Ahead of Thursday’s big event at First Horizon Park, we caught up with all four of our Iron Fork competitors: Lyra’s Hrant Arakelian, Butcher & Bee’s Chris DeJesus, Anzie Blue’s Star Maye and Thai Esane’s Nina Singto. They’ve got a diverse array of skill sets and backgrounds, but they all have a couple of things in common — they’re all talented chefs, and they’re all in it to win it. Check out our profiles below.
Even if you don’t recognize his name, if you’ve been dining out in Nashville, you’ve likely eaten chef Hrant Arakelian’s food. His résumé reads like a who’s-who of our dearly departed favorites: Sunset Grill? Check. Flyte? Check. Deb Paquette’s Zola? Check. Rumors East? Check. Holland House Bar & Refuge? Check.
In 2018 Arakelian and his wife Elizabeth Endicott (who has her own long list of Nashville culinary royalty on her résumé) opened their dream restaurant in the old Holland House space. In fact, it was Arakelian’s connection with Holland House that gave them a leg up on securing the coveted corner building at Eastland and McFerrin avenues; they were able to approach the landlord early in the process. “We were very lucky to get that space,” Arakelian says.
With Lyra (pronounced “LIE-rah”), the couple transformed the way in which East Nashville experiences Middle Eastern food. Born in Lebanon, Arakelian lived in Oman until he was 7 years old and his family immigrated to Nashville. Arakelian weaves into his food the flavors and traditions of the places he’s lived and the kitchens in which he’s worked.
“Some people come in [to Lyra] with preconceived notions of Middle Eastern food, with kabobs and hummus and rice,” says Arakelian. “We hope that when they come to Lyra that they learn about the variety of Middle Eastern cuisine and some things that they are not as familiar with.”
You can expect to see that modern approach at Iron Fork, a challenge about which he says he is both excited and nervous. Arakelian had been planning to participate in Iron Fork in 2020, which was canceled due to the pandemic, so he’s had a lot of time to think about how best to tackle such a cooking contest. Recent weeks have seen Arakelian brainstorming with his sous chef, thinking about which of the regular spices and spice blends they use at Lyra would be good to bring to the competition, and looking for options that could work with a savory or sweet secret ingredient. “The food we do at Lyra plays off sweet and salty and earthy and bright and floral to develop a well-rounded flavor, and so we hope to do that at Iron Fork.”
“Lyra is a passion of ours that we have wanted to do forever,” he adds. “We just love that the city is embracing a variety of cuisines, and we are happy to be a part of it.” MARGARET LITTMAN
Star Maye is no stranger to competition, having duked it out at Culinary Fight Club, Battle of the Burger and more events during her long culinary career. Maye is used to cooking under pressure, including during a stint at City Winery, where she would sometimes have to feed 500 people before two shows a night — or discover that nobody wants a pre-concert meal and just roll with the punches. “I learned to work fast,” she says. “Flip it and burn it!”
Now, as the executive chef at CBD-centric cafe Anzie Blue, Maye is excited to introduce herself to Nashville diners. She was born in Jamaica and raised in rural Alabama, and then spent time in Pensacola, Fla., during a stint in the military. “I grew up on a farm,” she says. “I learned to cook soul food in the kitchen with my grandmother.”
Maye’s culinary career took her around the world to cook in some unusual venues, including on cruise ships, on an oil rig and at fish camps in Alaska. These experiences taught her to think on the fly. “On an oil rig, you can’t count on getting supplies, so you just make do with what you can find in the kitchen. And in Alaska, they eat every bit of the salmon — big 50-pounders that I had to learn how to clean and figure out how to do something with the eyeballs!”
“I’ve cooked just about every kind of food,” Maye says. “Thai, Middle Eastern, African, Italian, French, Jamaican and American. But since we only serve breakfast, brunch and lunch at Anzie Blue, people think I can only cook eggs. I feel like the underdog, but everybody loves an underdog!”
Competing alongside her Anzie Blue sous chef Emily Costa, Maye has simple expectations. “None but to win!” she vows. “Emily is also great at pastry, so we’re bringing an air fryer. I don’t care what the secret ingredient is. Gimme whatever, and I’ll do whatever I can with it.” She doesn’t rule out adding some CBD to her dish, one of the specialties of the food and drinks at Anzie Blue.
