Head to Head: Josh Habiger and New Hat

If you’re looking for the source of the thrum of unconventional creativity in Nashville cuisine, you might point to the genius of Catbird Seat and follow your way to one of its co-founders, Josh Habiger, who took everything he learned from that first restaurant and poured it into Wedgewood Houston’s nacho mecca and not-so-hidden fine-dining playhouse, Bastion.

Foodie culture is a tricky thing in a city that’s torn between locals, tourists and outsider restaurateurs hoping to capitalize on Nashville’s buzziness. With Bastion, Habiger offers a 24-seated restaurant with innovation, refinement, and the intimacy of a neighborhood watering hole.

Elizabeth Williams and Kelly Diehl, co-designers of New Hat and creative directors for Nashville Design Week, visited Bastion one afternoon to chat about Habiger’s balance of freshness and familiarity.

On getting started with food

Josh: I grew up in a really small town in Minnesota—one set of stoplights. We lived in a trailer park next to a diner, and my mom was a waitress at the diner [called Kay’s Kitchen]. Fifteen years later, I was a dishwasher at that diner. I would get the dish room all caught up and watch the cooks. The owner saw that and asked if I wanted to cook. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up, so we didn’t go out to eat. So at the diner, I thought, this is what people eat when they go out to eat. From there I went to a steakhouse to a fake Italian restaurant, Olive Garden-esque. When I was twenty, I went to culinary school in Vermont. I kind of hated it. I still thought it was what I wanted to do. I don’t know why this is such a telling moment, but the classes were small, like six or seven students. After six months of school, a girl was like, “Is this parsley or cilantro?” and I was like, I’m going to get the same piece of paper as this person when I leave here. … [Later] I ended up going to England and working for a restaurant called the Fat Duck and working for free.

Elizabeth: You worked at a lot of fine-dining restaurants—often as an unpaid intern—before kind of getting fed up with hotel restaurants and coming down to Nashville to work as a bartender at Patterson House. When did the idea of the Catbird Seat start to percolate?

Josh: [While I was at Patterson House, I was asked] if I ever wanted to cook again, and I said, only on my own terms. I want to cook the way a bartender bartends. You know, the interaction you get when you sit at a bar, and you get to know the bartender, and they know what you like so they can make things for you. And that’s how the Catbird Seat originated.

On creating something new

Elizabeth: Had you ever been to a restaurant like that before?

Josh: There weren’t that many, but I was super disappointed with the ones I went to. [Laughs] Not because of the food, they all had really good food, but why create the interface if you’re not going to utilize it? … It was such a missed opportunity for someone to have an experience to learn something new, and the cook can talk about something [they’re passionate about]. That’s what I tell [the team at Bastion], is that we have this connection with people just by them walking in the door. They’re excited to eat here, and we’re cooking that we should be excited about. We already got through that first barrier, and we’ve already started sharing something.

Elizabeth: It’s more of a human experience, to get to share the one-on-one conversation that you get to have. I got to have many [of those conversations] when I was eating there. It was natural. I didn’t feel like I was watching a caged animal. It was really positive, and it demystified the fancy food experience. You know you’re getting this special thing, but at the same time, it doesn’t feel bougie in a bad way. It’s interesting to see that you were able to see that fine dining could be interactive.

Josh: That’s another part of it, too: How can we make it more comfortable? I ate at all the [fine dining restaurants I’ve worked at], and like, I know everyone on the staff, so why do I feel so uncomfortable right now? [Laughs] Am I sitting the right way? You’re questioning everything. Whereas, the first course you get at Bastion is finger food. We want you to eat with your fingers and not worry about it.

Elizabeth: So the Catbird Seat was your first time designing a restaurant. Did you want Bastion to be more like a bar experience, more one-on-one?

Josh: With the Catbird Seat, you have this counter with the kitchen in the middle. And then the people, I think it’s seven, six, and seven, which is twenty people at the counter, and then all the cooks working in the middle. Which is cool, because all the attention shifted inward. But for the people on the opposing sides, you’re watching the cooks, but you’re also watching other people, which is kind of weird. And maybe that’s nice, maybe that’s a positive thing in some ways. [But at Bastion,] if two people were sitting at a counter, I wanted it to be the two of them and then all of us working here, and nobody else. So since it’s rounded, you innately shifted toward the person you’re with. You forget about all the other people.

