As I took a hard right before the train tracks and drove down a street flanked on either side by unmarked warehouses, I wondered if I’d plugged the restaurant’s address into my iPhone correctly. I was far from the honky-tonks and wandering hordes in downtown Nashville—and not very close to any up-and-coming neighborhoods like Germantown, either. But Google Maps hadn’t steered me wrong. Inside a century-old brick building was a bar and restaurant you clearly wouldn’t just stumble upon. If you were drinking or dining at Bastion, it’s where you intended to be. And for chef Josh Habiger, that was part of the challenge: not just create a restaurant, but build one worthy of being a destination.
Habiger is no stranger to great kitchens. He worked for Tom Colicchio at Craft in New York, was on the opening team of Grant Achatz’s Alinea, and launched up Catbird Seat in Nashville with Erik Anderson (now of three-Michelin-star Coi in San Francisco). To make Bastion work, he had to give people a compelling reason to dine there. And to succeed in Nashville he had to walk the fine line of setting himself apart from the scene in order to intrigue, but still familiar enough to not alienate.
The result was a restaurant tucked next to a bar that’s located inside a larger bar. The 24-seat dining room has a curved maple counter where half the diners sit and watch chefs who work like bartenders: They make what you’re having and handle the service. For the last two years Habiger and co. serve a multi-course meal that’s tasting menu-meets-choose your own adventure. From a list of 15 dishes, you select five without much description beyond gnomic names like “Duck + Cauliflower,” “King Salmon + Kohlrabi,” and “Milk Bread + Brown Cheese.”
Fortunately, Habiger is far more open with his creative process than his cryptic menu would suggest. We sat down with him to discuss the journey to building his acclaimed restaurant, what being a bartender taught him about being a chef, and how being off the beaten path can be a blessing and a curse.
Before you arrived in Nashville, what did you think it was like?
I moved here nine years ago and I literally thought it was going to be cowboy hats and boots and belt buckles this big and things like that. Then when you get here you realize that’s really just the tourists who come here from other places that dress like that when they go to downtown. We have the touristy stuff and we love people coming here to check out what’s happening in the city, but all that kind of stuff is downtown.
That area can feel like Times Square when you’re wading through people.
It’s its own thing, and that’s where that happens, but then there’s East Nashville where other stuff happens and there’s Music Row, where the country music stuff actually happens. I feel like we’re a more diverse city than people maybe give us credit for. There’s more going on with the arts scene and the creative outlets of Nashville. The city does a really good job of helping us be creative and do things.
What is the food scene like?
What’s cool is it’s not trying to be super fancy. We have a really honest food scene here. Rolf and Daughters is a great restaurant, but you don’t have to save up to go there, you just go there. Arnold’s Country Kitchen is really good food for lunch, and it’s not super fancy, it’s just really good and satisfying. I feel like that about Henrietta Red too. It’s good, honest food.
What compelled you to come to Nashville in the first place?
I moved to Chicago to be on that Alinea opening team, and then I left about the one-year anniversary. I moved back to Alaska. I was working on a fishing boat up there on and off in my twenties. After that I moved to Minneapolis. I was a CDC of a hotel called the Hotel Ivy, not a very remarkable restaurant, but remarkable in the sense that basically everyone that’s doing something in Minneapolis now spent time in the restaurant, so it was a pretty amazing place. But I—and probably everyone else that worked there—wasn’t really a fan of the hotel culture as far as restaurants go. So I ended up leaving.
Did you feel burned out?
I met some dudes that were the initial consultants on the [renowned cocktail bar] Violet Hour in Chicago. They happened to be in Minneapolis. I told them, “I don’t really feel like cooking for a while and I’ve got to take a break, and I think what you guys are doing with the Violet Hour, it’s what a chef would do, but with drinks instead of food.”
They said, “We’re actually going to open a spot in Nashville, and we need somebody to move down there and run it.” I was like “Oh, I never said I knew anything about cocktails, I just said I think what you guys do is cool.” And they told me, “You’re a chef, man. You know how to follow recipes, you have work ethic, you can lead people. We can teach you the recipes, we can teach you the formulas of how to make cocktails.”
So you decided to stop being a chef and move to the Music City to tend bar?
