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March 20, 2018

Q&A: Chef gives Southern, visual arts spin to food

“I get to really express a lot of things through food,” says Field & Main Executive Chef Anthony Nelson. “So a lot of those needs for artistic expression are handled.”
I’ve always been on the creative side of things. A white canvass, when you’re about to paint with oils — it’s the same way you can look at a white plate. You’re dealing with color; you’re dealing with texture.
Anthony Nelson
• Age: 40

• Home: Marshall

• Work: Executive chef, Field & Main restaurant, Marshall, September 2016-present; relief cook, Lockeland Table restaurant, Nashville, Tenn., 2014-16; sous chef, Silo restaurant, Nashville, 2012-14; sushi chef, lead line cook, Virago, Nashville, 2011-12.

• Family: Father, Richard Nelson; mother, Kathryn Wenger; older brother, Richard Nelson.

• Education: Associate’s degree, culinary arts, Culinary Institute of America, N.Y.; bachelors, visual arts, Evergreen College, Wash., 1999; Yuma High School, Colo., 1995.
By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Staff Journalist
Blame it on “The Big Easy.”

After Anthony Nelson graduated from Evergreen College in Olympia, Wash., with a bachelor’s degree in visual arts, he headed to New Orleans, hoping to make his mark as a painter or perhaps a photojournalist.

“That was the initial thought,” recalls Mr. Nelson, 40, who grew up on a 700-head cattle farm in Colorado’s Northeastern Plains. “The secondary thought was cooking.

“I pretty much started cooking when I got there. I just got caught up in that work. New Orleans can sometimes derail plans.”

The more he cooked, the more he liked the job.

The shift from visual to culinary arts came naturally and satisfied his urge to create, explains the executive chef of Field & Main in downtown Marshall.

“I get to really express a lot of things through food. So a lot of those needs for artistic expression are handled.”

The food people he hung with in New Orleans also offered encouragement.

“They convinced me to go back to school — to CIA (Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.). So that kind of solidified what I was going to do.”

Mr. Nelson received an associates’ degree in culinary arts in 2004, after which he worked for restaurants in Arizona and Las Vegas.

He worked at Nashville, Tenn.-based Locheland Table in 2016, when he got a call from close friend and fellow CIA graduate Neal Wavra, who outlined his plan for a farm-to-table restaurant in Marshall.

“I was very interested,” Mr. Nelson says. “I liked the whole idea of a fire hearth, trying to utilize whole animals.”

He had never heard of Fauquier, until Mr. Nelson contacted him.

“When Neal first brought it up, I’m Google mapping it. It really wasn’t making sense, until I visited it. Then I realized it’s in the middle of wine country.”

The Marshall area reminded him of California’s Sonoma Valley, “without the stupid wine train.”

Field & Main’s concept immediately made sense to him.

“We’re based here in the middle of the Piedmont, pulling everything from the Piedmont to showcase the bounty here,” says Mr. Nelson, the restaurant’s first executive chef.

Mr. Wavra and his wife Star opened Field & Main in September 2017.

Trained in classic French and southern cuisine, Mr. Nelson also likes to incorporate Japanese flavors into the menu.

He describes Field & Main fare as “fine comfort” food. And while the menu has a “Southern spin” to it, “you won’t see cornbread on our menu, but you will see collard greens.”

Mr. Nelson oversees a six-person kitchen crew, including a sous chef, pastry chef and four cooks.

With a goal of serving 400 to 500 people per week, the restaurant at 8369 W. Main St. can seat 80, he says.

For its busiest meal — Saturday dinner — the restaurant serves 110 to 150 meals, Mr. Nelson adds.

He seldom takes a meal at the restaurant or cooks at home. He counts LaPalmita, Mexican restaurant in downtown Marshall, among his favorite eateries.

His hobbies include wine tasting and watching NFL games. Besides a couple of superstar chefs and Johnny Cash, his artistic heroes include late “gonzo” journalist Hunter S. Thompson.

Testifying to his devotion to that writer, the chef has a Thompson quote tattooed on his right bicep that reads: “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”

• Why did you become a chef?
I’ve always enjoyed cooking. And growing up on a farm and ranch, being around where everything comes from was kind of a cool thing. And, I always ended up cooking around the house.

• Why the switch from visual artist to chef?
I’ve always been on the creative side of things. So it was kind of a natural progression. A white canvass, when you’re about to paint with oils — it’s the same way you can look at a white plate. You’re dealing with color; you’re dealing with texture.

• How did your career change happen?
When I moved to New Orleans, I was in my early 20s and everybody there was in the service industry, and so I plugged in with cooking. I had options for art work, but ultimately I seemed to really excel at cooking.

• Do you come from a foodie family?
No. Actually, we’re very meat-and-potatoes. I grew up on a farm and ranch. Since we had cattle, there was beef with every meal.

• How would you describe Field & Main’s food?
Fine comfort food.

• What does that mean?
Comfort food is something when you taste it, it immediately puts you at ease.

When you hear “Crispy Pig Ears,” that might be off-putting. But the moment you taste them — and they taste like Buffalo-style chicken wings — it gives you that comfort.

• How much influence do you have over the menu?
Complete. It’s either something I have created or my sous chef and I have discussed. We come up with things in committee. We throw out some ideas and hone it down. Then we choose what we do.

• Do you ever put anything on the menu at a customer’s request?
I’ll be friendly and nice about things, but in most cases, no.

They don’t understand that I’m dealing with food costs, product. I’ve got to know where it’s coming from. I’m trying to balance a number of things. And they’re not privy to all that information.

• Have you ever had a customer complain about a meal? If so, how do you handle it?
That’s always going to happen. We try to find out what the problem is. If they didn’t like that dish at all and might want something completely different, we do whatever we can to make people happy.

• Do you have a favorite menu item you like to make?
Beet Poke. A poke is classically a Hawaiian dish with raw tuna. You mix it with fresh ginger, garlic, green onions, sesame seeds, sake, soy, a little bit of wasabi.

Here we’ve taken striped beet and then cook it in the hearth over wood embers, so you get this really nice, smoky, in-depth flavor and then we dice those up like you would tuna . . . . It’s all dressed up and served on wonton chips.

• Favorite ingredients you like to use?
Soy sauce and garlic are probably almost in everything.

• Do you have a favorite kind of food?

• Why?
I’ve always enjoyed the techniques, the flavors; it’s clean; it’s beautiful.

• Any kind of food you won’t eat?
There are a few strange foods, like a boulette egg. I really don’t want to eat that.

• What’s that?
An egg with the fetus in it. Before it matures, it gets cooked. So then you get some beak and some bones, along with the eggy-ness of it.

• Do you cook at home?
Very rarely.

• Where do you go to eat out?
If it’s just me, La Palmita (Market) in Marshall — the little Mexican restaurant in the (Citgo) gas station (along West Main Street). That place is amazing; burritos, tacos, tamales — they’re all so good. I eat there probably more than I eat anywhere.

• Do you have a favorite cooking show?
“Chef’s Table” is brilliant. “Mind of a Chef” is really good. A new one that came out, “Ugly Food,” is really good.

• Would you like to own a restaurant?
I think that would be interesting. I think, ultimately, having some ownership in what I’m doing now would be ideal.

• If you had your own place, what kind of food would it serve?
That’s a trick question. I would think about where I’m opening. Then I would try to make something that would make sense in that area. If I had my druthers and didn’t have to think about that, I would probably do something very Japanese.
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