Great Taste: Sarah Gavigan of Little Octopus & Otaku Ramen

Sarah Gavigan knows one speed: fast. All photos in this story by the awesome Andrea Behrends.

Sarah Gavigan knows one speed: fast. All photos in this story by the awesome Andrea Behrends.

I’m not going to lie: the past few weeks have been tough.

Hillary’s loss hit me much harder than I anticipated, perhaps because I didn’t anticipate it in the first place. I was confident that the country was ready to elect its first female president. The truth hurts.

Regardless, I’ve never been prouder of or had more faith in womankind – what we have accomplished in the past and what we will in the future.

I am particularly grateful for the group of remarkable and accomplished women in Nashville that I call friends. These ladies continually impress me with their personal and professional achievements, as well as their generous hearts and open minds. They’re smart, determined, and work very hard to make our community a more hospitable place to live and visit. And they get shit done.

A perfect example of the type of Nashville-based high achiever I’m talking about is my friend Sarah Gavigan, who, as you’ll read, has proven to be a visionary in the worlds of film, music and, most recently, food.

Born and raised in Columbia, Tennessee, she moved to Los Angeles after college in Arizona to work in the film industry. Six years ago, after more than 20 years on the West Coast, during which time she made the jump to music (more on that below), Sarah moved to Nashville with her husband, Brad, and their daughter, Augusta.

Sarah and I met in late 2012, when our mutual friend Sophie Simmons took me to Sarah’s house for a bowl of made-from-scratch ramen. My God, it was good. And as effortless as Sarah made its preparation look that day, I’ve learned that this kind of excellence doesn't come easy: making ramen is a long, involved and sweaty process, which, of course, Sarah taught herself.

Not long after our lunch, Sarah started doing ramen pop-ups around town. Working under the name Otaku Ramen, she served bowls of tasty noodles, meat and vegetables in rich homemade broth to hundreds of people at every gig. Thanks to Sarah, Nashville officially went ramen-crazy.

Otaku eventually found a home in East Nashville at Pop, an event space geared toward pop-up dinners, housed in an expansive, white-washed space that Sarah and Brad opened in 2014. Within a year, Pop begot Little Octopus, a full-blown restaurant serving the Caribbean-inspired food of Chef Daniel Herget. After a short pause, Sarah opened Otaku’s first brick and mortar earlier this year in a prime location in the Gulch, where it’s regularly mobbed at lunch and dinner.

Little O has now left East Nashville and is joining her sister downtown — sad news for us eastside fans, but it will no doubt bring a bigger audience to its very worthy cuisine.

A quick recap. Over the last three years, Sarah has opened three restaurants – actually four, if you count operating Otaku at Pop. Pretty impressive for a hobby cook with no formal background in the restaurant business — but not a huge surprise to anyone who knows Sarah. She’s fearless.

She’s also straightforward and honest to a refreshing degree, which I find extremely appealing and exceedingly rare in Southern women. Those traits makes her an excellent interview. Plus, I’m drawn to stories about folks switching careers mid-stream, which Sarah has done more than once.

Our TCR sit-down took place in my home about a week after the election. The following Monday, photographer Andrea Behrends shot Sarah racing around on roller skates under a bright blue fall sky. That she’s photographed predominately in motion makes perfect sense to me.

Enjoy.

TCR: I ran into Brad at Barista Parlor last week and he told me that his plans for 2017 do not include opening a restaurant. And I laughed. Because it seems like you guys are always launching a new concept.

SARAH: We're definitely gonna hit the pause button for a while after December. Restaurants are a more complex ecosystem than I ever imagined. I mean, I had never worked a day in a restaurant before I opened one. I was never even a server.

TCR: Really? Well, from the outside at least, you’ve made it look easy. But then, to me it seems very Sarah Gavigan to jump into a brand new industry, learn everything about it, and crush it.

SARAH: Well, it's anthropological, like everything else I've done. When you're an agent your job is to make connections and figure people out and give them what they want before they ask for it. It's pretty much the same thing in a restaurant. I mean, there's obviously a lot more layers.

You know, making food for people is really unlike anything else. I love it because you're on stage every night — especially at the ramen shop — and you get to see everybody and interact.

TCR: Let’s back up a minute. You’re originally from Columbia, Tennessee, but you spent over 20 years in Los Angeles working in the entertainment industry. What took you out there?

SARAH: When I was in college in Arizona, getting my degree in broadcast journalism, I took a communications law class, which was super-hard for me. The teacher came from the movie industry. He was, like, Herbert Ross's right-hand man, and this was his retirement career. He started talking about films and the film commission and explained that there was one in Phoenix and that all you had to do was call the hotline to get a job as a production assistant on a movie. This was a lecture class of 250 kids, and I was the only one that made that phone call.

TCR: That does not surprise me at all.

