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Operator Corner: Chef Deb Paquette

Chef Deb Paquette is truly one of a kind. A 30-year fixture in Nashville, she’s a renowned female chef in a male-dominated field. She became the first woman in Tennessee to qualify as a Certified Executive Chef, after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America.

Chef Paquette is exuberant and unfiltered. When we approached her about inclusion in our Operator Corner blog series, her first question was, “do I have to act civil?” We assured her, no.

Our friend, the late Chef Barry Yates sat down with Chef Paquette for a lively conversation with her in August 2020. She is not only a highly accomplished chef, but also a colorful conversationalist.

Interview at a Glance

Chef Deb Paquette

A Strong Woman in a Male-Dominated Field

[Barry Yates] You are a very strong woman in a male-dominated field. How did you get where you are? What kinds of things did you face? Do you have advice for other women in the culinary field? Just go, because you’re amazing!

[Deb Paquette] “Well, first of all, I got where I am today by having bigger balls than most men! This means I had to assert myself and realize I could not be like the lion, the tin man, or especially, not that hay bale of the scarecrow…I had to be Dorothy. Determination was my state of mind. I was going to be the human sponge.”

“I found out about culinary school and somehow it was my calling…I am a bit crazy. A wacky sense of humor. Not afraid to work. Hyper, big mouth, and wore two different-colored socks. It turns out I was a perfect candidate to be trained for a professional position in the culinary field! (I did show some promise!)”

“The kitchen world drew the talent out of me that was just waiting to be expelled from my brain. I made the best choice ever, and those colored socks took me to places beyond what I imagined, plus a few trips to hell and back!”

Advice to Women

“What you experience in your early days and what happens years down the road can be like playing pinball. Well, that’s really what life is! Never stop educating yourself. Create a great management style. Mine is organized chaos! If you do not have a great sense of humor, start listening to Bill Cosby albums, know the rules, love to clean, and love to cook!”

Coping with Her Share of Toxic Men

[Deb Paquette] “What I faced early on was the incredible human library of people that I wanted to (and would get to) know and learn from. OMG! My first job was as a dishwasher at the ‘Cottontail Lounge.’ This was a man bar where waitress’s uniform skirt stopped at the bottom of their butt and frilly ruffled panty things were the undergarment! On the first day of my job, it was 10 A.M., and I ran into an all-night drinker, who happened to be the owner. He stumbly told me not to worry, he did not want to f***k me! ‘Okay,’ I said and asked where the kitchen was.”

“After working there for months, I knew my world would hold lots of fun. And lots of sweat! I also knew I would face other gents like ‘RAY,’ and I would deal with it as best as I could! Food was on my horizon.”

“I worked with many strong men. Many were awesome, and then there were the d*ckheads. No man sh*t was going to step on my yellow brick road. There are no tragic stories. Just sh*t that happens when men need to get their own way. I was not a promiscuous person, so I had no desire to put my two legs out with a rent sign on them. Therefore, I never became an interest, or an interesting story. Having a boyfriend, and then a husband kept potential douchebags from advertising their stuff!”

“As I stated before, there were a few issues with man-agers. Here is his story. Icky man wanted me to go on the road with him and open a few restaurants. I happened to get pregnant, and his decision-making process altered. Fate changed, and I lost the baby. When I returned to work, he fired me and didn’t want me coming back to work because I would likely get preggers again. I sorta understood, and I was not angry until my manager told me that the ‘piece of sh*t boss man’ wanted to offer me an abortion so I could continue working. D*CK!”

“I let this pass and realized I was not the problem!”

There are Still Nice Guys

[Deb Paquette] “So, no one thinks I am a man basher, here’s a better man story for you. A banquet dude ran into me at 5:30 A.M. getting ready for a big breakfast. I had not put my Farrah Fawcett beach hair up under the white pain-in-the-ass toque. Did not have my ugly oversized white chef’s coat on. But did have on my ugly JC Penney brogans.” 

“He took one long look and left the cooler! I was thankful for him leaving, ‘cause I was pretty sure he was in there to play with the whipped cream cans! He went back to the banquet hall and asked all his dude pals who the new girl was. They told him there is no new girl, it is probably Deb, the banquet chef. His reply was ‘you mean the lesbian?’ He asked me out that night, and he is now my husband! Turns out, he liked my boots!”

[Barry Yates] She’s a pretty seductive redhead, just so you know.

[Deb Paquette] “Whoa! Thanks, Barry! Don’t have those cataracts removed!”

