Part Two: Working her way up

Chef Paquette dish

Read all parts in this series: Part One | Part Three | Part Four

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?

My first job, in my 20s, I just got out of culinary school, and 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, and 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.

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!

Chef Paquette dish

Were you and your husband together through your whole culinary career? When did you meet him?

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!

If they come back to visit you, you didn’t do too bad.

Well Barry, 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…and 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!

Tell us a little bit about Etch, and about Etc. Why Etc.?

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 and 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, 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!

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

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 Wolfert, Colman Andrews, Diane 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 change that encouraged me to really take a big step outside the box and live on the edge!

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

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 back yard is full of anything that brings butterflies and bees and hummingbirds. Landscaping and gardening are a 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 be kind to their country.

And getting your hands dirty.

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?

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?

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.

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?

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, or 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.

Read Part Three: Giving Back, and CVap in Chef Deb’s Kitchen

Part One: Working with Good People, but Wanting to be Better

Chef Deb Paquette

Read all parts in this series: Part Two | Part Three | Part Four

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, .

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

The late Chef Barry Yates sat down with Chef Paquette for a lively conversation (conducted virtually, in these pandemic days). She proved she is not only a highly accomplished chef, but she’s also a colorful conversationalist.

A Strong Woman in a Male-Dominated Field

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!

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 haybale of the scarecrow…I had to be Dorothy. Determination was my state of mind and 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 pin ball. Well, that’s really what life is! Never stop educating yourself and 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!

Chef Deb Paquette

Coping with Her Share of Toxic Men

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! 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. (He was sleeping with the only waitress that had 44 double-Ds!)

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 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

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!

She’s a pretty seductive redhead, just so you know.

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, or 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.

That’s refreshing. I think you’re right. I have a lot of friends in the business, a lot of 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.

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!

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.

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 squinch 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.

Read Part Two: Working Her Way Up

Bringing the Heat with Nashville Hot Chicken

Nashville hot chicken

Winter may be waning, but the popularity of Nashville Hot Chicken sure isn’t. We decided to try our hand at preparing a big batch. It was as good (and hot!) as promised.

Nashville Hot Chicken’s History

Nashville Hot Chicken’s powerful poultry story originated nearly seven decades ago, at Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack. Apparently Thorton Prince was quite the lady’s man. Tiring of his late night escapades, his gal served him up a Sunday breakfast of fried chicken, generously doused in cayenne pepper and other fiery spices. Her revenge backfired – rather than crying out in pain, he loved it. Consequently the inspiration for Nashville Hot Chicken was born. If you’re interested, read the whole story on Prince’s website. Numerous other restaurants and chains, inspired by Prince’s, have put their own twist on this Nashville classic.

The Process

We brined the chicken in the fridge overnight using a simple 6% brine. Learn everything you need to know about brining on our friends’ site Genuine Ideas (browse under their food header).

We lightly dusted the chicken with seasoned flour. After that we dipped it in a simple blend of eggs, buttermilk and hot sauce.

Subsequently, we tossed lightly again in breading mix, giving us a light double-breaded chicken. Double-breading creates a nice robust crunch once the chicken is fried.

Properly prepped, the chicken was ready for the Collectramatic® Fryer.

breaded hot chicken
nashville hot chicken fresh from the fryer

We fried the chicken for 15 minutes at 325°F. It emerged from the fryer a mouth-watering golden brown. After allowing excess oil to drip away, we painted the spicy special sauce on with a pastry brush.

The hot chicken was as good as we hoped, delivering a delicious heat that delighted our taste buds while making our faces flush and our brows sweat.

This chicken can be held for two hours in a CVap® Holding Cabinet. After frying, place it directly in a CVap set to 135 +50. Apply the sauce just before serving.

Here’s a pared-down version of the recipe (in case you’re not feeding an army).

Nashville Hot Chicken Recipe

  • 2 – 3 1/2-4-pound chickens, each cut into ten pieces (breasts halved)
  • 1 gallon of 6% brine
  • 4 large eggs
  • 2 cups buttermilk or whole milk
  • 2 tablespoons vinegar-based hot sauce (such as Tabasco or Texas Pete)
  • 4 cups all-purpose flour seasoned with salt, pepper and paprika. (You may use your own special flour mix if you’d like).
  • Vegetable oil (for frying; about 10 cups) (unless, of course, you have a Collectramatic fryer handy).
  • 6 tablespoons cayenne pepper
  • 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon paprika

The Process

  1. Whisk eggs, buttermilk, and hot sauce in a large bowl. Subsequently, whisk flour and remaining four teaspoons salt in another large bowl.
  2. If you’re not using a Collectramatic fryer, fit a Dutch oven with frying thermometer. After that pour in oil to about two inches depth. Heat over medium-high heat until thermometer registers 325°F.
  3. Pat chicken dry. Working with one piece at a time, dredge in flour mixture, shaking off excess, and then dip in buttermilk mixture, letting excess drip back into bowl.
  4. Subsequently dredge again in flour mixture and place on a baking sheet.
  5. Working in four batches and returning oil to 325°F between batches, fry chicken, turning once after 15 minutes until skin is deep golden brown and crisp. Check with an instant-read thermometer inserted into thigh pieces to verify that the inner temp registers at least 185°F (165°F for white meat). This usually takes ten more minutes after the turn, for a total cook time of 25 minutes.
  6. Transfer to a clean wire rack set inside a baking sheet.
  7. After that, remove oil from heat and let it cool slightly.
  8. Whisk cayenne, brown sugar, chili powder, garlic powder, and paprika in a medium bowl.
  9. Carefully whisk in 1 cup hot frying oil or melted lard.
  10. Just before serving, brush fried chicken with spicy oil. Serve with bread and pickles.

Enjoy!