Chef Kristin Beringson is not only a rockstar within the Nashville culinary scene, but an RRFC mentor. She is executive chef at the Kimpton Aertson Hotel, a Chopped champion, and her tour de force chef’s tasting table, The Rabbit Hole, was recently voted the best dining experience in the state of Tennessee. I sat down with her to discuss her career, the program, sustainability, and work-life balance.
How did you discover RRFC?
In 2018 I was working the Nashville Food and Wine Festival when a woman approached me saying, ‘hey you’d be a great mentor for this program that we are trying to get off the ground here. It’s going to be a culinary school that’s online based.’ She had information written on a sheet of paper, so it was kind of sketchy. I was like, ‘okay, lady, cool…’ I didn’t really think too much about it. She said, ‘they pay x amount per student.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, that doesn’t suck.’ I emailed her a few weeks later… and eventually I was enrolled as a mentor. It was legit. I took my first two students within a month of that.
How many students have you had at this point?
I have no idea, probably around 50.
What is the typical process of working with the students?
They’re in the process of revamping the whole program… I’m still partaking in the old program. But, for now, students inquire, the admissions office fields them and sets them up with an interview with a mentor they think would be a good fit. I do an interview to make sure that it’s a person I could spend essentially six months of my life with. You know, not everyone is a good personality fit. I want to make sure they have enough energy and that their personality is a good fit for my kitchen. Once I give the greenlight and they get all their financial things in order, [admissions] sends a ‘go-for-launch’ email, and then the student and I coordinate scheduling for the next 6 months… The students (I call them interns) complete 12 internship hours a week. They shadow me, or my executive sous chef, or I’ll put them on the line. Really the idea is that they leave here ready to work at another kitchen.
That sounds a lot like a typical process for an aspiring chef who doesn’t want to go to culinary school, just streamlined, without the work of finding these resources on their own.
The number one thing that they take away from the program, is that they develop a rapport with me. If I don’t have room for them at the end of their six months, I’ll find someone to take them on. It’s a great springboard program. It’s a crash course on how to work in kitchens. You don’t come out of it an executive chef, but you come out of it ready to be a line cook and work towards a chef position.
Are there any other benefits to this program over a more traditional culinary school route?
Being someone who went to traditional culinary school, where you have lab classes and classroom classes, you come out of it with a ton of debt and very little real-world experience. I was fortunate, as I was a sous chef by the time I graduated, but I just worked my buns off. Sometimes I think, “what did culinary school actually do?” It taught me how to chop an onion and read a recipe and do my math… but the real value came from working in kitchens, getting my butt kicked. I think there’s value in this program because you aren’t spending gobs of money and you’re learning real-world experience. It’s not always a fu-fu environment. Kitchens are full of people who are rough around the edges. Drop the ‘F-bomb’ constantly. It’s not the glamorized space culinary school makes it out to be.
How did you begin your professional career?
I did an undergraduate in Business Management and fashion design and graduated in 2005. I was managing Target stores here in Nashville, as an executive with the Target Corporation. I had one day [in 2009] where I was like, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ I loved cooking and googled ‘Nashville culinary schools,’ and enrolled in the Art Institute and changed my whole life around.
ThE nUmBeR oNe tHiNg tHaT tHeY tAkE aWaY fRoM tHe pRoGrAm iS tHaT tHeY dEvElOp a rApPoRt wItH mE. If I dOn’t hAvE rOoM fOr tHeM aT tHe eNd oF tHeIr sIx mOnThS, I’lL fInD sOmEoNe tO tAkE tHeM oN.”
Where are you working now?
I am the executive chef at the Kimpton Aertson Hotel in Nashville. My main restaurant is called Henley, I also have a private chef ’s tasting table called The Rabbit Hole, as well as all the catering and banquets at the hotel.
Do you have a preferred cuisine you like to cook?
Oh gosh, people always ask that question. I really just enjoy the melting pot that is American Cuisine. When people say, ‘contemporary American,’ they mean ‘anything goes.’ We are a big hodge-podge of a million cuisines, and you can smash ‘em all together and make whatever you want. That’s what I think’s cool about American food.
I grew up in South Dakota, so I really like meat; messing with meat, animal butchery, game. I was born in Athens, Greece and like to pull from my Mediterranean and Greek culture too. I was also the chef at a Japanese restaurant for a year, so really, I know a lot of different cuisines and just like to do all of it on one plate.
Is there a signature dish you make that encompasses this passion for fusion?