SARAH: So I got a job as a grunt on a really bad indie film, and the teacher pretty much excused me from class for the rest of the semester.

On set, they put a walkie in my hand and told me to boss people around. It was amazing. [LAUGHS] I loved the hustle-bustle of the set. I loved the instant camaraderie, the intense creativity and, you know, the circus-like environment.

TCR: You’re right – film crews live a lot like carnies, going from town to town, project to project.

SARAH: Totally. And on sets you're surrounded by people that you would not otherwise be close to. And it’s such a panoply of people, with everyone settled into their roles. There was all of this wisdom there that I was drawn to.

So I did that for the summer between junior and senior year, and then after graduation went straight out to LA, didn't even wait to get my diploma. I could not get out of Phoenix fast enough.

My first full-time job was at MJZ — Morton, Jankel, Zander. They're a very successful commercial production company. I was the assistant to the director and the executive producer and a receptionist. I screened 500 phone calls a day.

I loved it. I craved hard work: I wanted to be a part of something so badly. I had to be there at 6 a.m. — first one in, last one out, every day. And I did it without ever complaining or bitching — well, maybe I complained a little… I would moonlight on the weekends as a production assistant on different commercials. And that’s how I got my start in that world.

I think what drew me to that work and kept me in it for so long is that it’s naturally a hop-from–rock-to-rock kind of business and I took very well to that. You have to think fast and it's very intense. I loved all those things about it.

TCR: How did you make the transition into music?

SARAH: I started my own agency in ‘97, representing cinematographers. I sold that company in 2000.

In '99, I had this weird directorial team come and ask me to represent them, which started me in a new direction. There’s a really crazy story to back this up.

At that time, my neighbor in Santa Monica was Jason Bentley, the program director of KCRW, which is arguably one of the coolest radio stations in the world. I'm a ridiculous, ridiculous fan of the band GusGus. Jason knew this and since he always got the new music before anyone else, he was always hooking me up.

So GusGus was playing in LA. I bought 10 tickets and was taking all my friends. The day of the show, while I was getting my apartment ready for the big after-party, I missed a phone call. And when I checked my messages, there was one from an Icelandic voice: “My name is Stefán Árni. I'm in a band called the GusGus. We are in town. We'd like to meet you.” And I was like, sorry, what?!

I called Jason and said, “OK, keep making fun of me. It's cool, I get it. Ha ha ha.” And he said, “Sarah, I did not manufacture that phone call.” It took him an hour to talk me off the ledge.

It turns out that it was from the band. They were calling me to represent them as directors. So that night I find myself in the green room before their show. And there are these tall Icelandic trees with blue eyes telling me, “We go to London, we hear your name. We go to Paris, we hear your name…” To this day, we still don't know who delivered my name to them, but they said it was repeated, like, four times in different scenarios.

I told them that night that I didn’t represent directors. But then I thought alright, I can do this. Sure. [LAUGHS]

So I went on a whirlwind tour with them. I ended up at a festival in Iceland where I met the guys from Thievery Corporation. Eric (Hilton), who's the real business man/genius behind that group, said, “You work in commercials? You should represent us and help us get our music in them.” This was back when bands licensing their music for commercials was seen as taboo. But Eric kept calling and calling…

And this part of the industry became a huge thing — like, [MAKES SOUND OF EXPLOSION]. It was clear that I got there before anybody else did and that this business was gonna kill it. So I sold my agency and started 10 Music. And in less than a year we represented 70 labels. We made Thievery Corporation over near a million dollars in less than two years.

TCR: Amazing.

SARAH: It was very, very rewarding work. When you get to hand an artist a three- or six-figure check, it’s like, “Here — go change your life.”

It was fun, but it reached a point where it was over for me. The industry got flooded and I was ready to move on. I closed that company in ‘08 and we moved here in 2010.

TCR: Going from production to management was a pivot, for sure, but not a huge stretch, as they both fall under the same general umbrella. But working in the food industry is a 180 from where you were. How did you make that transition?

SARAH: I've always loved to cook. It's always been what I spent my time doing if I wasn't being a mom or working. And it was a big part of my family growing up — you know, big Sicilian family.

But making ramen was always something I did for myself. It wasn't a social thing at all. When I was in a rancid mood and just needed something for myself, it always made me feel better.

When we moved to Nashville, I was lost. I had to completely recreate myself again, and it was not as easy as it had been before. It was very, very hard this time.

TCR: What were you doing back then?

SARAH: Nothing. I was trying to settle in and, you know, be the housewife and the mom. And I'm really glad that I did it, because at the same time I was detoxing from an old life. You know, to live here you can't be in the same rhythm.

TCR: Totally. I remember when I came blazing into town from New York 12 years ago. I had gotten used to working really quickly, to doing a lot in very little time. It was like running into a wall.