“I hope I get to go first or last, so that the judges will know that I’m the reason they start to feel really good about 20 minutes after tasting my dish!” CHRIS CHAMBERLAIN
Chris DeJesus may not have the professional competitive cooking experience of some of his Iron Fork competitors, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t ready to march into battle.
“My wife and I play Chopped every now and again,” DeJesus tells the Scene. “For dinner we’ll challenge each other to shop for each other at the grocery store, and we’ll do it by surprise and pick each other’s basket. Sometimes I’ll cook dessert, and she’s a pastry chef so sometimes she’ll have to cook savory stuff. It’s even more of a challenge in that respect. It’s pretty fun. It gets me a decent amount of practice.”
DeJesus has been the executive chef at Butcher & Bee for the past two years, and he says having to adapt to supply-chain issues during the pandemic has strengthened his ability to work on the fly. When one of the ingredients in Butcher & Bee’s famous whipped feta went missing, he had to get creative with his sourcing.
“We’ve been struggling to get cream cheese — spoiler alert, it’s one of the ingredients in the whipped feta,” he says with a laugh. “We’ve had to get it from different purveyors. We’ve had it in, like, 30-pound blocks. I’ve had to get Amazon to deliver it from Whole Foods. I had to order eight cases at a time, which means I’m carrying like 200 pounds of cream cheese on hand. I can’t run out of that whipped feta, ’cause there’d be riots in the street.”
Presenting a version of the whipped feta isn’t off the table — “That’d win everyone’s hearts, right?” But DeJesus probably won’t have to fall back on old favorites. His sous chef for the day is Butcher & Bee partner and Redheaded Stranger partner and chef Bryan Lee Weaver, and DeJesus is confident in his ability to get creative with a variety of different ingredients. So much so that he hasn’t bothered to get involved in much pregame trash talk.
“I’m not a huge trash talker,” he says. “I like to be silent and then let my work speak for itself. But I saw some trash talk from Star Maye over at Anzie Blue a little bit, and I’m down for that. I like a little friendly banter. We had some fun at the Scene offices when we were there for our meeting. But I’m more of a silent kind. I just like to stay quiet and hopefully things work out.” MEGAN SELING
If Iron Fork presented a Miss Congeniality award, Thai Esane owner/chef Nina Singto would win in a landslide. Her ebullient personality has made her a diners’ favorite ever since she first opened her first small Thai/Laotian restaurant on 12th Avenue, and she was raring to go as an Iron Fork competitor in 2020 before, well … you know what happened in 2020. While she waited for her chance to show off her chops, she opened two new outposts of Thai Esane — one in Brentwood and one downtown at 5th + Broadway to join her attractive and modern flagship location at the head of Demonbreun Hill.
Singto has plenty of experience in competition on television, including winning Guy’s Grocery Games and taking part in episodes of Bite Club and Chopped, where she was unfortunately stymied by the secret ingredient of Limburger cheese in her ingredient basket. (“We don’t use cheese in Thai cooking,” she laments. “The judges hated it, but have you seen how many cheese ramen dishes have come out since then? I was a trendsetter!”)
She’ll be cooking with her brother at this year’s Iron Fork, and they’re in it to win it. “I’m ready to bring my all,” Singto says. “I’ve done well on television, but I want to win at home. I want people to say, ‘Nina, you’re good!’ I’m going to bring my culinary style and be as creative as I can be.”
That style often includes blindingly spicy food. Longtime Thai Esane fans know the restaurant has a special “Nina Hot” level above the hottest normally offered, and she’ll do her best to hurt you with kindness if she knows you. The Iron Fork judges had better bring the Pepcid if Singto is feeling especially spicy that evening.
As for a secret ingredient she’d like to see at the competition, she’d love a fun vegetable. (“No dairy!” Singto adds.) “With meat, you can do anything. I’d rather see something like an exotic fruit. As long as I can pronounce it.”
In addition to her brother as sous chef, Nina’s secret weapons will be her favorite brand of oyster sauce and a mortar and pestle to grind up her spice blends. “Don’t bring me no Kikkoman,” she jokes. After her long wait to take the stage in the Iron Fork kitchen, Singto should provide some stiff competition. CHRIS CHAMBERLAIN
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