Yeah, I moved down here to open Patterson House. Right when I first moved down here the Patterson House’s owners Ben and Max Goldberg and I were talking and they asked, “If you could open up the restaurant of your dreams, what would it be?” I responded, “Well, part of the reason I want to bartend is I’ve always envied that interaction that a bartender has with a guest, and I want to do that in a food setting. Ultimately, I want to cook the way that bartender bartends.” From that, a year and a half, maybe two years later, we ended up opening the Catbird Seat.
At Catbird and Bastion the diners sit in a bar around the cooks, what about that style of service appeals to you?
When you’re a chef behind the swinging doors that separate the kitchen from the dining room, your ultimate satisfaction comes from making a pretty plate of food. You put the final garnish on, you look down at the plate and you’re like “That’s right. I nailed it.” And you send it out. The general kitchen setting is a high paced environment, you’re doing that quickly and you’re just trying to focus on your technique and trying to knock out as many perfect plates as you can in a row.
After I became a bartender, you do everything the same to that step, but then the additional step is you take that thing and you hand it in front of someone and you walk away, and whether it’s a drink or food, they either take a sip or they take a bite of it and you’re still part of that interaction. You can see how they respond to it. If you notice that people are pushing this garnish off the plate before they take a bite, then you have to ask yourself, “Do I need that garnish? Is that garnish helping things?” You’re still a part of the dining experience at that time, whereas in a traditional kitchen, your job is kind of done at that point. It’s in the hands of someone else.
Did that change the way you created dishes?
Anytime we have a new dish on the menu we’re going to pay attention to how people are responding to it. If you’re doing something for maybe restaurants with forty kitchen employees, like Eleven Madison where each cook is essentially responsible for one dish, you can make every dish so it can take five minutes to plate or whatever. In our environment you have to streamline those things. We have 24 seats and five cooks, but those cooks are also refilling water glasses and clearing your plate and setting your silverware, things like that. So we have to find ways to make plates maybe easier to compose, but then we might make adjustments that way. We might notice that somebody just isn’t responding to a dish a certain way, but is that how it’s plated, or whether there are superfluous elements to it.
Is there a specific dish you’ve changed that comes to mind?
Not a specific one, but I’m sure there’s plenty. I usually take one thing that I’ve never feel like a mastered and I’ll put something on the menu with that. Last month it was gnocchi. I’ve never really been confident in my gnocchi making abilities. So I’m going to put a gnocchi dish on the menu and I’m going to make gnocchi every single day when I come into work, the same time every day, and I’m going to make it slightly different every day, try to figure out a better way to do it.
Right now, it’s Japanese milk bread, because I’m not a very good baker. So I’m making this Japanese milk bread, it’s like a slice of milk bread toasted in a pan with this jelly that we make out of beets, but it kind of tastes like black currant because we add some sugar and citric acid to it, then we shave Norwegian brown cheese over the top of it, and then there’s freeze dried corn and sorrel on it. Even saying that out loud I’m like “That doesn’t necessarily sound good.” It sounds interesting for sure, because it sounds weird and the majority of the guests that come in here don’t know what milk bread is, or brown cheese. So, it’s kind of out there, but then you see people respond to it and everyone’s like “Wow, this is really good.” Maybe it’s because they had no idea what they were getting, but when they taste it, it becomes comforting and there’s something familiar about it, even though it’s new.
So you’re thinking of ways to challenge yourself—and even your customers—but where does your creative process go from there?
It depends on the dish completely, but for that one it was like the milk bread’s kind of a really fancy, decadent version of Wonder Bread. And for the dish, it’s like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The brown cheese has a little bit of that peanut buttery element. Maybe it’s the texture, maybe is the flavor. There’s a nuttiness to it. Then the beet jelly. So it tastes like something you maybe have for breakfast, but every dish is different.
How would you describe your style?
In an idea world, if everything was turning out the way I wanted to, I’m creating something that is going to be new, but familiar at the same time. If I can get that Venn diagram to intersect, that’s the ideal thing. At Catbird the first thing we gave people was this puffed chicken skin with hot chicken spice on it. It’s a good example of I think what we were trying to do, make something that’s familiar, but it’s another version of it. Not like, this is our take on the Reuben sandwich, but it might be flavors that are somehow familiar, just served in a way that is new to someone.