SARAH: Yeah, I was running into a lot of walls. It was a process getting to a place where I could breathe and people could be in the same room with me. That's when I saw there was no ramen here. And it was like, alright. I need to do something.

TCR: And you started doing the ramen pop-up dinners.

SARAH: Yeah. And I had all the skills needed, because I came from production. Pop-ups are like little productions. It's exactly the same thing. That's why I was successful at it: I understood the basic tenants of film production.

TCR: So you basically produced commercials all over town.

SARAH: That's exactly what it was. It was so much fun. And it was a lot of work. I don't know where I got the energy. Now I work one hard night on the line at Otaku and I am like, Jesus — how did I do that?

TCR: I think that’s one of the best things about being our age. Also, you’ve learned what your strengths are and how to best use them. You can do more with less in a lot of ways.

SARAH: Which is good, because the older you get the less energy you have to get more done. [LAUGHS]

TCR: So, I was thinking about it yesterday. The women in our extended social circle are very accomplished. They are creative and entrepreneurial. Many of them run their own small businesses. Everybody is doing something.

SARAH: Yeah. This community really allows for that. It's so nurturing. One thing about being in a big city is that if you're gonna cast your line out, you better be ready to hook, reel and run. Here, you can kind of ease into things a little bit more. The same pressures don't apply.

TCR: And there’s a great support system. Everyone is rooting for each other’s success.

SARAH: There's no doubt about it. I've never lived anywhere like this.

TCR: I think it throws new people off sometimes. Like, they move to town thinking that they’re going to have to fight to be heard or get attention. And then the community makes them a cake. It really disarms someone whose first instinct is to crow about who they are and what they’ve done.

SARAH: I was a little bit that way when I got here. I'll be completely honest. That was part of the letting go and growing up. I definitely needed to saw down my fangs.

TCR: And the pop-up model led you to the first brick-and-mortar location last December. By that time, Nashville’s food scene was really cooking and getting a lot of outside attention.

SARAH: The timing was insane. I mean, I've always been in front of trends, but I’ve almost been a little too early in several things I've done. And that's even more frustrating than being late. [LAUGHS

But in the last two years, I've kind of crossed over from needing to be the first at everything to going, you know what? I'll be right behind you. You just go up there and make all the mistakes first... But that was not my natural instinct in my twenties and thirties. It took me turning 40 to see it.

TCR: I want to talk a little about being a woman in a male-dominated industry. The food world is a notorious boy’s club. Do you feel that?

SARAH: I'm not saying that I am in any way for that, but I can understand where it comes from. This is a very physical job. The bottom line is that I can't pick up a pig.

And I think that the boy's club exists in every industry. And I don't think it exists more in the kitchen world. It’s a boy's club everywhere. You just have to learn to not acknowledge it or kiss the ring in order to get what you need. That's how I was taught. I never really let that bother me.

TCR: So you haven't experienced sexism in the kitchen?

SARAH: Well I mean, c'mon, could I have chosen a more male dominated industry? I don't get any respect from the main chefs who work in ramen. But I've been doing it a fraction of the time that they have, and I do it in a completely different way than they do. Most of the people that I know that make ramen for a living are making maybe 100 bowls a night, where pretty soon we'll be doing 600.

TCR: Switching lanes. I know that you’re devoted to finding ways to connect with Nashville’s local immigrant population.

SARAH: An organization called the Global Chamber recently asked me to speak on a panel about how Nashville is a global city. It’s a topic I’m very passionate about. I feel like Nashville is finally becoming aware of the fact that it is a global city, but that we can't even begin to call ourselves global until we fully recognize the people that live here. And it feels like that shift has happened, which is really amazing.

TCR: Interestingly, the food world is a place where cultural integration has always seemed to be more —

SARAH: Celebrated.

TCR: Yeah. Different cultures are embraced more readily at the dinner table than in other places in our society.

SARAH: Food is agnostic. It can be the most nonjudgmental place to bring two cultures together. Over the last ten years, people have begun to accept other cultures in ways that they didn't before.

And I feel that way about ramen, too. It's really been a great cultural opening for a lot of people in Nashville, and I'm very proud of that. We’re creating entertainment. We’re not saving the world. But if people can learn something new, about a different culture and some history by visiting Otaku, I find that to be so much fun.

TCR: Any plans to expand the Otaku empire within the city?

SARAH: I would love to. But I think we have to give the culture a little time to grow. We'll see, one step at a time.

TCR: But for now, you’re taking a year off.

SARAH: Yeah, right. [LAUGHTER


Yes, TCR friend Andrea Behrends' work has been featured in Garden & GunImbibe and GQ. And true, she has played a large and important role in documenting Nashville’s burgeoning food scene, while her portrait-driven, storytelling approach has established her as a go-to for songwriters and artisans alike. But the main thing you need to know about her is that she's a righteous chick and a total badass. See more of her work here