By Joey Amato
The first thing you need to know about Erica Rains, besides the fact that she is one of the LGBT+ community’s biggest allies, is that she loves sparkles. If her life was a Dr. Seuss story, it would read: sparkles here, sparkles there, I see sparkles everywhere!
Rains along with her husband Chris are the owners of The Chef & I, an incredible restaurant located in the Gulch, which began in Lenox Village. The original restaurant hosted numerous LGBT+ events including Nashville LGBT Chamber of Commerce mixers and Dining Out for Life brunches among others. She also recently introduced a monthly event at the Chef & I called Sparkle Hour and welcomes everyone in the LGBT+ community to attend the most colorful happy hour in Music City.
I had the opportunity to speak with Rains about the history of her restaurant, its future and her love for the LGBT+ community.
When you first opened The Chef & I in Lenox Village, did you ever think you would have one of the most successful restaurants in The Gulch?
When we opened The Chef and I in Lenox Village, we were already five years in with our catering division. It was a dream come true for us to build a brick and mortar location solely from the success of the catering company. We started to get in the habit of believing seemingly impossible things for our company, so when we hit a home run in the Gulch, it felt like another dream being realized. I always knew if the world could just be exposed to Chris’s cooking, and our concept, they would love it. The Gulch is the perfect platform for us to really be in front of many locals and visitors!
What makes The Chef & I unique?
The Chef and I is unique because of our immersive experience that we pair with approachable gourmet food. Our kitchen is one of the only completely open kitchens in the area (there is no back kitchen, guests see the whole story unfold right in front of them) and the chefs interact with guests as they are navigating a rush, cooking for a full house, and simultaneously educating folks about what they are doing, or just having a fun dialogue with customers. All of the chefs are known for their ability to ‘perform’ and always be ‘on’ for the guests. They have the ability to embrace all that happens in the kitchen in front of a constant audience. The tasting menus are quite unique as well, and have featured everything from elk to octopus to mako shark.
The menu at the restaurant changes on a regular basis…do you consider that a strength or a challenge? And why?
The menu changes four times a year, each season, and guests love that Chef Chris and his team do this to source locally and for what’s in season. There is a separate chef’s tasting that guests can order with five or seven courses, and that changes constantly. We find it is a strength because our regular lunch, brunch, dinner and small plates menus only change seasonally, but for folks that like more variety, they have the option to have a different experience every time they come in with the tasting. We also offer a wine pairing that goes with the tastings to really have fun with different flavor profiles.
What are some of the LGBT organizations you have given back to over the past few years?
We loved our work with Pride over the years and I personally have enjoyed volunteering at the VIP tent at the event. A few years ago we were awarded the Pride Ally Award and were so honored to be recognized by our peers in such a special way. I also worked with Nashville Cares on their Avant Garde event for several years and we loved being a culinary partner. I have been busy getting our new event venue open this year, but I am excited to get more involved in the Nashville LGBT Chamber, of which I love being a member and have previously helped with events and membership.
You just opened Backstage…please tell me about that concept. What can people expect that may be different from your front of house restaurant?
The Chef and I Backstage is a culinary event venue located on the same property as our restaurant in the Gulch at 611 9th Ave. S., Nashville TN 37203. This is available for private events like rehearsal dinners, engagement parties, bridal and grooms’ showers, corporate meetings and lunches, special dinners and more. It is wired for presentations with two 70 inch flat screens and microphones available though the audio system. The hall of mirrors that leads you into the main space uses light and reflective surfaces to make for an unforgettable entrance. Once in the main area, you’ll see space for up to 70 folks seated. In addition to being available for clients to use for their own events, we also are creating immersive culinary experiences that folks can buy tickets to. We will soon announce an incredible ticketed event that will run for a few months, and will be a can’t miss experience in Nashville. We’ll have cooking classes as well and that schedule will come out this summer.
What is your goal for the next 12-24 months?
We have been in an aggressive growth stage for about three years, and for the first time we are giving ourselves a moment to come up for air. Over the next 12-24 months, we’ll be perfecting processes, providing additional training for our staff, creating fun events for the public, and continuing to improve and evolve for the customer experience in the restaurant and in the event venue. We are excited about our ‘dream team’, who we refer to as our Chef and I family. This team is incredible, and we couldn’t be more proud of the folks that have chosen to build their careers with us. Personally, I mentor people starting their own businesses, and I am also a mentor for TN Achieves, the program that helps high school students navigate the process of the college application using the TN Promise. I will be mentoring our own staff and helping each person to realize their passion and develop their skill sets so they are living a happy vibrant life and are loving their job too!