Is nostalgia important in the food you make?
What dishes are you nostalgic for?
It could be anything. We had an apple and kohlrabi salad here a while ago, that essentially once you got down to the end of it and everything kind of mixed together, it was like a real nice coleslaw. We would juice red cabbage and make this really vibrant purple gazpacho that we pour in the center of it. It was apple, fermented kohlrabi. So it could be anything. The peanut butter and jelly thing I mentioned earlier with the milk bread. We always have an oyster on the menu. Right now we are pureeing kimchi and freezing it and shaving it to a kimchi ice. I feel like that texture, you taste the oyster first, and then the kimchi melts and you get it as a secondary element. We’re always playing. We’re definitely not specific to a certain culture or food history.
Putting the restaurant out here, not really in the thick of the action where it’s less expensive for your lease, does that allow you to take more risks like that?
For sure. If our rent wasn’t what it was, we wouldn’t be able to do what we want to do here. Ben and I came and looked at this space four years ago. I had this totally different idea for what I wanted to do for the next restaurant, and then we saw this space and I liked the way that it was cut up—there’s this weird section that’s 2,700 square feet and then a little hallway where we could put a little bar and a room that’s 1,000 square feet. I started to talk to Ben about it. I was like “That neighborhood, I think could support a neighborhood bar.” This isn’t fancy by any means, it’s just kind of a hangout spot. Or it could support a destination restaurant, but I don’t think if we did a French bistro, we’d have enough foot traffic or be in the right spot for that. He asked “What do you want to do?” I was like “I don’t know, what did you have in mind?” So we did the restaurant and the bar.
What do you mean by ‘destination restaurant’?
The French Laundry is a reason to get in your car if you live in San Francisco, or to get on a plane if you live here to go to that restaurant. Certainly we’re not on that level, but I don’t think it’s a place people stumble into. I don’t think it’s a foot traffic sort of “Hey we were in the neighborhood and we want to get a five-course meal.” So I just think it’s something that you plan ahead for.
Is this a restaurant that could exist outside of Nashville?
That’s a good question. We have good relationships with farmers around here and things like that, but everybody does these days. When we opened Catbird, it was the first exclusively tasting menu restaurant in Nashville. I think maybe in the history of Nashville. We talked a lot about what do people expect here. What do people want here. We’re doing this with counter seating and without tablecloths and without really a service staff, so how’s that going to work? I just kept going back to, I think in Nashville people want something that’s genuine.
They don’t want the frou-frou stuff. They don’t want the B.S. They want something that’s genuine and pure, and I think that’s what the Catbird Seat is. When we were talking about Bastion, I kept using words like genuine. I used the word analog a lot, as far as not the fact that we play records, just that putting on a record is grabbing a thing off the shelf and taking it out of its case and setting it on the machine. It’s not as simple as pressing a button on your phone.
I think our home is in Nashville and I don’t think our food is necessarily Nashville, but I don’t really know what that means. We’re not serving biscuits, necessarily. Japanese milk bread is pretty far from biscuits, but at the same time, like I said, it’s just a fancy Wonder Bread.
You’ve made Bastion not quite a tasting menu. Why?
With Catbird, it was cool to do that tasting menu only thing. I think it got to a point, at least for me there, where we kind of knew our rhythm. We knew a person sits down, we greet them with this, we start doing that. There’re some cool things you can do with a tasting menu, psychologically. You can give them some what I always call trust builders, at the beginning of the meal. You want to give people things that are going to satisfy them in a way that you’re going to take them out of their comfort zone, then reward them with another trust builder. So you can have this journey together and people are going to stretch themselves outside of what they already know, but it started to get monotonous, because that’s not the case, but I thought we were in too much control of everyone’s meal.
But you still leave some mystery with the vague menu.
It might say milk bread and brown cheese. Or it might be liver and biscuits, or it might be oyster and kimchi. So you kind of know, but you don’t really know. It’s funny too, because I’ll hear if the couple’s in the guy will be explaining “Oh, this one’s going to be a soup.” You have no idea what you’re getting yourself into, but I like that. I like that they are already in their mind figuring out what it is and they’re going to be surprised later, hopefully in a positive way. In reality, we’re still in control, but people are the ones who are choosing their adventure.