A friend once said to Ford Fry, “Interesting always trumps delicious.” Indeed, the five-time James Beard Foundation semifinalist, chef-owner of Atlanta staples Jct. Kitchen, Marcel, and King + Duke, and forthcoming cookbook author, will always stay true to the straightforward food that catapulted his culinary career. Fry wants to take guests outside of their everyday lives by transporting them to a carefree, vacation-like space—something that resonates with Nashville in these landlocked foothills.

The wickedly funny chef, who brims over with wisdom about his industry, lets location dictate his concepts. His first Nashville dining and drinking hub, in Germantown’s Hammer Mill neighborhood, insists that guests bounce around in one building. In Fry’s envelope-pushing sphere, they can choose the seafood-centric The Optimist, cocktail and raw oyster bar Le Loup, and Star Rover— Fry’s casual, come-as-you-are spin on the classic honky-tonk. Fry hopes to integrate himself into the community and see customers returning with Executive chef Ryder Zetts and Beverage Director Tracy Ardoin-Jenkins.

In a city that desperately needs unification among the transplants and natives, Fry’s concept pays tribute to the original honkey-tonks, while welcoming the refined, modern feel of a blooming city. In our seemingly ever-growing town, it will be nice to see some stylish, thoughtful dining welcoming our neighbors.


TNE: Can you tell us a bit about how the King of Atlanta was made?

FF: (Laughs) When I was growing up, chefs were big, crass dudes with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths. Not cool at all. Still, I always wanted to work in the restaurant industry yet couldn’t serve because of the stress or bus tables because I ate all of the leftover food. After bouncing around between several colleges, my dad suggested culinary school. Once I got there, I realized that I really loved cooking and creating experiences. I would do this for free.


TNE: Aside from a celebrity chef, you’re also an industry thought leader. Your website reads “I love finding talent in the region and putting these people in an environment where they can learn and grow.”

FF: Thank you. When we opened Jct., I became less interested in being the chef who stood in the limelight more so in selecting talent and giving them a stake in the game. I like to get a restaurant going, hand it over to the chef-owner and move on to the next thing.


TNE: After expanding to Houston and Charlotte, why choose Nashville?

FF: This is a down-to-earth town yet one that also appreciates new and unique. My goal is to figure out what the city wants. A good example of this is Star Rover, which came about after I met with music industry folks who said, “We need another listening room.” My hope is that Star Rover can be a fun party place and help the industry. While it is nerve-wracking to enter any new culinary market, I want to imbed my concepts as local establishments, rather than commercial ventures.

“This is a down-to-earth town yet one that also appreciates new and unique. My goal is to figure out what the city wants.”


TNE: Speaking of unique, what will the vibe be like?

FF: While the Optimist in Atlanta has a Hampton’s feel, this version, housed in a renovated hammer mill, is moody like the rainy fishing village of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Inside there will be leather banquets and a curvy bar with a dramatic, glass panel backdrop that leads up to Le Loup on the second story. There will also be an outdoor area, satellite specialty bar, and a vine-wrapped secret patio.


TNE: Upscale drama, I like it. How much of a role do you play in the aesthetics portion of your concepts?

FF: I am always the creative liaison between the designer and development crew. I’ll give them my vision board of how I want the space to speak and then let them run wild with it. The goal is to always work with the architecture and innate qualities, like Star Rover whose vintage recording studio we retained.


TNE: Definitely a fitting concept for Nashville’s music roots. How did you select your culinary and beverage partners?

FF: Tracy came recommended from the locals, as did the bartender who will be running Le Loup’s cocktail program, a native Nashvillian who has worked the scene in New York the last few years. Ryder, my executive chef, who spent the last few years living in Thailand, is opinionated in terms of flavor combinations, has a lighter, California feel to his food. I select collaborators who I like to talk, dine, and travel with.


TNE: That is the perfect segue to my next question—can you explain your passion for servant leadership?

FF: I enjoy playing a part in other people’s growth. My hope is that the chefs who work for me eventually leave to realize their own dreams. Rather than dictate, I want to educate, set up a proper foundation, and lend support so they can run the restaurant like an owner. If you treat people like an asset, rather than a tool, they will approach their teams with the same mentality. Everything is cyclical.


TNE: What are your favorite places to hang when you’re in Nashville?

FF: Dino’s is always a good time, Rolf and Daughters is where I dine nearly every time I’m in town. 3rd & Lindsley is my favorite live-music venue, where I have heard everything from a Toto tribute band to The Time Jumpers, led by Vince Gill.

Mussles Ford Fry copy
Nantucket Bay Scallops | The Optimist Photo credit: Andrew Thomas Lee
  • 1 ea. grapefruit
  • 1 ea. lemon
  • 1 ea. orange
  • 1 ea. lime
  • 1 ea garlic clove, microplaned
  • 1 T annato seeds
  • 1 T champagne vinegar
  • 1 ea. serrano chili
  • 1 t salt


  • 1 kumquat
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 cup champagne vinegar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 T coriander seeds
  • 2 ea. bay leaves
  • 1 t chili flakes
  • 1 cup pitted Nicoise olives
  • 2 sprigs of fresh mint


The day before serving, place the black olives on a sheet tray, turn oven to the lowest setting and dry overnight.

For the agua chile, microplane the zest off of the citrus fruit into a bowl. Juice the citrus and combine with the vinegar, salt and thinly sliced serrano chili. In a spice grinder, puree the annato seed and add to the juices.

To prepare the kumquats, slice in half crosswise and place in a pot. Cover with cold water and bring to a boil, then discard the water and do this process two more times. Place the remaining ingredients in the pot and simmer the kumquats for twenty minutes. Cool in the liquid.

To serve, place the scallops on a chilled plate and then sprinkle with sea salt. Next, ladle some agua chile on the plate and garnish with, kumquats, olives and fresh mint. Lastly, dish out and enjoy.