A few weeks ago, I spent a glorious long weekend exploring one of America’s fastest growing cities – Nashville, Tennessee. My expectations for Nashville’s eateries were pretty high. I dreamed of hot chicken, delicious, fall-off-the-bone BBQ… you know the southern comfort food we’re all shown on television and in guide books. But when entering Bar Otaku, all my culinary expectations of what Nashville had to offer shifted.
There are restaurants that make an impact on you as a guest from the moment you walk in their doors. Bar Otaku was one of those places for me. Every detail of the place was deliciously detailed in traditional Japanese izakaya touches with a serious southern flair. No stone was left unturned. And the menu? It left me floored.
Needless to say, it didn’t take me long to become obsessed with Bar Otaku. After meeting chef Sarah Gavigan and learning about her love and devotion to Japanese cooking, her devotion to Nashville and her incredible story… I knew I had to share it with all of you. Today, I’m so thrilled to be able to introduce her story and a little sample of what Bar Otaku has to offer.
Hi Sarah! Could you tell us the story of Bar Otaku’s beginnings in Nashville?
I was ready to expand the Otaku brand (originally a ramen shop) and the space was perfect for it. We had a concept we were ready to move on from and the opportunity presented itself in a flash. We jumped on it!
Awesome. What is your personal connection to Japanese cooking?
I lived in Los Angeles for nearly 20 years and in that time I spent 90% of my time eating in the Japanese neighborhood Izakaya’s and Ramen Shops. I fell in love with the food and the spirit of the dining experiences.
Have you visited Japan before? Do you have any memories you’d like to share?
I traveled to Japan for the first time in 2013 with my husband and then 10 year old. We were mesmerized in every sense. The sheer size of it, but yet the intimacy of the dining experiences is what I loved the most.
I love the respect paid in a Ramen Shop to the dish and the Chef. The Japanese understand that ramen is one person, one bowl. It’s not a social event. I love that. Izakaya, conversely, is all about being with friends.
What do you love the most about Japanese izakaya style restaurants?
Eat, Drink, Laugh….repeat. It’s about simple delicious food, great sake and a warm convivial space that makes you want to cut loose and have some laughs.
Bar Otaku’s menu combines southern USA and Japanese classic dishes. What inspired you to create Japanese Soul Food?
My love of the food and the experience itself was sorely missing from my life in Nashville.
I’ve got to ask! What dish do you love the most on Bar Otaku’s menu?
The Taco Rice. Its a funny dish and it satisfies just about anytime. The origins of the dish is Tack King In Okinawa Japan, where a local owner wanted to make a dish that made the U.S Servicemen and women feel at home. Take your 1970’s Ortega Taco dinner (which I had a lot growing up) and the rice of Japan and you have the best taco salad ever. Who doesn’t like Taco salad? My touch was the pimento cheese!
What culinary experiences have you had that have shaped the way you cook?
I cook for flavor. I live for Umami and my dishes are always aimed at achieving that intensity.
Delicious. So, what similarities do you see between Nashville and Japan?
Nashville and Central Tokyo are on the same latitude. When I made that discovery I began to look around me and see that many of this vegetation was the same. My mother’s Japanese maple is tremendous. The Japanese love okra as much as Southerners. The list goes on and on!
Could you tell us about your experience as a woman working in the restaurant industry?
I have a mothers intuition and the agility of a cat. I use it to my advantage. I lean into being a women; I don’t fight it.
How do you think travel can inspire cooking?
Simply getting out of my everyday surroundings helps me to be creative.
What would you say is the most meaningful aspect of what you do?
Connecting with people and giving them memories. Nothing beats that part of the job for me.