One of the things I miss most about living in New York is shopping for food.
Structured around all-inclusive neighborhoods that are reliant on heavy pedestrian traffic, the City offers easy access to culinary specialty stores selling meats, fish, vegetables, baked goods, chocolate, cheese and pretty much anything else you might need to stock your kitchen. Going from store to store to fulfill each need on my list took time, but it was better than the alternative: big NYC grocery stores are notoriously sketchy. Plus, the depth of experience and selection at individual food shops was always worth the extra effort.
Like many other mid-sized American cities, where neighborhoods have developed miles apart and walking is predominantly done for exercise, Nashville’s relative offerings in the area of specialty food retail are few and very literally far between. Rather than drive for miles to hit different shops, most folks I know rely on a weekly stop at a grocery store to fill their fridges in one fell swoop. Even those of us who make a point to support small local businesses in other parts of our lives – for instance, buying locally-made clothes – fall prey to convenience when it comes to foodstuffs, which, to be fair, you need to purchase much more often than a new pair of jeans.
Though I’ve been known to log miles on my station wagon to cherry-pick my grocery list at shops scattered across Nashville - grabbing pasta at Lazzaroli in Germantown, then heading over to Dozen in Wedgewood/Houston for bread, and on to Nolensville Road to hit up La Hacienda for tortillas, and so on – I'll admit I don’t do it nearly often enough. My (lame) excuse: I’m busy. And I’m not above copping to convenience (also pretty lame). But I can do better and I’m going to continue to try.
Happily, I don’t have to travel very far from my home to enjoy two exemplary local specialty vendors, which share a space on East Nashville’s Gallatin Pike: Porter Road Butcher and The Bloomy Rind, an artisan cheese shop owned by this week’s TCR interviewee, Kathleen Cotter.
Like many Bloomy Rind customers, I go to Kathleen with cheesy questions, looking for cheesy solutions. And whether I’m making a cheese plate or a pizza, she’s never let me down. Girlfriend knows her way around a dairy case.
Kathleen moved to Nashville from Atlanta in 1989 to attend Vanderbilt. She worked in human resources before following her bliss studying cheese and cheese making. She launched The Bloomy Rind in 2010, selling first at the Farmer’s Market before opening shop with PRB in 2011.
Also in 2010, she created and debuted the Southern Artisan Cheese Festival, which is now in its sixth year, having attracted sell-out crowds of up to 750. Plans for the 2016 festival, to be held in early fall, are in the works.
Beyond SACF, Kathleen is passionate about expanding her educational offerings for those who want to learn more about cheese. For starters, she organized a three-course tasting dinner this Saturday at 5th & Taylor, featuring cheeses aged by Nashville-born, Brooklyn-based Benton Brown, owner of Crown Finish Caves (you can still sign up here). Next, she'll announce a series of cheese-based meals and classes at City Winery, scheduled to kick off in May.
In the meantime, last Tuesday, Kathleen was kind enough to take the time to chat with TCR about the evolution of the Nashville food scene and her place in it. The following day, she and photographer Caroline Allison headed south on I-65 for a shoot at Franklin’s Noble Springs Dairy, maker of the main chevre that Kathleen stocks at Bloomy – and currently home to many darling baby goats.
TCR: What were your early expectations associated with owning a cheese shop?
KATHLEEN: Well, in the very initial phases I wanted to make cheese. I thought it would be really dreamy to have an amazing cheese shop — because we didn’t have that in Nashville — and have some house-made cheeses in the shop. That's when, in researching, I was like, oh wait, I can't just have a commercial kitchen and just make even ricotta, which is the simplest. To do that, I had to have a licensed dairy processing plant. You have to be able to sanitize everything and go through testing and pasteurization — there's a whole bunch of qualifications you have to meet.
And so I realized that I had to go towards either retail or cheese making. And the more I was researching both, what I found is the life of a cheese maker is one of isolation. You're alone in the make room all day. And then you're alone in the cave, aging and taking care of the cheese. You have a little outside contact when people call and place orders, hopefully. My personality is such that I need to be around other humans. [LAUGHTER]
So that's when I got clear on the fact that if I had to choose it would be the retail side for now and then maybe at some point I can grow it to include a really small micro creamery. That would be really cool. There are a couple models of that being done in other cities, such as Seattle and DC.
So I went to retail, where every day is a little different. I'm there telling the stories of the cheese makers, which gets me excited. And I think people sense my enthusiasm and that is contagious.
TCR: I love coming to see you with a half-baked menu idea and have you fully bake it for me.
KATHLEEN: Put that sucker in the oven. [LAUGHTER]
TCR: That's got to be such a fun part of your job.
