"Go ahead!" exclaims Chef Jonathan Waxman, looking down at a gorgeously thick hunk of pork tenderloin. “Smash the hell out of it!”
It’s just after 10 a.m. inside Adele’s, the farm-to-fork Nashville restaurant that Waxman opened in 2014; there aren’t yet customers or clattering plates, or even music playing overhead. But whooshing through the serenity is a comically oversized aluminum mallet wielded byKings of Leon drummer Nathan Followill. “It’s a good form of therapy,” he says of pancaking the meat, which is then breaded and sauteed in olive oil. “In Italy, they would probably call this pork Milanese,” says Waxman, 65. But with buttermilk and cornmeal in the batter, the dish becomes chicken-fried pork, one of Followill’s favorites.
The long-haired drummer, whose prowess in the kitchen typically begins and ends at scrambled eggs (“I make the best ones you’ll ever have”), says his palate for fine dining developed in tandem with the success of his band, which formed nearly two decades ago in Nashville. “We’d get on the bus and hit the first fast-food joint we could find,” recalls Followill, 37, who was born the eldest son of a preacher and an insurance manager in Oklahoma. “As we started headlining festivals, we were asked what chefs we wanted for after-show meals. We fell in love with food in the process.”
Off-night dinners took him to places like El Bulli in Spain and Noma in Denmark. But Barbuto, Waxman’s rustic Italian eatery in New York, became one of the band’s go-tos. As the group’s friendship with the chef blossomed, so did the Music City Food & Wine Festival, which the band and Waxman launched in 2013. Though once defined culinarily by its hot chicken, Nashville’s changing landscape now has “a whole bunch of kids doing freeform food, using the ingredients growing here,” says Waxman, who was raised in Berkeley, Calif., and helped pioneer California cuisine in the 1970s. “There also are older chefs like me bringing in their influences.”
Today, he piles the greens on thick, topping off the chicken-fried pork with collards. “We’ve been bad,” says Waxman of adding butter to them. Followill, though, doesn’t seem to mind. “I doubled up on my Lipitor this morning. I think we’ll be OK.”
How did you guys meet?
Followill My brother [lead singer Caleb Followill], stalked Jonathan at Barbuto for a year. Caleb lived a block away at the time. He was like, “You’ve got to try this place!” My wife [musician Jessie Baylin] and I went and had the chicken, roast potatoes.
Waxman And the kale salad.
Followill Yes, and the gnocchi ... oh, God, that gnocchi. You had me at gnocchi.
Chef, what made you decide to open a restaurant in Nashville?
Waxman Originally, I wanted to open a fast-food chicken place and Ken Levitan [who manages Kings of Leon] suggested Nashville. But the space we found is five times bigger than what I’d wanted. It was an old tire store, so there were tires where we’re sitting. I walked in and fell in love.
Followill They saved a ton on the grease as well, which is wonderful. (Laughter.)
What, in your opinion, makes the perfect Southern biscuit?
Followill My Oklahoma grandma would make a plain biscuit but use chocolate gravy.
Waxman Chocolate gravy?
Followill It’s amazing. It’s basically just melted chocolate —
Waxman Wow, like Hershey’s?
Followill Kind of! You cut your biscuit in half, dump your chocolate gravy on top, have a chunk of peanut butter on the side and a salty, crispy piece of bacon. You get the salt and sweet at once — it’s heaven.
Waxman For me, it’s about not mixing the dough too much. You have to do it by hand and use your fingertips to incorporate the fat and the butter into the flour.
What other food comes to mind when you think of your childhood?
Followill Okra. My grandparents on the Tennessee side always had a garden and some of my earliest memories are of picking okra and squash with my grandma. She would cook them up.
Waxman My parents were from New York and had a passion for food. They took us to restaurants as kids. I remember going to a Chinese one and having a dish that was boneless, marinated chicken. It was wrapped and then fried in parchment paper. I remember eating the chicken and it was like, “Oh, my God, this is my first orgasm.” I was probably 6 years old. Those food memories are so -- I can still see that chicken.
Followill Next question: When was your first orgasm?
Before you became a chef, Jonathan, you were a musician.
Waxman I played the trombone. I got a music scholarship to the University of Nevada in Reno and started playing in the casinos. I played with Sammy Davis Jr. when I was 18 years old -- I was so nervous I couldn’t read the charts and got fired.
Followill I’m at a disadvantage. You were in a band and know how to do what I do. But I don’t know how to cook!
Tennessee has its whiskey. But would you rather drink beer and wine?
Waxman It’s tequila at the beginning of the meal, rosé when I’m prepping and then sitting down at a meal I love a progression of wines. I think Nathan and I agree on this -- but wines from the Piedmont [region in Italy] -- those reds are like the earth.
Followill My wife, who is a phenomenal cook, does the cooking and I pair the wine with whatever we’re having. That’s my thing. Sea Smoke pinot noir is pretty much my go-to.
After all that food and drink, does either of you do juice cleanses, which are so popular with musicians?
Waxman They scare the crap out of me.
Followill Literally. A juice cleanse to me is no alcohol for three days. That happens once every leap year, I’d say.