“Now that we are done chatting about woman caca in the man world, let me just say that I do know quite a few love stories that came out of couples meeting on the job. Hookups with work ‘buddies’ are sorta natural. You find certain peeps spending a bit too much time in a supply closet, one of the hotel rooms, or maybe a locked office! And bless my mother’s ears, I just about froze in a walk-in cooler one night!”

“Not much else to share. In the past 20 years, I have worked with, and for, many wonderful men.”

[Barry Yates] That’s refreshing. I think you’re right. I have a lot of friends, longtime chefs that are female. And a lot of them don’t have that to say. So it’s refreshing to hear you say that. I’m glad that’s the case.

[Dep Paquette] “You have to be a hard-core insider to understand that you might face problems, but you don’t have to create problems. Ya just do your job. When I was accused of being a brown noser, I’d first say, ‘you are full of it.’ And then say, ‘have you seen the walk-in? You’re not going to go in and clean it, because you’re f^*king lazy. So, I will clean it! And I might even get a gold star on my forehead, and you won’t!’ (But I do love cleaning walk-ins!)”

“The walk-in has been my office on many occasions. As well as my therapy room. It’s the coolest place to go…ha!”

[Barry Yates] My first chef that I worked for was Ferd Grisanti. A real feisty Italian, right? One of the most lovely people in the world. He thought that if he took one of us into the walk-in and blasted us, that no one else could hear. Right? It didn’t matter if it was one of his own kids or one of us. When he said, “we’re going to the walk-in,” we knew we were in for it. But the whole kitchen heard it too. It was pretty funny.

[Deb Paquette] “After years of cheffin’, some of my past employees come into the back of the kitchen and ask my cooks jokingly, ‘has she taken you to the dining room with a glass of water?’ The joke was that if I have a glass of water in my hand and called you to the front of the house, there was a good chance somebody was in trouble! There was some truth to this!”

“Speaking of the walk-in, it’s terrible to say this, but when I get really frustrated, I call it the Helen Keller. I go in the walk-in and hold my arms up high, and grab my fists. Put all the pressure from my brain and body into my fists, hold them above my head. And I squint my eyes as tight as I can and silently scream. I know that’s cruel, but I’ll tell the kids when you’re upset, you’ve got to go into the walk-in and do the Hellen Keller as hard as you can for ten seconds. And when you’re done, your life’s better.”

[Barry Yates] Tell me about Chef Paquette. How many restaurants do you have now? How many have you had over the years? Which ones were your favorites? Which ones were your worst?

[Deb Paquette] “My first job was in my 20s. I just got out of culinary school. Went to New York City to work in a macrobiotic restaurant, which was probably the coolest job ever! I was working with a bunch of the coolest shrubber heads ever! All the kids that worked there were into acting, singing, dancing, and partying! It was the kind of restaurant where we’d sit around the tables, end of night, smoke weed, and drink coffee. What an education! One year later I went back to Florida, to get another degree in Restaurant Management. I felt that I needed to get a degree to prove to people that I was serious about what I was doing, even though the management degree did s*%t for me. [laughs]. Hey, I learned how to fold a hospital corner on a bed.”

Chef Paquette dish

“During my stint at FIU, I worked in a Danish restaurant in Ft. Lauderdale. Another great education. After FIU, I took a job at the Omni in Ft. Lauderdale, working banquets. I traveled to Nashville when I got a job as a banquet chef and settled into becoming a resident of Nashville.”

“In 1997, I opened a restaurant with my fabulous husband, Ernie. We had that baby (and ball and chain) for 13 years. Her name was Zola’s, where the food was a “bastardization of global cuisine.” (And my food still is). It was a great ride until we put a sign on the door in 2010 that said, “GONE FISHING.” I have so many wonderful guests who are still coming to dine with me at Etch and Etc., where I am a partner and owner. Of course, this was my dream job. I had no bad jobs!”

[Barry Yates] Were you and your husband together through your whole culinary career? When did you meet him?

[Deb Paquette] “Yes, I have been with Ernie 38 years and in the biz for 42. An amazing man who accepted what I do for a living and gave me the love and understanding to continue my career.”

“That story I told earlier, about working at the Omni, well that was where we began. I actually dumped another dude ‘cause Ernie was the nicest boy I’d ever met, and what a smile! And really tall! AND…he was almost 20 (I brought out the cradle…I was 25!). We married in ’84, and soon had two boys, Race and Croix.”

“Since I was the workaholic worker bee, Ern had the majority of raising those p*ckerheads. Ern had his own job, and was able to get homework done, coach soccer and inline hockey, and had to be the bad cop! Of course, I was the good witch! Ern did a fabulous job!”

[Barry Yates] If they come back to visit you, you didn’t do too bad.

