For years prolific restauranteur Elizabeth Blau has visited the vibrant town of Nashville, Tenn., and now she has even more reason to be there.
Through her company, Blau + Associates, which she runs with her husband, Kim Canteenwalla, out of Las Vegas, Blau is taking over the three dining concepts inside the new 13-story Conrad Nashville. It is set to open in May and is overseen by chef Dwayne Edwards, who was the executive chef at multiple Ritz-Carlton hotel locations, and Jean-Christophe Le Varrat, formally of the Beverly Hills Hotel Casa del Mar and Shutters on the Beach hotel in Santa Monica, Calif.
The property will feature Blue Aster, The Lounge at Blue Aster and Thistle & Rye. The first of the trio will be the hotel's main dining spot and will showcase an American seafood menu laced with a bit of Southern charm. The restaurant will serve three meals a day, as well as brunch on the weekend. The Lounge will feature small plates, cocktails, wine and, in the afternoon, British-style tea service. Thistle & Rye is where the Nashville party side happens. This spot is on the third floor and features an outdoor patio that will be equipped with live music, a walk-up bar and street food with an international twist. Blau + Associates will also provide all event catering and room service for the Conrad.
While it's not the first time the company has taken on a hotel, or even a Tennessee property, it's the first Nashville hotel Blau + Associates has had full reign of, with multiple dining spots.
In this interview with Restaurant Hospitality, Blau discusses why she picked Nashville, what it's like opening in the South, and the art of building multiple concepts in one space.
Why have you decided to branch out to Nashville?
We decided to branch out because we love Nashville. We have family in the city, so we have been visiting for many years. Kim and I met in Biloxi, [Miss.], so we love the South, its traditions and cuisine. We have done a couple projects there before. About 12 years ago I worked with Loews Hotels, one of the first luxury properties in Nashville. We also worked on some planning on the Virgin Hotels Nashville.
What do you love about Music City?
The thing is, many people think about southern food as barbecue, but really it has got such a vibrant culinary scene. Some of the best bakeries in the country are there, and Dozen Bakery [in Nashville] is famous. Then City House is such an incredible restaurant. Overall, there is such an amazing food scene.
I remember my first time driving from Franklin [Tenn., a suburb of Nashville]. Now, I am from New England, but living in the desert so long, these rolling hills on the drive reminded me of home. It's so green and beautiful, and surrounded by eight states and farms and agriculture. I said, "I could live here." It's just this great melting pot of great southern culture.
What traditions and food from Nashville speak to you?
I think it's more about the culinary items. Like, I could do a whole restaurant centered around biscuits and using the right flour and the right butter. With our Honey Salt restaurant in Las Vegas, we have a fried chicken sandwich called the Biloxi. There are so many traditions here that fit into how we indulge. Like the desserts. I appreciate the French and Italian desserts, but give me a good pie or cake. With the Conrad we are getting to play around in that arena, for example with the afternoon tea. We are going to incorporate British traditions, but with that Southern charm.
How is opening in Nashville different than Las Vegas?
I think there are a lot more similarities than differences to opening restaurants in Nashville versus Las Vegas. Nashville has seen tremendous growth in its tourism sector over the last few years. Like Las Vegas, Nashville is also considered a city to relax and have fun. I think the main difference is Nashville’s incredible music scene, which we certainly hope to take advantage of.
What are the benefits and challenges to opening multiple concepts in one space?
We have an amazing team [at the Conrad] with chef Dwayne Edwards leading the helm of our culinary operations and Jean-Christophe “JC” Le Varrat leading overall food-and-beverage operations. It's more work and taxing, but running multiple concepts in one space allows you to bring a greater degree of talent.
Another benefit is your purchasing power. That's how the big chains do it, and when you're a small restaurant, you're on an island. But with the hotel and multiple concepts, you can buy in bulk. For example, wine. They might want you to take 10 cases, and if you are one restaurant it's too much. But if you can sell it to room service and events, it's very different.
You talk about your amazing team, what makes a great team?
In our company we are expanding, but it is still small in size. We are a husband-and-wife team and still family oriented. There's isn't a dividing line between work and home life. We socialize with our teams, we travel together, and most of our executive team has filtered through our house in Cape Cod in the summer. I think it's become very personal as we grow and add on to our team.
Not only do we look for people that have the résumé, but also buy into our culture and work really hard in the restaurant industry — people who are like-minded and passionate about work and food and their family. Also, those who feel that social responsibility. Being a mom, a CEO, and running restaurants, well, family is important. We want to create that balance. So much talk in the industry has been about mental health and wellness, and it's something we try and live by and instill that in our operations.
What draws you into opening restaurants in hotels?
We have a great relation with Hilton, and the Conrad brand [which is part of Hilton] is truly exceptional. So, it’s a great partnership. You have a built-in client base in the hotel and in the Broad West development [a 1.2-million-square-foot, mixed-use space in the city that houses the 237-room Conrad Hotel]. And the space helps form a relationship with the Nashville community.
How does this hotel help form a bond with the Nashville community?
The Las Vegas industry is one of our main supporters, so making sure that was where we were rooted is important. But one way we form this bond is through philanthropy and the fight against hunger. This means getting involved in charities in Nashville. We are already doing events. We are passionate about the support for children. That's how you tie into the community, bringing your commitments and philosophies and encouraging your team in supporting community efforts. There are some great organizations in Nashville fighting hunger and food insecurity.
Sounds like you're really committed already.
This is exactly what we did with our restaurants in Vancouver. You get into a place in your career, and you have people like José Andrés [who is running the aid organization World Central Kitchen] who doesn't just open a restaurant, he gets on a plane to feed people in Ukraine. My husband and I have a firm commitment to the responsibility of the people in our own backyards, to people facing food insecurity. We partnered with Delivering with Dignity [a Las Vegas non-profit that brings home-cooked meals to locals who need it] and we are almost at 600,000 meals being delivered to the community. Chef Andrés has set a bar for all of us.