The Food Biz: Chef goes to market

Laura Wilson takes the helm at the Nashville Farmers’ Market’s high-profile kitchen

For years, the Nashville Farmers’ Market has been planning an ambitious project — launching a new kitchen within the market, manned by a vibrant chef who could cook up fun classes and demos (including recruiting other chefs to share their knowledge), assist the market’s farmers and retail vendors, educate the public about how local veggies and meats can enrich their cooking, and generally serve as the friendly face of the downtown market.

Sounds like a pretty overwhelming job description, but not to the person who has just been named to the post: Laura Wilson.

Wilson’s a classically trained chef whose fresh-faced cheer seems to belie the years she’s spent in high-pressure kitchens, first in New Orleans and then in Nashville. Her credits include presiding over the kitchens at Wild Iris and the late, much-loved Ombi, consulting on the launch of Holland House and serving as the inaugural chef for Turnip Truck Urban Fare in the Gulch. She left Turnip Truck earlier this year and has been adding even more interesting twists to her resume, such as helping cheese purveyor Kathleen Cotter of The Bloomy Rind ramp up her retail projects, and creating a one-night New Orleans-themed dinner at Tin Angel that was a massive sellout with a long waiting list of folks begging for an encore.

Wilson also seems adept at cooking under brutal time limits and a hot spotlight. In April she beat four other highly accomplished chefs at the annual Iron Fork competition mounted by the Nashville Scene. And now her intriguing new title is director of the Grow Local Kitchen at the Nashville Farmers’ Market.

The Farmers’ Market’s new kitchen is sort of a 2.0 version. The floods of May 2010 destroyed the previous kitchen right after it was completed. The new facility is appointed with two ovens, a refrigerator and a five-burner cooktop, strategically located near the center of the Market House.

Classes are a major part of the Grow Local Kitchen as planned by the market’s management. “Jeff Themm and Jolie Yockey had this great vision of a cooking school,” Wilson explained. “Finally I said, ‘Would you like me to do that? Because I’d really be into it,’ ” she recalled, laughing.

“It combines all the things I’ve loved about my jobs,” she added. “Getting together with chefs — who are some of my favorite people — working with local farmers and food producers, sharing my joy and love of cooking with the public, including all the people I served over the years at restaurants.”

Wilson plans to tap her chef friends for help with unique cooking classes. “I’ll ask chefs, ‘What class do you really want to teach?’ I want to give chefs an outlet, and give the public access to their creative minds, what actually happens in restaurants.”

Her other priorities? Cooking demos to help spread the word about vendors’ products, and making the kitchen a kind of small-business incubator. It’s a USDA-approved products kitchen, so anybody willing to tackle some paperwork and a short training course can rent the facility to crank out a batch of jam, salsa or whatever brilliant food item an entrepreneur can dream up.

Greek in Bellevue

Athens Family Restaurant, the popular Franklin Road spot for Greek specialties, American favorites and breakfast all day, has a new sister restaurant.

Owners Adel Elostta, his wife Dina (a native of Greece) and business partner Mohamed Rasras have opened a second Athens on Old Harding Road near Highway 70 in Bellevue. It’s remarkably similar to the first, and not just because of the identical menu. The new business also fills a former Mrs. Winners restaurant site.

“I’m following Mrs. Winner around,” Elostta joked. Not surprisingly, the floor plan at the new place is the same, as well.

Also the same are the crowds of customers. Elostta expected a slow phase after opening Nov. 3, but almost immediately began serving hundreds of diners a day.

Hours, however, are slightly shorter in Bellevue, at least for now. The new place is open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday. The phone number is 953-3204.