KATHLEEN: Absolutely. Connecting with people. A lot of times people come in and they say they don't know anything about cheese other than that they like it. And we start the conversation from there. Sometimes they very specifically know things they like or that they are looking for. And sometimes they come in with a recipe and we talk about what would work. If they want something very specific, it's great when I have it, but if not, I try to point them somewhere where they can find it.
TCR: How deep do you think most people's taste in cheese goes? Is it pretty pedestrian or are folks interested in experimenting?
KATHLEEN: The most common question or request is something like, “I need three cheeses for a cheese plate for a dinner party.” That's number one. I also have some regular customers who come in and want to try different cheeses every time and look to me to bring in those unique offerings. And then other people find a favorite and get those one or two cheeses all the time. Definitely, it’s a smaller population who really dig the super stinky cheeses. But that's fine. I just try to have a mix so that hopefully there's something for everybody.
And it's okay if somebody doesn't have tons of experience with cheese. If they're open, we can try new things and find things they like. I feel that as people evolve in their awareness of flavors, and the more they taste real foods, the more they're drawn to (being experimental with different cheeses).
I think as a country, we were fed a bunch of crap for so long that it takes tasting and exploring the diversity of flavors and textures that can naturally occur in artisanal cheeses - and other foods. I find people tend to be more confident as they learn some vocabulary to identify characteristics they enjoy as well as what they don't like. Armed with even a little lingo, a trip to the cheese counter gets to be more fun for the customer, and it helps me more easily make suggestions for cheeses they'll dig.
TCR: I’m not alone in this, as I’ve talked to friends who are my age about it, but I don’t think I learned how to eat until I moved away from home as an adult. That said, I think it has less to do with how I grew up and more to do with the culture. It’s only been the last ten or 15 years that there's been a really broad embrace of food as popular culture.
KATHLEEN: It's easier now to find better-made, better-raised or -grown ingredients. And the food networks getting people excited about exploring in the kitchen ultimately brings them to people like me to say, "Here's what I'm making. What should I try?" And they’re trying different things. Whereas it used to be, “Here's the recipe. Follow it.” Buy the Velveeta. Move on. Buy your can of cream of mushroom soup and buy this frozen ingredient and put some processed cheese on top and you’ve got a dinner.
TCR: There’s a whole generation that’s learning to eat differently as a reaction to that way of thinking about food. Though obviously it’s not that way across the board.
KATHLEEN: A guy came in and was buying, you know, the most excellent ground beef (from Porter Road Butcher). And he asked me if I had American cheese. Well, you know, I have a case full of American cheeses. And I paused for a second and was, like, "Oh do you mean the shitty processed stuff?" And he said, "Yes, I want the shitty processed stuff." He was a young guy and he wanted that on his burger. And whatever — that's fine. It's not actually cheese so I don't have it [LAUGHTER], but I have things that melt beautifully and will taste great. But you're not hurting my feelings if you don't buy it.
TCR: Do you ever just send people to Kroger?
KATHLEEN: Every once in a while. I don’t have a good source for some of the Mexican style cheeses yet. When people come in wanting to make elote, for example, there's just not a great substitute for (cotija cheese) in my case, but Kroger does have it. But more often than not, if they're calling The Bloomy Rind they want something interesting or specific or imported. I'm more often turning them towards Whole Foods if I don't have what they need.
TCR: You supply the cheese for a lot of local restaurants. How do those relationships work?
KATHLEEN: The predominant set up is that I'm picking out cheeses for their cheeseboards. And then within that there are two categories. Like Lockeland Table has a set cheese list, and I supply a couple of those. For other restaurants, like 404 or Josephine, I pick out different cheeses from week to week or whatever increment of time and provide tasting notes to help the wait staff know more about the cheeses on the board that week. We talk about a strategy, such as quantities, geography (where the cheese is made), and pricing. Then I make selections based on their needs and what's tasting awesome in the case at the moment.
TCR: Speaking of geography, with all the focus on eating locally these days, are people making a point to choose cheese made near Nashville?
KATHLEEN: Some chefs have particular regions, like Andy Little at Josephine. He's from Pennsylvania so he's like, "I want Southern cheese and Pennsylvania cheese." [LAUGHTER] So it's fun. It's pushed me to find some new producers in Pennsylvania. When I first started, it was mostly imports (that were being sold in Nashville). As far as local cheese, Kenny's (Farmhouse Cheese in Austin, KY) and Bonnie Blue Farm were pretty widely available in town. Noble (Springs Dairy in Franklin) was just getting started, and Sequatchie (Cove Creamery in Sequatchie, TN) wasn’t up and running yet.
When I opened, my hope was to go beyond — and this is not a diss — but to go beyond Manchego and Drunken Goat on the cheese plates in town. It seemed like all the restaurants had the same three to four different cheeses. When we opened, even Whole Foods’ cheese department was import-heavy. And now they offer a lot more domestics.
