Before Nashville was filled with cocktail bars, award-winning restaurants and hipster-friendly coffee shops, Deb Paquette was on the culinary scene as the first woman in Tennessee to qualify as a certified executive chef. Three decades later, she’s still there, helming the kitchen at her restaurants,Etch andetc., and mentoring a cadre of chefs along the way.
Her love of ingredients, both in food and cocktails, is evident, as is her love of travel, apparent in her globally inspired menu (and dream of living on a tropical island). Paquette talks about finding a way to squeeze citrus into anything, her growing bourbon collection and what she looks for in a bartender.
Paquette thinks grapefruit mixes well with any spirit.
What’s your cocktail of choice?
I’m a big grapefruit juice fan—I’m from South Florida; I love it. I’ll drink something with vodka or tequila with grapefruit … and I’ll usually water it down with a little soda water. I’m not big on mezcal; it’s too smoky and doesn’t go well with grapefruit juice. [Laughs]
Has food inspired a cocktail for you? Or has a cocktail ever inspired a dish you created?
Yes! There are so many liqueurs and flavoring agents—I’ve used a lot of them in salad dressings, like artichoke liqueur [Cynar]. My mind will kind of expand with wondering how I can use all of these in food. We try to create chef-inspired cocktails, using ingredients we use in the food department, in the bar department. Like, at one restaurant, we make a Moroccan harissa cranberry simple syrup that we serve with bourbon in a cocktail. That idea comes from making harissa cranberries to garnish our food; we use the reduction in the simple syrup, and the drink is reallygood. It’s hot, spicy and fruity.
You’ve opened restaurants over the past 30 years. What’s changed the most?
Restaurants all have bar programs. Before, it used to be an afterthought. Now it’s not just a cocktail list, it’s also having a bourbon menu. We have a lot more choices; we have wine from around the world.… I don’t know where I’d be without Google. There’s so much to choose from, and you can’t have it all, so you research.
At my house, we have like 40 bourbons, and a few years ago, I didn’t even drink bourbon! [My husband and I] have both become bourbon drinkers. We do it for the art of the bourbon, so we know what we like.… We’re learning.
Paquette likes Angel’s Envy and W.L. Weller 12-year-old when going for bourbon.
Are you a bourbon snob? Any favorites?
I likeW.L. Weller 12-year-old andAngel’s Envy. I even drink grapefruit and bourbon. I’m not a bourbon snob, but I’m a grapefruit snob. [Laughs] It has to be fresh-squeezed, and it must be ruby red.
Nashville has clearly exploded as a food city, but how has it changed as a drinking city? Has the cocktail scene caught up to the food scene?
It has incredibly changed. There’s a place here calledThe Patterson House, and they really drove in the cocktail scene. Now there isn’t a restaurant in town that doesn’t have a cocktail list with eight to 12 specialty drinks that play off the food.
The bar at etc.
What do you look for in a bartender, both as a patron and when you’re hiring someone?
They have to have a sense of humor; they have to be able to lay a few jokes out. They need to be accommodating but not overwhelming. And they know their environment, like, “Where’s the nearest sushi place? Where’s the nearest pool hall?” I look at them for a source of information, not just what to drink but where to go out. And [I look for] a nice-sounding voice. Bartenders are out there in front of the public, sometimes, with more conversation than the waiter is.
Where do you go out to drink in Nashville?
I live pretty far away from work, so I usually go home, but if I go out, it’s to a restaurant so I can say hi and have a bite to eat too. I like to go toPinewood SocialandCity House, and I like a place called The Filling Station by my house. I don’t go out a lot though. … When you’re my age, you need your sleep. [Laughs]
A seasonal cocktail at etc. made with vodka, beet juice, spicy ginger beer and lemon juice
No honky-tonk-ing for you?
Been there, done that. But if I go, I’ll probably play it safe with vodka and water in those places.
So where’s your ideal place to drink?
One of my favorite bars is in the Bahamas. You stay in these guest houses, and they have everything you could possibly want: all kinds of juices, liqueurs and alcohol, like 200 bottles of stuff. You just go in, make the drinks yourself and write down what you used, and they charge you accordingly.
The Patterson House (image: CocktailWonk)
A bar on the honor system? Amazing! Maybe when you retire, you can trade in your chef’s coat for a bartender’s apron?
[Laughs]. As long as there’s a Tiki hut on the beach, that’s where I’ll be.
Paquette’s favorite drink, the Redheaded Chef (silver tequila, grapefruit juice, lime juice, agave syrup, a splash of sauvignon blanc and a garnish of cilantro and a pinch of salt), is a nod to her haircolor and love of grapefruit and is served atEtch.