Elizabeth: And there are tables, but they’re all against the wall.

Josh: And that’s a different experience. 

Elizabeth: You wanted it to be two separate styles?

Josh: Yeah. Groups of two or three would be at the bar, three or four would be at the tables, and then bigger groups would be at the big table. It’s three different experiences. But when you’re sitting at a line at the counter and you’re trying to talk to someone four seats away from you, it makes the whole room louder. It affects everyone.

On placating the health department

Elizabeth: I was thinking about my experiences at Bastion, and I love the little entry bar, because it feels like the womb before—it’s smaller, the ceiling is way dropped. And then you go into the restaurant, and I would still say it’s even like a cave, in a way. The lighting is really cool, and it’s darker and intimate. How intentional was that little bar into the restaurant? Was that a happy accident?

Josh: Initially, I wanted the little bar to be a walk-in cooler. Like, a walk-in cooler-style door, and then you see someone walk in and you don’t see where they go.

Elizabeth: And then they all died in the walk-in cooler. [Laughs]

Josh: It would also be a way to force the cooks to be cleaner! [Laughing] And it would kind of be this cool entry thing that you’d walk through. The health department didn’t like that.

Elizabeth: So Kelly was one of the main bakers at Dozen, which is a cool way that New Hat can relate to food in a way, but I don’t know if you can talk about part of the design of the restaurant being for the employees, not just for the patrons. 

Kelly: Usually the design is, you start with the public space, and then the kitchen kind of fits where it can. And I’ve never eaten in the restaurant [Bastion], so I don’t know where your stations are.

Josh: Everything is exposed. The dish area is hidden, but no one wants to see that.

Elizabeth: [Bastion’s setup] is a bit of a performance. My experience, especially sitting at the bar, you’re watching an artist scoop the ice cream, warming up the spoon, dragging it across the ice cream just so to form a little egg shape. Everything’s so measured, and part of it is that you want everyone to see that.

Josh: I think it’s part of the charm, especially in the advent of the Food Network and foodie culture, whatever you want to call it. People see it on TV all the time. I remember someone saying, “I feel like a judge on ‘Top Chef’ everytime I eat here.”

Elizabeth: Did you want people to feel that?

Josh: I like when people come in and are not super critical, just because it’s about the whole experience, not each individual [part]. There’s so much subjectivity in a plate of food.

On creative blocks

Elizabeth: I remember one time here for Nacho Friday, and as you always do, you came and said hello. And I asked how it’s going, and you had this really honest moment with me that I won’t forget, and you said, “I don’t know, I’m just having a creative block right now.” I’m curious, what does that mean to you, when you have a creative block? I have it, we have it all the time. I’ll be sitting at a computer and have all the elements here, but I can’t see how to arrange them right now. I know how to do this—this is my job!—but there’s something blocking me.

Josh: A good plate of food, at least at Bastion, is something new but familiar at the same time. How do you both of those things? How do you make someone recognize it but also feel like they’ve had it before? It’s kind of impossible.

Elizabeth: That’s our checkmark, too—foreign but familiar. Going back to the holistic design—all parts are considered, all details matter. You chose to go with local potter John Donovan for some of your dishes. How involved are you in that process—shape, color?

Josh: That was a super-cool process. We were looking at textures in the room, the colors and textures and shapes of things.

Kelly: Are there any dream collaborations? Any plans for working with other small designers?

Josh: We did a dinner with Brett Douglas Hunter, and he made these chairs, and every chair had a personality trait. So like if you sat in one chair, you’d have to speak in Beatles lyrics or something. I think there was one with a little cubby underneath, and the woman sitting in it had to steal stuff off the table and hide it in the cubby without anyone noticing. It was super fun. The food’s just kind of there then.

Elizabeth: It was an art experience with the food-art experience, which is really something that should happen more often.

Kelly: It’s a natural marriage.

Elizabeth: It is! Because the food is art, which is cool about what you’re doing. It’s why the color of the plate matters, because you’re considering what the food looks like. Do you work with your team on that, or is plating all your vision?

Josh: We’re really collaborative. The longer someone’s been here, the more they can start to contribute because they know the vibe and what we’re trying to do. I think, as a whole, it makes the whole experience spectrum wider, because you have more brains.