TCR: Did you start The Bloomy Rind knowing you wanted to do events like the one with Crown Finish Caves this Saturday?
KATHLEEN: I want to give people an experience beyond just a single event where you walk around and put food in your mouth and the cheese maker says the same three sentences all day long, over and over. I want it to be a more interesting, enriching experience for both. More educational. The first step (in starting the Southern Artisan Cheese Festival six years ago) was exposure for southern cheesemakers. And now people want to know more. They crave more in-depth knowledge. They want to take classes. That's why I wanted to have Benton come down. This is the start of a series of things.
I want to carve new territory. New-ish. I mean, cheese classes are not new territory per se but as far as what's available locally there isn’t a ton here. And it's fun for me, too, to have other people in my cheese community teach and inspire me. It’s fun to mix it up.
TCR: Now for the big question: Is Nashville a cheese town? And for that matter, what is a cheese town?
KATHLEEN: That's a good question. And it’s part of a bigger question: Is Nashville a food town?
TCR: Well, you're welcome to answer that question, too.
KATHLEEN: In terms of Nashville being a cheese town, the answer is a resounding yes. The question I wrestle with is whether Nashville is a cheese shop town. From the beginning of this journey, I envisioned opening a kickass cheese shop. Every good food city should have one, right? In my experience so far, though, most of the retail cheese purchased in Nashville moves through grocery stores. That's not a bad thing, just a reality that I have to consider when I think about whether to wager my personal financial wellbeing on this dream. I don't have an answer just yet, but I think about it constantly.
I know it’s asking a lot for people to make an extra stop to go to a cheese shop. I recognize that's a leap. And it may not be in everybody's normal day, especially when the grocery stores now have better and better cheese selections. It's just a convenience factor. But I think we’re getting to a point where people will make an extra stop, perhaps weekly or monthly for something unique and just for the fun of a cheese shop visit.
As for whether Nashville is a food town, I think we definitely have the chefs and the restaurants. So we have that part of the equation. I think we have a mix of people who go to chef-driven restaurants, but there are still a whole lot of chains that are booming. Not to throw Cheesecake Factory under the bus, but I hear they have a line every night for, you know, an hour or two. Whether they realize it or not, people vote with their dollars for what they want Nashville to be.
What do you think? Is Nashville a food town?
TCR: I think it's become a food town. I don't know if I would have said that when I moved here in 2004.
KATHLEEN: No, probably not, but the seeds were being planted by a handful of chefs and restauranteurs who were open and making great food back then.
TCR: I feel like so much has happened in five or six years, when there was change in the zeitgeist here. All of the sudden, people were obsessed with local. I noticed it first in fashion — in the whole maker movement. That ethos of taking pride in what your neighbors are doing, and making a point to know the exact origin of the things you buy, really spread across genres.
Around that same time, I think a lot of people started feeling like big, cool cities like New York and Los Angeles were becoming too homogenized. It’s like something clicked and all of a sudden it was more interesting to be an outlier living in a secondary market. I feel like Austin and Portland had been hot for a while, and it was Nashville’s time. Or at least the press thought so.
You’ve been here for over 25 years. You have a pretty deep perspective on the long-term evolution of our community.
KATHLEEN: It’s evolved slowly. But there’s a kind of exponential change that's happening right now that’s both exciting and unsettling. When I drive around and suddenly there’s not a building where there once was one… That just throws off my equilibrium. It's fascinating. I don't think it's bad. It's just…
KATHLEEN: But at the same time, I get to eat some really damn good food. And the change is a platform for getting to do what I do now. Because, you know, maybe 10 years ago they would have laughed at me if I said I wanted to open a cheese shop that's regional and (where the cheese costs) twice as much as the commodity European import stuff you're used to getting.
TCR: People would have been, like, I'll be at Kroger, buying American cheese.
KATHLEEN: And now the chefs want it, the customers want it… So I guess that as with everything in life it's a mixed bag.
Overwhelmingly, though, we're so fortunate to have access to a whole lot of good food at this moment in time. All friggin' local, too. Farm eggs, honey, humanely raised meats, great bread and pastries, organic veggies, coffee… and cheese, of course. I think this movement is about people craving connection and authenticity. We're lucky to be able to satisfy that craving in such a tangible - and delicious - way.
Our friend Caroline Allison is as talented as she is kind – and damn if she isn’t one of the nicest folks we know. Lina’s photography has been shown extensively in the U.S. and abroad; this fall, an exhibit of her new work will open at Zeitgeist, the Nashville gallery where she has representation. A contributing photographer for Garden & Gun, Lina also shoots for Lonny, Southern Living and, ahem, The Callaway Report.