Sarah Gavigan: The Bold Career Shift Of Nashville-Based Chef And Restaurateur

It was akin to a movie where the adventure-seeking protagonist returns home after decades away only to discover the old neighborhood virtually unchanged. In 2010, Sarah Gavigan went back to her native Nashville after a 20-year stint as a Hollywood talent agent. Los Angeles had transformed Gavigan into a hardcore foodie with a powerful hankering for healthy, multiculti cuisine. So she was chagrined to find a Music City dining scene stuck in its Southern-fried ways, with menu options confined to sauce-smothered meats, larded side dishes and liberally sweetened desserts.

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“The culinary scene was just beginning to grow in this city,” Gavigan recalls. “There was nowhere you could go to get a really fresh meal and not leave feeling like your ship had just been sunk. There are Nashville restaurants that use Southern recipes that I love, but at the end of the day, it’s very heavy food. I really missed California-style food.”

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Another person might have written off her hometown as a dining wasteland, but Gavigan, and husband, Brad, viewed Nashville as an opportunity they would never have in pricey, restaurant-glutted Los Angeles. Today, the duo are proprietors of the growing hospitality group PopNashville. Initially conceived as a pop-up ramen spot, today PopNashville is headquarters to two permanent brick-and-mortar eateries: the Otaku Ramen and the Latin-inspired Little Octopus. To some, Gavigan’s scheme to bring coastal dining to Nashville—a city so bound by tradition—must have sounded foolhardy; her plan to build a restaurant empire off the reputation of a ramen shop downright ludicrous. It’s impulse to associate ramen with the cheap, packaged noodle dish consumed by hard-up college students and starving artists.

Decades in L.A. had given Gavigan the confidence to pull it off. An agent who represented cinematographers, indie record labels and publishers, she often used food to woo and keep clients. Cooking became so integral to her identity that she became a sort of ersatz restaurateur, maintaining kitchens in her private offices. “Entertaining became something that I was known for,” Gavigan says. “People really wanted to come to my dinner parties.”

Much like her enchanted Hollywood clients, Nashville diners have greeted Gavigan’s restaurants warmly, challenges notwithstanding. During Otaku Ramen’s pop-up phase, Gavigan learned that while people loved the concept, most didn’t understand it. “Even though 30 percent of our reviews were incredible, 70 percent were wildly confused,” she says.

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Gavigan decided to patiently let word-of-mouth do the talking. Acknowledging the importance of atmosphere to the dining experience, she chose light, airy restaurant décor that projected cozy, feel-good vibes. Her attention to detail extended to Otaku Ramen’s menu, which employs a pictorial style that helps customers visualize the restaurant’s foreign fare. “The space we built is definitely very light and bright,” Gavigan says. “We call it ‘loud, fast, fun’ hospitality.”

Fun, indeed. Otaku Ramen is a cheeky tribute to Nippon culture, from its noodle-intensive menu, to its Japanese name, which, roughly translated, means “obsessed by ramen.” Popular dishes include the Shoyu, which is served carnivore-style in a clear, soy sauce-enhanced chicken broth with pork belly, or vegetarian-style with mixed mushroom, cauliflower and radish. For those who enjoy a less-soupy ramen, there’s the Mazeman—a sort of Asiatic tribute to corn, featuring charred maize, pickled baby corn and hominy. The Tennessee Tonkotsu, with its cloudy pork-bone broth, pork confit and wood ear mushroom, is so satisfying, a reviewer for Bon Appetit magazine howled: “Ring the bell—I’m ready for another round.”

Just as Otaku Ramen represents Gavigan’s reverent take on an iconic Japanese dish, Little Octopus bears testament to her fanatical love of Caribbean food. The 100-seat Little Octopus boasts a menu divided into sections for “raw,” “cool” and “warm” dishes. Gavigan covers a spectrum of Caribbean/Latin foods—from the Peruvian-inspired shrimp ceviche seasoned with mango, passionfruit and jalapeño, to the Cuban avocado salad with sour orange, crispy shallot and scallion ash, and the Mexican-influenced yucca with roasted garlic sauce.

If there is a common thread linking Little Octopus and Otaku Ramen, it’s that both restaurants embody Gavigan’s fascination with food and its history. “I love discovering how everything ties together,” she says. “For example, people think ramen is an ancient food, but it’s actually a post-World War II dish invented by Chinese immigrants coming into Japan. In the Caribbean, there’s a whole subset of Indian food that exists, because 100,000-plus Indians have lived in Trinidad and Tobago for centuries. I love exploring that collision of culture.”

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An only child born and raised in Columbia, Tennessee, about an hour south of Nashville, Gavigan‘s father worked as a mechanical/chemical engineer while her mother was a homemaker. Though she describes her childhood as “the typical Norman Rockwell upbringing,” it was an experience in Los Angeles that set her on the road to becoming a restaurateur. During a debilitating bout of homesickness, Gavigan phoned her Sicilian grandmother in Tennessee to get her manicotti recipe. “I served it to my friends, and they were so happy that their eyes were rolling back in their heads,” Gavigan recalls. “It really resonated with me. After that, I was constantly cooking.”

Now, having helped diversify the Nashville dining scene, Gavigan is coping with an unforeseen consequence of her success—competition. Her PopNashville restaurants have helped spawn an explosion of contemporary, multicultural Music City eateries. “The city is doubling the amount of restaurants, so the entire culture is getting ready to change,” she says.

Read this delicious heirloom tomato salad recipe Gavigan shared with us.

This story originally appeared in ALIVE Issue 6, 2017. Purchase Issue 6 and become an ALIVE subscriber.

Photography by Attilio D’Agostino.

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