[Deb Paquette] “Well, you would have to ask them that! I remember when the youngest called his dad ‘tripolar.’ Now they are best buds. We went through all the normal kid/parent crap, but now that they are 31 and 33 and have completed and accomplished their 30s. They are the best. Ernie and I are thrilled they are bought and paid for! Our lives are in a good place. The restaurant life has been good for all of us!”

Etch and Etc.

[Barry Yates] Tell us a little bit about Etch, and about Etc. Why Etc.?

[Deb Paquette] “Our downtown restaurant was going to be called Echo, due to being surrounded by the reverb of music all around us. Holy moly, there are a million businesses using the name echo. As to not cause trademark issues, we changed the name to ‘Etch.’ Very cerebral…ha! I want to leave an invisible etch on people, which keeps them returning to our restaurant. Etch seats about 180 guests, and has a bar, a party room, and an open kitchen with a chef’s counter. We just had our 8th anniversary! We have a great team of people, I am so proud of, running the show. They work their asses off!”

“Our smaller restaurant is etc. …the continuation of Etch. Etc. is in a great neighborhood and is greatly supported by guests who have been eating my food for 25 years. We seat 66 inside and 25 on the patio. Similar food, and always great service!”

“’Bastardization of Global Cuisine’ [laughs], is what I call my style of food. I love the culture, history, stories, and flavors of so many countries! I enjoy developing recipes that I feel are representative of a cuisine, but not always authentic. I have fun!”

[Barry Yates] All of your menus have always had that global twist. I never really asked you, why?

[Deb Paquette] “We did have one really good Spanish restaurant back in the day, but it didn’t last. People just didn’t know a lot about Spanish food, so they were scared to eat there. This was the 1980s. The only people cooking on TV were Julia Child and the Galloping Gourmet. Homemakers were not aware pomegranate molasses, harissa, tamarind, and what to do with beets besides pickling them. I wanted to change that. I purchased so many cookbooks, and began a grand journey. Paula WolfertColman AndrewsDiane Kennedy, and Madjur Jaffrey were, and still are, my favorites. Big cities seemed to have the upper edge on dining, and it just took a while to make a move south. When the Food Network entered every home, it created a change that encouraged me to really take a big step outside the box and live on the edge!”


[Barry Yates] You’re very cerebral. What would you be if you weren’t a cook?

[Deb Paquette] “Oh, I would more than likely, probably, be in landscaping. I have to have color in my life (like my hair!). My house is a giant color wheel. Tons of color. My kitchen counters are red. My backyard is full of anything that brings butterflies and bees and hummingbirds. Landscaping and gardening are natural for me. Hard work and color! We work on composting, sharing vegetables, teaching. I’m also part of the Nashville Waste Initiative, in which I want to educate kids, and their families, to be more resourceful and kind to their country. Dirty hands are healthy! I spend time with my flowers daily… (we call that therapy!).”

“I also forage chanterelles…anywhere from 75 to 150 pounds a summer. Is it summer yet?”

[Barry Yates] How long have you been a gatherer? How important are local, indigenous ingredients to you? And how do you incorporate it into what you do today?

[Deb Paquette] “The husband and I have been foraging for 30 years. Local folks call them ‘sods.’ We still do not know why! Our babysitter was frying them one night when Ernie went to pick up the boys (this was in the 1980s). That was the only way they knew how to fix them, and once Ernie realized they were morels, he got the scoop on where to find them. That next night we feasted, a sauté pan full of ‘dry land fish’ with lots of caramelized onions! We never found enough morels to supply our friends, but we now forage plenty of chanterelles to sell to a few restaurants. We also pickle and confit a good deal of the chanties, so we can enjoy eating them year-round. YUM YUM!”

“I love using local products, at home and job. Supporting farmers is an important part of giving back to the community. Thirty years ago, I had three farmers in all of Nashville. Now we can choose from 30 to 40 exceptional farmers. I live outside Nashville, and in the middle of an incredible amount of local produce, meats, flowers, artists, and of course, grits, who bring their goods to our farmers’ market each weekend throughout the summer.”

“To keep all the pollinators happy, I supply the yard with indigenous flowers and herbs. Ernie is the veg gardener and the builder of our almost-finished greenhouse. The greenhouse is made of all recycled wood and windows and should be done in a few months. Early mornings we enjoy our coffee observing bees, butterflies, and birds buzzing in and out of the morning dew.”

[Barry Yates] I’m in the middle of pickling heaven or hell, whichever way you want to look at it, right now. I’ve pickled just about everything but chanterelles. How do you do it? What’s the brine?

