Chef Chris Rains met his wife, Erica, 10 years ago. Shortly after, they founded The Chef & I. What started as a private chef service grew into a large-scale catering division, and within five years, the two opened their first restaurant in Lenox Village. They've recently opened their second Chef & I location in the Gulch. CEO Erica Rains shares their story.
Your website says, “When you meet them, ask them to share their story. It's one for the books...” So, tell us your story!
The Chef & I is a love story. Eleven years ago, Chris and I met on eHarmony. We were each other’s second chance at love. We talked on the phone like teenagers for a week and then met in person at a Titans game. When I saw him, I knew and ran to him and jumped in his arms. I’m still there, in his arms, in love.
At the time, Chris was the executive chef for Levy Restaurants at the Sommet Center, feeding everyone in hockey from the players to the fans …as well as a host of stars who performed at what is now Bridgestone Arena. On my end, education and a career in media/marketing/business helped create what would become the perfect team: The Chef & I! We grew from doing one to two events in a month to doing 400 off-site events in 2017. We built our catering business, which opened in April 2008, mere months after we met and fell in love. We just knew and never looked back and never gave up.
In 2012, we had grown enough to be able to build a restaurant and did so in Lenox Village near Brentwood. Five years later, we opened the Gulch location. We still share our story of love and our journey with patrons as they eat and laugh, and it makes our hearts happy. We love our team, our restaurant customers, our catering and team-building clients, and our supporters and partners. All of those people together make a huge family, one we feel very lucky to just be part of.
What do you think sets The Chef & I apart from other trendy Nashville restaurants?
While an "open kitchen" theme is a fun feature you’ll find in many restaurants, ours is actually one of the only "fully transparent" kitchens. It all completely happens right in front of the patrons, and what’s more, it's interactive. People watch as the kitchen team navigates a rush, tackles a challenge and creates a solution, serves a full house on a busy night and more. It becomes a study of communication in a culinary environment. I find it fascinating!
Chefs interact with guests who are sitting in front of them, sharing what they are doing and why, chatting about ingredients, and providing suggestions for creating similar dishes in their own homes. Some folks have likened it to a live cooking class or a cooking show that they are part of. Ask to sit at the show kitchen and become part of the story!
Nashville has definitely experienced a culinary boom in the last few years. Do you ever worry about saturation?
We’ve dealt with saturation for a while now. With market saturation comes labor shortages, and for us, we’re committed to creating a company culture that feels good to all of us. We’ve recently added a 401(k), which is a huge accomplishment for a small business. With about 40 employees, I love working with them to maximize their talents, identify skills they could develop within our company, and help them grow in their careers. In my mind, if we work as hard as we can every day, with the level of culinary talent we have, and we operate honestly and genuinely while putting our team first, we will survive market saturation. Plus, doing business like this feels so good to all involved. Our work with partners, vendors, clients and nonprofits has created a wealth of wonderful friends over the years, which means we get to work with our friends every day. What a gift!
What’s your favorite dish on the menu, and does your husband make it at home too?
I am an ocean girl, and Chris is a Seattle boy. His salmon has spoiled me completely. It is the best in the world! His ability to work with seabass, grouper and even more unique dishes, including octopus and mako shark, is uncanny. His shrimp and grits dish is another one that will spoil you; be careful! We don’t get a chance to cook at home often, but let’s just say when we do, he does the cooking and I gladly do the cleaning. We love being at home and just creating dishes on the fly" with what we’ve got. I think cooking together is such a fun and healthy way for couples to spend time together!
What do you and Chris do to relax away from the restaurant biz?
As the owners, we rarely ever get all the way away from the business. But we love it, so it doesn’t always feel like work. We do try to take little trips every month or two and a big one or two a year if we can. We love being near the ocean, whether it’s the gorgeous Pacific Northwest where he grew up or my "other home" on the Gulf Coast. We enjoy trying cuisine in other cities and meeting the chefs and teams that make up other culinary landscapes. I am a big supporter of remembering self-care and recharging one’s batteries. To us, the less running around we do on a vacation, the better (unless we are in Vegas!) We love life and enjoy every moment. Life is short; it might as well be delicious!