Tennessee Alumnus

Son of the South

By Diane Ballard

Tandy Wilson dishes Italian in Nashville

Nashville’s City House Restaurant is Tandy Wilson’s heart and soul. It’s also a tough taskmaster that demands 60-hour workweeks. The pleasure is worth the pain, Wilson (Knoxville ’00) avers. Diners hope the young chef/owner keeps up his hard-working attitude.

Wilson opened City House in 2008, near the state Capitol. With a solid background in UT Knoxville’s hotel and restaurant management curriculum and some character-building years in restaurant kitchens, he’s delighted to wear the top toque.

Southern favorites such as fried chicken and pimento cheese are enjoying their moment in the national foodie spotlight, and so is Wilson. He’s been nominated four times for the James Beard Foundation’s best chef Southeast award and for Food and Wine magazine’s best new chef in the Southeast. His name pops up regularly in the national food magazine Bon Appetit. He swears he doesn’t pay a publicist and that he hopes the quality of his food speaks for itself. But it can’t hurt that he’s a youthful 34, an “aw shucks” son of the South with a pickup truck and an understated, rustic Italian restaurant.

Wilson is adamant that a successful restaurant is a lot more than a personable chef and a trendy menu. “It’s easy to be passionate about being a chef. It’s like being an artist,” he says, but you’ve got to have business sense for the long haul.

“What I learned at UT grounded me. I use what I learned about food costs and labor costs, about purchasing — that stuff stuck with me.”

The Wilson family has a long history with UT. Tandy Wilson III (Knoxville ’48), the chef’s grandfather, was president of the UT Alumni Association in 1975, a long-serving member of Metro Nashville’s City Council, and a UT cheerleader during his student days. The chef’s dad, another UT grad and also named Tandy, is his closest adviser.

Wilson is devoted to Nashville, where his family has lived for five generations. When floods submerged parts of the city in 2010, he stepped up with other chefs to feed flood victims. Nashville likes Wilson, too, which was affirmed in a recent Bon Appetit article spotlighting the city’s food scene:

“Ask ten locals to name their favorite restaurant, and seven will answer City House. On any given night, Wilson’s place … is filled with Nashville’s elite: politicians, artists, chefs, and musicians.”

Wilson vows he would never leave his hometown. If others should try to lure the boy out of the South, they would find they not only couldn’t do so, but — to complete the cliché — neither could they take the South out of the boy.

“I would never leave Nashville. I don’t want to get too big for my britches.”