I do a rabbit crepinette, French meets rustic and gamey. I do that with a rhubarb and mustard sauce with vermouth. French and southern. I serve it with beet and potato confit and local curly kale. A big problem we are encountering as chefs right now, is our markets; what we can get and the prices of things. We are having to be more creative and change the way we think about food a little bit. We have to make things that aren’t as expensive seem more elegant and refined. This ground rabbit dish is a good example of simpler ingredients presented in way which demonstrates value to guests.
In some ways, have those market restraints been an invigorating experience, or have they just been annoying?
I like it. I genuinely like the fiduciary responsibility I have to my job to make money. I like to be a businessperson behind being a chef. I try and instill that in my interns: ‘if you like making money and can be creative and smart about it, that’s how you’re going to make your- self more desirable to employers ultimately.’ It’s been fun for me.
Until recently, it was pretty rare to find a female-identifying person as high up as you in the culinary world. Has this been a struggle for you?
I get asked that question a lot too, and I don’t really think of it as particularly difficult. What I appreciate about cooking is that it’s a merit-based sport. The good guy gets the good job. I do realize that there are less women in the profession. I think there are reasons women are steered away…. we put in a ton of hours, which isn’t conducive to family life. It is male-dominated because it’s aggressive and assertive and requires a lot of adjectives [that we associate with men]. I don’t know, I just did my job, and I did it well. I kept moving forward and didn’t pay attention to being the only girl in the room. I know people say, “I had to work 10 times as hard…” but, I just worked better and smarter than the guy next to me. Sometimes, I think, as a woman I’m more prone to multitasking and working smarter over harder. I feel more equipped than the fellow next to me.
“SoMeTiMeS I tHiNk, ‘wHaT dId cUlInArY sChOoL aCtUaLlY dO?’ It tAuGhT mE hOw tO cHoP aN oNiOn aNd rEaD a rEcIpE aNd dO mY mAtH… bUt tHe rEaL vAlUe cAmE fRoM wOrKiNg iN kItChEnS, gEtTiNg mY bUtT kIcKeD. I tHiNk tHeRe’s vAlUe iN tHiS pRoGrAm bEcAuSe yOu aReN’t sPeNdInG gObS oF mOnEy aNd yOu’rE lEaRnInG rEaL-wOrLd eXpErIeNcE.”
You’ve had quite a lot of success on television, can you speak on that for a bit?
I’ve done a couple shows. I won Chopped in 2014. Chopped reached out to me and were doing a Nashville-focused episode and I think they wanted a lady on the show. There weren’t many of us at the time, maybe five, and I must have been the only one that said “yes.” Maybe they thought I’d be entertaining.
Were there any drawbacks to doing television?
No. If anything, not everyone cares about that sort of thing. My peers tend to be like, ‘whatever, TV doesn’t matter.’ I’m respected in my own right as a chef who’s worked in Nashville for a while. Then there are people, generally guests, who love Chopped. Either people don’t really give a crap, or they do and it’s advantageous. I did the Beat Bobby Flay show last week, and most people in Nashville don’t care, but there are some people [who want to meet me and are excited about it]. It doesn’t hurt to put yourself out there and put the restaurant on blast.
Do you enjoy that kind of fanfare?
I like what I do, and I like educating people about chefs. What we do. Being a girl. I stand for being a mom of two boys. I’m an advocate for work-life balance. I think the days of 80-hour workweeks should be dead. That’s not sustainable for anybody. We should be able to be professionals like everyone else. I mean, do I have weeks where I work 70 hours? Sure. But I try and reduce those by as many as I can. TV is a fun platform for me to be put out there and say what I stand for. I think it’s important for my sons to say, ‘look at mommy! She went for it. She didn’t just roll over and stay-at-home-mom-it! She mommed the heck out of us and [followed her passion].’
Speaking of the 80-hour workweek, what do you do in your kitchens to create a work-life balance for yourself and your staff ?
I’m fortunate because I work in a hotel environment owned by a big company. We get all the benefits. We get pet insurance, we have paid time off, we have mental wellness days, and holidays. There will be weeks where we work a ton. But, through scheduling, I can make [my staff ’s] lives easier.
What’s the food culture like in Nashville?
Nashville’s kind of a weird little animal. It’s extremely close-knit. There are those of us that have been doing this a while, but there’s also a lot of new blood. Restaurants open as fast as they close. There’s a lot of turn, I can’t even keep up with all the new restaurants that have opened and closed. It’s wild.
Do you see any benefits, problems, or complications with the current influx of people into your city from larger cities?
