Hello, my name is Toby Willis. I am the Executive Chef of the Nashville City Club overlooking downtown and the surrounding countryside from the 20th floor of the 4th & Church building in Nashville TN. I first moved to Nashville in July of ’08 (from my last position as the Executive Chef of The Lodge on Gorham’s Bluff in Alabama) and spent two-and-a-half years as the Executive Chef of Macke’s in Green Hills during which time this blog was born(New Year’s Day 2009). To start, one of the main objectives of the blog was (of course lol) to promote the restaurant and to showcase what we were constantly up to from cooking classes to wine tastings to new menu debuts to pics of food and offsite catering events. Another interest of mine was a way to pass on links to all of the food news that I come across each day (plus it’s a great way for me to save them for myself as I sometimes can’t read everything I want to each day and can come back later to the blog and catch up on rainy days. With just over 14,000 hits the first year, Where the Locals Eat picked it up and featured it on their website. Now, in it’s second year it looks as though it will finish with over 120,000 hits on it’s birthday in January 2010!
“Elevated Southern” first came along when creating our philosophy on food at The Lodge on Gorham’s (elevation of rural mountain cooking with the modernization of the dish sometimes further elevating it with the addition of more luxurious ingredients than typically would have been used) and also as a play on the Lodge’s location (perched high on a bluff overlooking the Tennessee river(Southern Living picked it the most romantic spot in Alabama). The name seems to have stuck as what I have come to describe my style of cooking so therefore it seemed to fit that it should be the name for my blog when it came along.
I grew up in the hills of eastern Tennessee in a small town, Cleveland, situated between Chattanooga and Knoxville along I-75 with no early aspirations of becoming a chef. It sorta seems logical now considering all the wonderful food I was surrounded by growing up with my mom and both of my grandmothers being excellent Southern cooks. On one side of the family, I had grandparents who planted a large garden each summer in which I would help with from time to time while the other set owned a produce company and “meat-and-three” where I also would spend some of my free time.
By my sophomore year at the University of the South-Sewanee, I had chosen an Art History major and planned on becoming a curator with a museum or auction house such as Sotheby’s or Christie’s or going into Architecture perhaps. Summers during college were spent working as a server in an upscale Chattanooga restaurant where I was introduced to the excitement of working in a very fast-paced environment, surrounded by co-workers that came to be close friends or even extended family. I soon started picking up extra shifts doing prep and eventually moving onto the line as a cook. It was a very exciting time as I was constantly learning the basics of cooking and being introduced to new foods and tastes daily!
Following Sewanee, I continued to work at the restaurant until the owners,, out-of-the-blue, decided to not renew their lease and close the restaurant following a large, festive New Year’s Eve dinner. By this point, I was thinking more and more of becoming a chef as I would spend my free time reading cookbooks, food mags, and starting to learn more about wines & spirits (I thought I already knew quite a bit about them from the amount of consumption in college lol).
In the mid-nineties, there were but a handful of upscale restaurants in Chattanooga and certainly no ‘food scene’ by any means, so I moved to Atlanta and started as a line cook at CHOPS the year Esquire magazine selected it as the “best new restaurant in America” and, also, was selected as one of the ten best steakhouses in the US. I would apprentice at the other restaurants on off days cutting and cleaning fish at the Fish Market, making pastas @ Pricci or baking breads @ the new Buckhead Bread Company, and..well you get the picture! Also, I was accepted to the prestigious Culinary Institute of America and was planning a move to upstate New York but then ended up returning to Chattanooga to be closer to home as my last remaining grandmother’s health began to decline.
Following a steading progression of promotions in a variety of arenas (a few hotels, independent restaurants, a club, and even a sous slot at a southern prototype of the Buckeye Roadhouse (part of Cindy Pawlcyn’s Real Restaurant Group out of Napa), and even two more stints with the Buckhead Life Group (at the Buckhead Diner & Veni Vidi Vici). Needless to say, culinary school was pushed further and further to the back burner as I advanced.
By then, my style of cooking was beginning to evolve into New American with a certain fondness to the South and the foods on which I had grown up surrounded by.
Many times, my menus will be inspired by reflections on early food memories in a contemporary interpretation of dishes my mom or grandmothers prepared while growing up, when food meant nothing more than a means of nourishment.