[Deb Paquette] “We try different things, just like you would any other pickles. Spicey, herby, sweet…Ernie likes to try his hand with different brines. We will use apple cider vinegar, sherry vinegar, or white balsamic. He likes ‘em sweet and I prefer savory. Roasting the chanties prior to pickling makes for some really tasty flavor bombs! Refrigerator pickles are our thing, canning is too messy! Ernie is notorious for introducing neighbors and friends to our plethora of chanty pickles.”

Giving Back to the Community

[Barry Yates] You brought up that you’re part of the Waste Initiative in Nashville. I know that you’re very, very involved in Second Harvest.

[Deb Paquette] “Yes, the Waste Initiative is supported by the James Beard Foundation. We are a test city for what we can do to create solutions in dealing with waste in our community. Consequently, we have groups and individuals networking to provide education to reduce waste. Not only in restaurants but in homes, grocery stores, and office buildings. Go to Google and read about what you can do to help your community reduce waste.”

“Part of our responsibility as restaurant people is to work with charities that help people in need. Whether it is food, socks, prosthesis, or a Christmas present, these are people who live in the same cities we work in.”

Winston Foodservice Deb Paquette

“I have been involved for years in helping Second Harvest since I moved to Tennessee. For the past eight years, I was part of Taste of the NFL, which was an organization of chefs, one from each NFL city. We would show up every Super Bowl weekend, and provide food for a huge patrons’ party the night before the Super Bowl. The party had a big admission fee, and proceeds would be shared with the food banks in each chef’s city, as well as all of us raising funds locally. Each year my company gave a dollar of every sale of our cauliflower appetizer as our part in helping Second Harvest. In the past eight years, we have donated $100,000. Isn’t that fabulous?”

[Barry Yates] What is it that makes you that way?

[Deb Paquette] You know how a doctor takes the Hippocratic oath? In this glorious industry, we take the hospitality oath. It is not just an oath to yourself but to the people who support your business. We are leaders, born to give, encourage, love, and support.”

[Barry Yates] It’s interesting that you bring that up. You know, we are in the hospitality business. We are there to be of service. But I find very few people understand the complexities of putting a plate of food in front of them.

[Deb Paquette] “Do you mean the complexities of getting the food from the back door to the table? Yep, it’s the work that makes it all worthwhile. When you spend the day talking to salesmen, checking in food, teaching a line cook their craft, burning a sauce ‘cause you were telling jokes to a customer or calling your husband to be sure there is beer in the fridge, chopping a hundred pounds of onions, tasting 30 sauces, yelling at your CVap dude, and putting out the best special ever…I don’t want a client to know all that sh*t. Just sink into your food and Zen out! Let us do the work, and you just enjoy.”

Talking CVap

[Barry Yates] Why did you buy CVap? What have you learned since you’ve had it? Do you still like it? Would you buy another one?

[Deb Paquette] “I learned about CVaps from my friend Ashley Quick. He loves them. I began the research, and now we have one in each restaurant. It was a bit intimidating at first. But then, so am I…hah! The best equipment for short ribs and octopus, and holding fried chicken!”

“You have to understand that whole humidity thing. My husband used the weather as an example, and then it all clicked (he’s much smarter than me…I am the smart ass!).”

“I do love that little rain box! As we say in the south, “it cooks stuff up real good like.” I like that I can cook overnight and see beauty in the morning! (My husband also says that about me!) And yes, I would buy another…after COVID-19 season is over!”

Chef Deb Paquette's beautiful food

Finding Balance

[Barry Yates] We were talking about the craziness of this business. Do you have any advice on how to achieve a work/life balance?

[Deb Paquette] “Balance? I don’t know what that word means. Oh balance! That’s when I ride my unicycle! I still ride it. It’s funny to see a 64-year-old kid on a unicycle with her arms waving about! But then, that’s me!”

“Balance is letting your husband go fishing when he wants and hang out with his man friends at our local bar, and hoping he has the best time ever! He is the mayor of the bar, just so you know! I work too much, and he very rarely complains (I did just say rarely!). We see-saw!”

“I must use the word balance 20 times a day. Much of my time is working on the food for a new restaurant and all the recipes MUST balance. I have quite a few sauces and fun stuff on the plate, and each item has to taste great by itself and together…balance. A good cocktail has the perfect balance. Casamigos has fabulous balance.”

“My advice on balance with work and life…place priorities on what is most important for you and your loved ones. Don’t abuse your brain or your body! Let a sense of humor be your BFF! If you get unbalanced, go to the ocean. Don’t drink Jägermeister!”