People are quick here to let you know that they’re from LA and the food they expect. What bugs me about the whole thing is that our ingredients are different here. We don’t have access to those same oceans, the same moderate temperatures that they’re used to. We are a landlocked state that freezes two months a year. When I meet someone from LA, that likes to tell you they’re from LA, they’ll say, ‘your sushi here just isn’t what it is in LA.’ Obviously, hon. Look at where you are. You want a catfish ceviche? I keep my head down and turn a blind eye to it. I have a responsibility to the farmers and the planet and to educate people on what is available and the methods you can get local beautiful things. I get a Sysco truck like everyone else, but I also get a Nashville Grown truck. It’s a balance. I have a long relationship with the farmers here in town. I have my beef farmer’s 80th birthday invitation on my desk, because I’ve been doing business with him for 12 years.
“I jUsT dId mY jOb, aNd I dId iT wElL. I kEpT mOvInG fOrWaRd aNd dIdN’t pAy aTtEnTiOn tO bEiNg tHe oNlY gIrL iN tHe rOoM. I kNoW pEoPlE sAy, “I hAd tO wOrK 10 tImEs aS hArD…” bUt, I jUsT wOrKeD bEtTeR aNd sMaRtEr tHaN tHe gUy nExT tO mE. SoMeTiMeS, I tHiNk, aS a wOmAn, I’m mOrE pRoNe tO mUlTiTaSkInG aNd wOrKiNg sMaRtEr oVeR hArDeR. I fEeL mOrE eQuIpPeD tHaN tHe fElLoW nExT tO mE.”
Do you bring your philosophy of balance and sustainability into your teaching?
I tell all my students [that]… you’ll figure out where you are. Your spectrum of morality, your integrity. How do you feel about farmed fish? Is it sustainably farmed fish? What is the impact of sustainably farmed fish versus overfishing? Buying chicken from a small farmer versus Perdue? What does that look like in terms of our footprint on the planet? It’s important they understand that it’s not just ‘oh this chicken is cheaper than that chicken.’ I don’t believe in space chicken. Picking natural things, because we are putting them into peoples’ bodies, is important. We have a responsibility to [our guests and the planet].
What percentage of your menu is seasonal?
I roll out a new menu seasonally. The whole menu changes.
Do you have a season you gravitate towards?
I prefer fall menu writing. Fall is my favorite season. I love pumpkins and butternut, the stone fruit coming in, and apples. I like the flavor profiles. As soon as fall hits, I’m like “put sage in everything.”
Do you ever hunt?
I haven’t been hunting in a long time. I know so much about hunting. I don’t do it personally, because I don’t have the time to sit in a tree for three hours, but I do appreciate and respect it. As a kid I thought burgers were always venison; we had a freezer full of venison.
So few people, let alone chefs, have ever eaten an animal they’ve killed—do you think it changes your experience?
I think so. As a kid I’d have to pull all the feathers off a bird so that we could have it for dinner. Coming home and there’s a dead deer hanging in the garage. It creates more of a connection with the ingredients that’s really special and important.
Do you garden?
I love gardening! My garden looks like ‘s-h-i-t’ right now. It’s so hot here. I’m a house plant and garden mom, for sure.
Do you incorporate anything you personally grow into your menu?
I do at the tasting table, [Rabbit Hole]. I can’t produce anything on scale for the restaurant.
How often is Rabbit Hole open?
It depends on my schedule. If I have a 200-person plated wedding, I don’t do Rabbit Hole. Probably three weekends a month. It’s 14 courses, I plate and serve everything. It got voted the best dining experience in the state of Tennessee. It’s very rewarding [and inti- mate]. I feed hundreds if not thousands a week and never see their faces. To watch [guests at Rabbit Hole] is moving. I’ve had people weep. It sucks if they’re jerks, and we have that happen too. [But] it’s mostly local people. It sells out within 30 minutes from when we put it up, and it’s usually people around town who are on the waiting list.
“I hAvE a rEsPoNsIbIlItY tO tHe fArMeRs aNd tHe pLaNeT aNd tO eDuCaTe pEoPlE oN wHaT iS aVaIlAbLe aNd tHe mEtHoDs yOu cAn gEt lOcAl bEaUtIfUl tHiNgS.”
Do you have any advice for aspiring chefs?
What I always tell my students on day one is this: ‘what makes the difference between a good chef and a great chef is integrity and it’s what you do when nobody is looking that matters most.’ Anybody can see something spilled or knocked over or not labeled and walk away because it’s not theirs to own. What makes a great chef is someone who fixes it themselves regardless of who did it wrong the first time.
Do you have any advice for people considering going into this specific program?
My big thing is you must be a self-driven learner. You must be hungry for new information. You can’t just stand next to me and through osmosis get all of my intelligence and know-how. It’s an interactive learning experience, where questions are asked and answered. It’s about learning from everybody in the kitchen.