Personally, I have been speaking more, and was honored to be the keynote speaker last semester at MTSU for Global Entrepreneurship Week. I’d love to get my master’s and teach at the college level in the entrepreneurship, business and marketing realms. As a former radio personality, I am also doing some exploratory work on a future podcast. Additionally, Chris and I are writing a cookbook and are just taking our time and having fun with it!
What are some of the challenges you expect to face in the near future and how do you plan on overcoming these challenges?
As is the norm right now in Nashville, there is a labor shortage, especially in the hospitality industry. I mentioned our ‘dream team’, and we hope that we can retain all of them. We are experiencing the lowest turnover in the history of our company right now, and I think that is due to our focus on our employees. As a small business, it was a huge win for us when we were able to provide a 401k for every employee, full or part time. We are now exploring other benefits, and I’m partnering with folks who can help in the arena of self-care for employees too. We try to do something fun each quarter with the whole team as well. We’ve rented pontoon boats and this past winter we shut down the company and took the whole staff to see Bohemian Rhapsody together. I think continuing to acknowledge that our team is out best asset and keeping the focus on their well-being and career progression will definitely help keep folks on our team because they want to be there, not just because it’s a job. We feel very lucky, you guys need to come meet everyone!
If our readers have not visited your restaurant, what can they expect to see, hear, taste?
When you walk in to our restaurant, you instantly feel our ‘gourmet meets rock n’ roll’ vibe. The dress is casual, but the food is gourmet. Come as you are, or come dressed up before a night on the town – all are welcome and many different demographics enjoy our experiencing. There are high tops and a couple of low top tables in the restaurant as well, and you are also welcome to sit at the bar. Our bartenders are incredible, and they’ve all helped us come up with our fun cocktails named after rock stars, lyrics, and songs. If you desire, you can sit at the show kitchen (reservations are strongly recommended for this, and just select ‘counter’ in your Open Table reservation if you want the show kitchen.) Here, you will be face to face with a number of chefs cooking your food and everyone else’s in the restaurant. This is the immersive experience, where you are seeing everything happen in front of you. It’s also a great way of knowing just how fresh the food is, and how every element is completely chef-made. Some folks are on a date, doing an entire tasting experience at the show kitchen, and some folks have just popped in for a few small plates and a drink at the bar. People have lunch meetings at th the high tops often, and Saturday and Sunday brunch with bottomless mimosas are fabulous!
How have you made a husband/wife business work all these years?
Chris and I have very different jobs, so we don’t really step on each others toes. I am over sales, marketing, public relations, and do work within the operations and human resources arenas. I am focused as well on strategic development and community involvement as well as creating events. Chris is in charge of the entire culinary program, the restaurant itself, and works within operations and financial departments too. We make all big decisions together, and we have had a lot of practice with presenting different opinions without arguing. The first few years of our business, there was no sleep. We just become that much closer because we pulled through something that seemed impossible…together.
What are your passions outside of the restaurant?
I was a radio and tv personality for some of my career. I loved being on the air and interviewing folks about everything from music to non-profits. I was on 25 stations in three markets over 17 years. I did everything from oldies to talk radio, but my niche really has been classic rock. I was raised on that music, and it is the soundtrack to my life. Because I’m a native Nashvillian, I don’t talk much about singing…because everyone sings! But I’ve always been a singer and fronted a 70’s and 80’s cover band on the Gulf Coast in the early to mid 2000’s. I loved it. I have always acted and sang – musicals are my favorite! I did a ton of theater in school and then community theater after, and I really miss it! I’ve been toying with starting a band again with other 40-somethings. I am also an equestrian and have been riding since the age of 4. I competed and rode hunter/jumpers until college, and then chose to focus on that and my career. I am looking forward to getting more into dressage and having a horse again in a few years. Chris and I also love to travel. I’m a big fan of spending your money on experiences, not things. We have had so many wonderful adventures and have a bucket list of many more! I also love motivational speaking – the positive energy in a room of folks that are there to be inspired is beyond words. I have also emceed events for years and love getting a crowd excited about the show or event! I guess having an audience in some capacity is my comfort zone. The more, the better! My motto personally and for The Chef and I is: “life is short…might as well be delicious!”