.
     “When we came in, the Hall had been open less than a year, but looking at the catering menu, words were misspelled,” he recalls. “ ‘Vegetables’ and ‘dessert’ were misspelled, and to the outside world, it looks like, ‘Those rednecks can’t spell.’
     “So, that was my first major rebranding.”
     But Goldstein’s work at Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum was more about elevating the museum experience. “We didn’t think to become famous, or to be known on our own,” he explains. “We’re there to add value to coming to the Hall of Fame. By year’s end, things had turned around.”
     Next came The Loveless. And then came the start of what would become Goldstein’s 360 advertising/branding/conceptualizing empire. Ever the pragmatic post-hippie kid, that latent desire for design school reemerged after receiving a $450 bill from a graphic designer.
     “It was an itty bitty eighth of a page ad,” he remembers, as the late afternoon sun streaks through windows, falling almost white on the concrete floor. “I said, ‘Let’s just buy the program, and I’ll learn how to do it.’
     “It was the best decision I ever made.”
     Equally fortuitous was the notion of taking The Loveless “social.” With all their events and rising interest in Southern culture, the chef cum art director recognized he really had that “cultural treasure.” With his definitive care, he wanted to make it vital — beyond the robust mail-order business and weekly Americanaleaning Music City Roots concerts being staged in The Loveless Barn.
     “There’s that thinking, ‘Why would a 60-year-old café Tweet?’ or ‘Why does a recipe on Pinterest get so much interest?’ It’s because it’s viral, and alive,” Goldstein says. “People have a way of engaging beyond just getting their biscuits.”
     Falling deeper in love with branding, strategy, and design, Goldstein transitioned “out” of the hospitality business and “into” the creative world. Working out of his house, with a coterie of clients including a plastic surgeon, it was a building process. But beyond money, there was conviction — and commitment to the food scene.
      “When it came time to find a building, Rose (from Arnold’s Country Kitchen) said, ‘Well, Bill’s got this building on Trinity Lane.’ I walked in, and . . . you know, I didn’t build their website for free to get an office, but this wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t told them what I needed while I was doing their website.
     “And I knew (the second I walked in): This place was going to be a great coworking spot. A lot of things could get done here.”
     And they did. 3st of the Month exploded. “I had drawn out the logo, and suddenly, it was thousands of members!,” he recalls. “That food pusher aspect of myself wanted a cocktail club, where you’d say, ‘What do you mean you don’t like gin?’ ‘Have you tried this brand?’ ‘Have you had it this way?’
     “It wasn’t about getting wasted, but getting together. And exploring what cocktails could be.”
     It was — the tip of the iceberg. With The Food Sheriff Department taking on staff and clients, it wasn’t long until the big brands came calling. During the build-out, the Puck-ish visionary reached out to Kitchen Aid — through their website — to see if he might be able to wrangle some state-of-the-art equipment for his test/staging kitchen.
     “The next morning, I got a call, ‘What’s your wish list?’” Goldstein says, still shocked. “I’d checked the right box that got to the right desk at their marketing department in New York. I’d drained my savings account to build out my kitchen, and now I was just telling them everything I wanted. They told me, ‘The folks with Kitchen Aid will need to approve this.’”
     With stellar timing, the Sheriff cocks his head. “And the Kitchen Aid folks, they said, ‘Well, we’re doing this and all, but I noticed you didn’t ask for a dishwasher.’”
     Fresh Hospitality recognized the spark in The Food Sheriff Department’s concept, too. They teamed with Goldstein to form Fresh Branding, offering full-service branding and marketing services for food and beverage specialty businesses. “The Food Sheriff Department is utilized by Fresh Branding, and used by outside clients for photo shoots, test kitchen things, video pieces,” he says.
     With eight people, it’s everything from social media to advertising, recipe creation to implementation of those ideas. And always, always in the spirit of collaboration. “We’re never trying to run somebody’s business,” he emphasizes. “If they ask, we know the challenges that go into restaurant management, product launches, making your company profitable.
     “That whole merchandise reality: design, source, order, receive, fulfill. To manage that holistically is important, just like asking the right questions. No matter what we’re looking at, it’s the same: What’s the end game? Where’s it going to be sold? Who’s going to buy it? What’s the story?
     “Those things matter,” he continues. “Visually, there’s a story. Even if it’s a cool recipe, then three more recipes you can try. Create an emotional connection, and people don’t even realize they’re bonding. There are so many stimuli, so many synapses, you want to be connected in whatever ways you can.”
     Goldstein knows it’s a rabbit hole that one can disappear into. So many possibilities, options, outcomes. Recognizing the potential for “analysis paralysis,” he trusts his gut and strips things down to the basics. After years of experience, he knows, “It’s the process of priorities. I say, ‘Tell me who you are in as few words as possible’. . . . “On the movie sets, we say, ‘Work smarter, not harder.’ Condensing what you do makes it more powerful.”
     RJ Cooper agrees. “The Food Sheriff has the ability to experiment and execute progressive programs with the infrastructure to assimilate and create a brand,” the celebrated chef says. “I love the artistic nature and the culture of the soulful people here. The growing culinary scene is inspiring.”
     With almost two decades invested in some aspect of Nashville’s food and dining community, it can almost be a blur. Certainly Goldstein is immersed in what’s next, rather than looking back on what he’s done. Still, there are moments where reckoning knocks.
     “I had my family in town, and I was showing them around,” he says. “I realized how many things I touched that are community assets. Seeing all the growth, to just have a piece of any of it, to have your hands in it, to play with that clay.
     “The sign of a great artist is you can look and know it’s theirs. What I do is different: I’m transparent in the process. I take what projects need, and make sure people see those things in the best way possible.”

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