Erik Anderson plays it close to the vest when talking about his restaurant, the Catbird Seat in Nashville. “Talking about my food is really hard for me. I would rather people just came and ate it, you know?” If you took his word for it, you might not catch the fact that the place has been blowing minds and stacking awards ever since it opened in late 2011: Bon Appetit’s 10 Best New Restaurants of 2012. GQ’s, too. Semifinalist for the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant. Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs class of 2012. And the raves keep coming.
Anderson’s reticence might have something to do with the fact that he got his start in the kitchen under his parents, as an underage dishwasher in the diner they owned during his childhood. Or with the fact that after working in Chicago kitchens for a number of years, he left to become a road manager for bands including Alkaline Trio—or, as he characteristically put it, “Someone offered me a job traveling, and I thought, Eh, alright. I didn’t plan on doing it long, and then before you know it eight years had gone, and it was like, Shit!” When he came back to the kitchen, he went all in; to the French Laundry, then to Minneapolis, where he worked his way up to chef de cuisine of Sea Change under Beard winner Tim McKee, before taking a break to stage at Noma as final prep for opening his own place.
The Catbird Seat, which Anderson built with fellow chef Josh Habinger, another Minneapolis ex-pat, has just 32 seats at a counter that wraps around the chefs’ work station, like a Jetsons-styled Benihana. In that tiny space, they turn out some of the most intricate—and soulful—“tweezer food” in the country. And, ironically, what could be considered a bland Midwestern heritage has actually worked to their advantage; though they’re working in Nashville, they’re not hit with the usual Kentucky-fried comparisons that can sell short the pure skill of Southern masters like Sean Brock. When Anderson roasts abalone and serves it with red-eye gravy, it’s because something in the meaty mollusk tweaks the same sense receptors as its usual partner, country ham—not because it’s just like mama used to do.
That freedom allows Anderson to take his menus wherever he damn well pleases—just don’t call it “fusion.” Off-duty, his tastes run high and low, but largely handheld; tacos, sandwiches, and hot dogs all make the no-nonsense chef’s list of 10 life-changing dishes. From his go-to late-night drunk food to an accidental El Bulli reservation, Anderson takes us through the food that keeps inspiring him.