Chef Josh Habiger: The Last Bastion of Cooking as Care
There are few things more intimate than making someone a perfect plate of food and serving it to them personally.
In an age of fast-food automation and hyper-processed ingredients, the inverse to that scene can be a little disappointing sometimes. But if you’re willing to drive out past the train tracks to a tucked-away restaurant in a warehouse-flanked corner of Nashville, you can find that feeling again—at the hands of chef Josh Habiger.
Habiger’s innovative 24-seat restaurant, Bastion, is quite literally a bastion of the ancient tradition of cooking as care. You don’t exactly order a meal there: Instead, you select a personalized range of flavors from a mysterious bingo card of a menu and watch as the chefs craft five courses specifically for you. You aren’t served by a server; the chef themself delivers your feast. And if that chef is someone with as fascinating and unconventional a culinary education as Habiger, shortening the distance between the kitchen and the plate can transform a simple act of table service into a once-in-a-lifetime meal.
We spoke with Habiger about his intimate approach to cuisine and how a job in a small-town diner launched him on the path to becoming one of Nashville’s most beloved chefs.
ALIVE: Tell us how you fell in love with cooking.
I grew up in an incredibly small town called St. Joseph, Minnesota, which is directly in the middle of the state. I worked at a diner called Kay’s Kitchen when I was a kid, and it was one of the only real restaurants in town. When I was born, my mom worked at the same little diner. Fifteen years later, I was doing dishes there, interacting with a ragtag bunch of regulars and a few truckers that stopped through town.
That early experience informed a lot of what we ultimately did with Bastion. I grew up a quiet, shy kid, but there was something I liked about making a plate of food and then walking it to the counter and seeing how people reacted to what they ate.
ALIVE: That was just the start of an unconventional gastronomic education for you. You spent time in your early 20s working for free at a three-starred Michelin restaurant outside London, and a few seasons working on a fishing boat in Alaska. You even gave up cooking for a while to be a bartender, right?
That’s actually what brought me to Nashville. I was about 29 by that point, and I’d met some guys who had been consulting on a bar called the Violet Hour in Chicago. I had developed this interest in cocktails, even though I didn’t really, uh, know how to make cocktails. [Laughs]. But I thought, ‘Hey, I’m a chef. I can make things. I can follow recipes.’ I saw these people using alcohol in the same way that a chef uses food—caring about how long it’s been since they juiced the juice, how fresh are the fruits they use to make their syrups, just using care and finesse to make something tasty. I figured, ‘Man, that sounds like being a chef, but more fun.’
That’s what brought me to Nashville; those guys helped bring me onto the team that opened the Patterson House. I loved it. As a bartender, you really care about all the details. You care about the ice that goes into the glass. You care about the water that made the ice. I think when you hand somebody something that you’re excited about, you transfer that bit of excitement before they even taste the drink. Then you watch them taste it, and they may be blown away by it.
ALIVE: Tell me about how you recreate that interaction in your work at Bastion.
Everything at Bastion is a little different than what people expect, really from the moment you first make your reservation. It’s a 24-seat restaurant, and we’ll seat anything from a single diner to a six top, but nothing more. So people call up and say, “I have an eight-top, and I want to come in.” And we have to say, well, we can’t, because we’re different. We want to do a few things up front that encourage people to let us take control.
So once you’re in, we give you a menu, and we tell you to build your own five-course meal by choosing one from each row on the card. Each menu item is just two ingredients with a plus sign between them; we might not tell you if those ingredients are part of a soup, or a salad, or something else completely. That’s intentional. We want you to think about whether these flavors jump out at you. Does the idea of these two things together compel you? If not, skip it. If so, make it a part of your meal.
ALIVE: The style of service is also unusual. Bastion doesn’t have a traditional front-of-house staff; the chefs actually handle their own food-running. What’s the advantage of that approach?
I think having all the cooks in the kitchen be the front-facing personalities of the restaurant helps us in a lot of ways. You notice things more closely. Like, maybe this garnish isn’t the right thing for that dish; people seem to be pushing that to the side. Or maybe people are leaving one bite of this; maybe I need to brighten it up a little bit with some acid, or maybe I need to trim the beef a little more. It gives us a chance to fully refine the food along the way, by seeing how people react.
On a more fundamental level, this style of service changes your goals as a chef. Instead of your job being just to make pretty food and put it on the plate, your ultimate goal is to actually hand people a plate of food that you made. You’re not going to serve somebody something that’s not right if you’re the one who has to look them in the eye.
Habiger also shared his recipe for Lightly Cured Hamachi With Hibiscus Aguachile.
Images courtesy of Attilio D’Agostino.