Taking a Break

[Deb Paquette] “This year I achieved a momentous work/life situation. I actually did not change my vacation with the hubby three times this year! Something always comes up in the workplace, and this year I should have changed it. But we got people in place. I will be slip-sliding in 30 SPF with a sippy cup full of balanced juice all the way to the beach! We go to this place in Florida where there are no stores. It’s just this little peninsula that’s below Tallahassee, on the Gulf. Called Alligator Point. It’s just houses, beaches, and shrimp season. Late summer is when we go to the beach when it is bikini season for those over 60! Ernie fishes and shrimps. I walk a lot and read. Happy hour is whenever we like, and Ernie seems to like my bikini!”

“Ernie really wants to move back to the water, real bad. He has for years. The ocean is in his blood. Ernie grew up in Eastham, Massachusetts,  which is the narrowest point on Cape Cod. He grew up being a surfer boy, a fisherman, and a scalloper.”

“I am a Fort Lauderdale gal. The ocean runs through my veins! I left when I was 25. And I brought all those sunspots right along with my suitcase!”

“Oops, time for a story…when Ernie was 18, he worked on a scallop boat. Drags were out on the boat, and they were all playing cards on the lower deck. He went up top to pee off the side of the boat. A swell hit the boat and it was ‘bye now.’ He went over the side! As he kicked off his new boots, he watched the lights of the boat disappear. (Scary!) Someone still in the card game realized Ernie was taking longer than normal. Cards down and up they go. No Ernie. Ern has one of those monster-loud whistles. He began the call for survival…or ‘get me the hell out of this cold-ass water!’ Up came the drags and he saw the lights…luckily the boat lights!”


Why Nashville?

[Barry Yates] It seems to me that you like Nashville. You’re not from there. And you’ve not left there. What is it that you like about Nashville? And what is it that you think is goofy? Or am I mistaken, and you just don’t have anywhere else to go?

[Deb Paquette] “I love Nashville and the big trees. If I cannot have the ocean in my backyard, trees are the winners. They bring peace to my crazy life. I also love the southern charm (I have mastered nine southern dialects). Tennessee is beautiful, and the economy here is good (except for the red haze!). And the restaurant scene is fabulous!”

“The goofiest is the crazy amount of bachelorette parties going on. We are the number one city for girls to become the debutants of Fireball, Jägermeister, and vomit pales. It is crazy! The summer uniform is the same for all: cowboy boots, tank tops, wedding sashes, and shorts that have a zip code in the crack of your ass. Lovely.”

“There is something about southern folks. Rules of respect and hospitality are passed down from generation to generation. It is in their blood (right next to whiskey!). You can feel it and you can see it. Good people, and not-so-good people, still shake your hand, look you in the eye, and ask you how your mama’s doing. ‘Yes sir’ and ‘yes ma’am’ are heard and listened to more than mating tree frogs! And if someone says, ‘well bless your cotton socks’ it means they care about you!”

“Will I leave Nashville? I really love it here. Our home is 28 miles from Nashville and is surrounded by lots of woods. My house gives me peace. Knowing there is a big couch and a sleepy husband waiting for me after a 13-hour day. One son lives down the street and the other son in Massachusetts. That isn’t far, is it?”

“I do have places, friends, and family to go and see. Maybe one day I may move, as long as my couch fits in the car!”

[Barry Yates] I think you gave me the answer. You found a place that had people similar to you.

[Deb Paquette] “Yeah, most likely. Why do you think I am in the restaurant business? We are perfectionists, most of us are ADHD. Drinking is a sport. Music is a necessity. Laughing is a prerequisite. And you must have a pet (or pets). Plus, we all like really good food!”

“Don’t most of us seem to surround ourselves with people who have similarities, (like political parties – ha!)? One has to find comfort and resemblance. I just want to be around people who play nice (and drink nice) with each other. There is a strong gravitational pull to people who make me laugh. Fun folks help me to find the funny in me! I make life-long friends with the people I most laugh with! Don’t you?”

“I am leaving you with another short story…this is a few years ago when Ernie and I had our restaurant (yes, another Ernie story!). He was the manager on duty, and a gentleman with a party of five called Ernie over to his table. This gent wanted Ern to open a $150 bottle of wine and pour him one glass. Ernie apologized and said it was not feasible for us to do so, and explained why. The gent was persistent and was told he would need to purchase the whole bottle. Nope, he only wanted a glass. Mr. Ern said, ‘I am sorry, but this is our house rule,’ and returned to the host station. Five minutes went by, and the bad dude approached Ernie. He looks at Ernie and says, ‘you know what…you made me look like an a*$hole in front of all my friends.’ And Ernie replied, ‘sir, I don’t think you need any help with that!’ The gent quietly left, with a tiny crack of almost a smile, and sat down.”

“Now you see our similarities…balance.”

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