Tennessee’s Take on Classic French Cuisine
Better known for Southern cooking and country music, Nashville welcomes an enclave of fine French dining.
Chef Rene De Leon had just gotten off a 14-hour day at Le Sel, Strategic Hospitality’s latest Nashville venture. The Las Vegas–raised, former Chicago chef started prep work at 9 a.m., worked through lunch and dinner service, and then began the overnight tasks of breaking down whole ducks, curing pork belly, making stock, and more. It was yet another typical schedule for De Leon, whose work ethic is the main culprit for his ability to successfully open and lead the restaurant, his first starring role after working under Grant Achatz at Alinea in Chicago and later serving on the opening team for Achatz’s Next restaurant.
“People always ask me when I’m going to take a day off or a vacation, but I’ve told them not to ask me that anymore,” he admits. “It’s not just about getting the work done, it’s about doing things right. This is what I learned working for Grant.”
Positioned as a “new French” restaurant with a modern take on the classics, combined with an edgy design, Le Sel opened in early October in Midtown after nearly nine months of concept and menu development. With this, its sixth concept, Strategic Hospitality rounds out a diverse portfolio that includes the highly successful, fine-dining Catbird Seat, which includes the cocktail lounge Patterson House downstairs; Pinewood Social, a cocktail-food-bowling hangout; Paradise Park, a late-night, trailer park–themed bar and restaurant; The Band Box, an elevated concession stand that opened nearly a year ago in First Tennessee Park; and Merchants, the group’s first restaurant, a steakhouse, on busy Broadway.
Strategic Hospitality co-owners, brothers Benjamin and Max Goldberg, have made a name for themselves with their one-of-a-kind concepts, and they suggested French, but allowed Chef De Leon to define the food and also help with the overall concept and design. Now, a command of classic cooking techniques, creative inspiration, researching capability, and extraordinarily high expectations keep De Leon running day and night, literally.
The Texas-born chef (no, he’s not French) became a driven and determined individual early in life, after a rocky childhood pushed him out of his home and led him to the New England Culinary Institute. He later moved near his uncle to work in Cincinnati, but Chef De Leon set his sights on working for Thomas Keller or Grant Achatz. He ended up with Achatz after working at Hopleaf in Chicago, and landed in Nashville after longtime Alinea friend Josh Habiger, who made it big at Catbird Seat, suggested he make the move to music country.
“I took a one-way ticket to Nashville,” says De Leon.
At Le Sel, sure there’s a Lyonnaise salad, a French onion soup, and a tartare on the menu—but the salad is made with fat, carefully crafted from those many Hudson Valley ducks that De Leon breaks down every other night. The French onion soup is made with homemade bread and the tartare uses lamb instead of beef, along with the usual suspects: Dijon mustard, egg, capers, and herbs.
Perhaps the dish De Leon is most proud of is the signature duck breast, perfectly seared like the way he did it at Next during the Escoffier menu, and served alongside a cauliflower purée, with wilted and crispy purple flowering kale, and a Madeira sauce made from a homemade duck stock and wine. He’s also using duck for the duck confit rillette.
Simple, yet perfectly and elegantly executed defines Chef De Leon’s style. “Omelets can more or less be an afterthought on menus, and they’re almost always overcooked,” says De Leon, who after much practice feels he’s perfected the true French way to cook omelets—low and slow, until just set, and in his case, with a little crème fraîche added for creaminess and tang.
De Leon has been building relationships with local farmers and providers, like working with nearby Wedge Oak Farm, which he says keeps “60 chickens for us just to provide us with fresh eggs every week. That makes a huge difference.”
The menu continues to be a work in progress. “I see every dish and just want to make it better,” he says. “What I am trying to do is take the attention to detail like you would find at places like Alinea and Next, but in a place people can go to all the time, not just for a special occasion.”
De Leon compares the new French concept to what’s happening in Paris with younger chefs merging fine-dining food with more casual, lively bistro- or bar-like settings, pointing to restaurants like Bones and Frenchie.
And Le Sel’s opening marks a turning point for Nashville, where Catbird Seat is largely considered the only other fine-dining restaurant. In a part of the country where music, beer, and casual living pervade, De Leon has worked hard to develop the French concept into a place that celebrates a big-city culinary excellence with a smaller city vibe making it approachable to all. “We’re definitely different from other places here in Nashville, but people seem to be really excited about us.”
Le Sel’s design goes hand-in-hand with this philosophy, trading in the white tablecloths and stuffiness typically associated with fine French settings for a super funky, edgy design from revered interior designer Benjamin Vandiver, who is better known for his work with celebrities like Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere. In fact, this was Vandiver’s first restaurant, so De Leon’s practical suggestions—like choosing bar stools that included back supports for comfort—came in handy.
Housed in the multi-level Adelicia building, the modern bistro dining room boasts pink-colored banquettes, black tables, black café chairs, and a black-and-white striped floor, along with a raw bar at the back. Upstairs, an all-red private dining room offers seating for 24. The Bar at Le Sel, located downstairs from the main dining room, sports a vibe that says “lounge” but looks like a Parisian living room.
The design pushes the boundaries of a bistro even further with hip hop playing throughout the space, digital and neon artwork, and server uniforms that include denim aprons and white shirts with purple and black bowties.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment to run a kitchen for 18 years and now that it’s here, I’m ready to kick the door down and make this place into something I can be really proud of,” Chef De Leon says. “We’re not even close to where I want us to be, but already we’re off to a great start.”