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Networking: Matt Farley
Executive chef, The Southern Steak & Oyster, Nashville, Tenn.
By James Wright
November 01, 2013
Working in restaurants used to be a way for Matt Farley to make a living while keeping a flexible schedule for his music career. The New York native still gets recognition for his chops, but we’re no longer talking only about his work with drumsticks or guitars — the spatula is now the tool of his trade (at least for his day job). For the executive chef at one of Nashville’s hottest new restaurants, there’s music to be made on every plate served at The Southern Steak & Oyster. Farley was recently asked to participate in Nashville’s debut Music City Eats festival last month, the brainchild of local rock band Kings of Leon and some of the city’s top chefs. For that event, he had to make 1,500 bite-sized dishes that represented The Southern. “Not easy to do, in the middle of a field,” he says.
Farley, 44, left New York and its acclaimed-yet-hectic restaurant scene four years ago to focus on a healthier work-life balance with his family (wife Cheryl, son Tom and daughter Emma). On a visit to Tennessee to see friends and lend his skills to a recording session, he fell in love with Nashville. “People believe in this city and love living here,” says Farley. “I love New York, but it makes you bitchy to live there. It’s difficult, waiting in line all the time. The tempo here is just right and there’s music all around me. And the food thing is happening here. Nashville is going to be one of those towns that people talk about when it comes to food.”
Defend or deny this statement: Nashville is not a seafood town.
Whoo. Being from New York, I’ve been spoiled with really fantastic fish. I’m hopefully changing the perception here. I sell a lot of fish. It’s good quality. We’re buying the bulk of it from three different sources. We’ve definitely stretched our reach to Washington’s Columbia River and Alaska as well as fish from the Northeast, all overnighted to us, super fresh like I’d get in New York. We’re working on whether Nashville is a seafood town or not, but it’s not synonymous with fish like New York, Boston or Seattle.
What are the favorite seafood dishes at The Southern?
We sell an absolute ton of oysters. West Coast, East Coast, Gulf — we have up to seven varieties a day, and change it up every week. A lot of people come for fish, and we sell a ton of halibut, which we serve with grits and braised cabbage with bacon.
A common perception is that seafood is difficult to cook. Do you disagree?
Yeah, again, if you buy really great fish you don’t have to do much to it. Dry sea scallops taste great the way they are. Take good care of it and minimize what you treat it with in terms of seasonings and spices. There’s a time and place for that, but let the product do the talking. Make it appealing. Grill it, sear it, roast it. What I enjoy about [cooking seafood] is you can’t just rough it up; you have to have finesse. You can grab a steak with tongs and flip it, but fish is quickly cooked and you have to be careful and delicate and take care of it. I like the technique to cook fish.
Your restaurant has a local-sourcing bent. What’s your philosophy on seafood in that regard?
My thing is to focus on ingredients I don’t have to monkey with too much. Let the halibut be the halibut. Same goes for the beef. The owner (Tom Morales) says everything, right down to the paper towels and soap, needs to be green or mindful of the environment. Fish is no exception. I want the best quality I can get so long as it stays within [Seafood Watch program] standards.
Do your guests ask about your seafood sources or sustainability?
We do get some questions about the fish. A waiter will ask a couple times a night, “Where’s the halibut from?” Diners are more conscious about that. I get more questions about the beef, to be honest.