Read the stories of innovative chefs who are revolutionizing Cookeville's food scene.
Anyone who lives in Cookeville will be quick to tell you how much the town has blossomed in recent years, especially its local restaurant scene. Cookeville is now home to a wide array of homegrown eateries. An increasing number of locally-owned restaurants are bringing new types of food to the area and offering original takes on well-loved Southern classics. While the owners and chefs at these restaurants have enriched the local food scene, they have also given back to the community by supporting local growers and suppliers. We talked with chefs from four popular downtown dining spots to bring you an inside look at the thriving culinary landscape in Cookeville.
Father Tom’s Pub
Visitors to Father Tom’s Pub might be surprised to find how at-home this traditional, classic pub and restaurant feels in the heart of downtown. Opened by Jennifer and Tom Furtsch in 2012, this quaint hot spot offers its guests regional draft beers, familiar dishes with a touch of flair, and an impressively thorough selection of scotch.
Steve Ford, a Cookeville native, became the head chef at Father Tom’s in January of 2019. Ford was excited to update the menu for the first time since it had opened, and he struck the perfect balance of keeping customer favorites while introducing fresh new options.
“With the menu having been the same for so long, there was so much on it that worked really well,” he says. “We were able to take it and add to it, and the new additions have worked out really well, too.”
Ford says that the burgers are the stars on the Father Tom’s menu, each arriving at your table with special toppings and an interesting name. The Pearl, for example, is stacked with whiskey-soaked pears, brie, onions, and Benton’s bacon.
Father Tom’s Pub is also making significant efforts to be more environmentally conscious by sourcing local produce and sustainable proteins whenever possible. The pub also buys bread from a local baker and uses post-consumer recyclable straws and takeout containers.
As for the pub itself, Chef Ford says it’s “cozy but not confining,” and the walls are adorned with works from local artists. Guests can drink and dine inside or enjoy their meal on the two dog-friendly patios.
The Back Room Bistro
Chef Rodney Laulo grew up in Arizona and worked in several restaurants out West before a job with Starbucks brought him to Cookeville in 2006. Six years later, he and his wife opened The Back Room Bistro, so-named because it’s quite literally in a building’s back room.
“It’s kind of hard to find, but that’s the allure,” Laulo says “The cool thing is that when somebody comes in that door, you know they’re supposed to be there.”
With his menu, Laulo experiments by bringing novel flavors to Southern staples. He sees this as a way to introduce people to new food concepts while also providing their tried-and-true favorites. Recently, he’s been adding Southwestern flavors to classic Southern dishes, like adding avocado salsa to a sweet potato breakfast dish.
Since it opened, the bistro has been a leader in the local food movement in Cookeville. Laulo has developed relationships with local growers, which is one of his ways of giving back to the community while providing his guests with the best food possible. Laulo’s passion for farm-to-table cuisine even led him to form a nonprofit called SeedFork of the Highlands, which focuses on using food to create a positive impact in Cookeville.
“I really felt like we could do something special in our community if we brought people together around local food,” he says. “We can bring people around the table together to share food and ideas.”
Each August, SeedFork hosts the Farm to Fork Dinner in Cookeville’s beautiful Dogwood Park. The dinner’s 150 guests are served a meal prepared entirely with regionally-sourced ingredients while they enjoy live music in one of the city’s most cherished parks.
Seven Senses Food and Cheer
Though he had never been in the restaurant business before, Jay Albrecht wanted to “give back” to his hometown’s growing downtown area. He decided that opening a restaurant would be a great way to support the town. In 2013, Albrecht opened Seven Senses Food & Cheer, which has “a big city feel with a small-town atmosphere,” he says. “Our customers can come and feel welcome, and everybody knows everybody and is friendly. That’s what makes us special.”
As for the unusual name, Albrecht says it refers to a unique feeling that he hopes people find when dining at Seven Senses. “We didn’t want to be a normal restaurant where people come in, eat, and leave,” he said. “We want to give them more.”
The restaurant’s head chef, Chad Combs, has been with Seven Senses almost since day one. He worked as a consultant for Albrecht before coming on as the chef. Having grown up in Cookeville, Combs moved to Nashville as a young adult to experience the booming food culture. Combs says he was able to fast-track his culinary education by diving in and being hands-on in trendy restaurants. Since his return to Cookeville, Combs has added another feather to his chef hat, the title of World Chef Challenge Winner.
While Combs describes the menu at Seven Senses as “comfortable and country-esque,” he aims to offer guests new culinary experiences that are still highly approachable. “We have signature dishes that everyone would love, but we do things differently as far as how we plate and spice them,” he says. “We don’t alienate people with an intimidating menu.”
Food For Thought/Fun Foodie Fact: Combs is also elevating the Cookeville culinary scene with his “take ‘n’ bake” business, Blue Rooster, and his continued involvement in the World Food Championships. Also, he is trying his hand at venue and catering management with The Putnam Room.
The Blue Pig
Kent Birdwell has never actually had any formal culinary training, but he has traveled the world studying spices, cooking techniques, and uncommon flavors. He also doesn’t call himself a chef, preferring instead to be referred to as the pitmaster of his woodfired pit barbecue restaurant, The Blue Pig.
“Mainly I love barbecue, and I loved smoking barbecue for friends and family on the weekends,” Birdwell says. “There are very few true old-school pit barbecue restaurants today, and I saw a need for it in Cookeville.”
So, in 2017, the Gainesboro native opened The Blue Pig in downtown Cookeville, and since then, he has focused on learning what the community wants so he can better serve his guests. Birdwell spent years perfecting his recipes and menu, where smoked beef brisket and baby back ribs take center stage.
According to Birdwell, part of what makes his food great is that he’s a bit of a perfectionist. He workshops his sauces until they’re just right and always serves the highest quality meat he can get. The Blue Pig has also taken steps toward being eco-friendly. Rather than serving food in styrofoam containers, the restaurant uses biodegradable containers and also limits the use of plastics and aluminum.
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Written by Madison Eubanks for Matcha in partnership with Visit Cookeville. Photo caption: Talented chefs are bringing new flavors to Cookeville’s food scene.