Spice of life: Aaron Turner at his Nashville-style restaurant Belle's Hot Chicken; and the flaming hot chicken they serve. Photo: Paul Jeffers/Getty Images
A year in Nashville, Tennessee, has been very healing for Australian chef Aaron Turner. With the closure in June 2013 of Loam, Turner's Bellarine Peninsula produce-driven restaurant, and the demise of his relationship with former wife and restaurant manager Astrid, The Age Good Food Guide 2012 Regional Restaurant of the Year award winner boarded a Nashville-bound plane with the aim of recuperating on friend and fellow chef Morgan McGlone's couch. What Turner found was inspiration and unbridled support.
''It's very healing,'' Turner says of Nashville. ''It's a transient city and everybody seems to be there for not dissimilar reasons. Everyone's broken in a little way, and in feeling the same, starting to put themselves back together. Out of that comes creativity and through the creative process you can learn a lot about yourself.''
Following an epiphany that being a chef shouldn't mean that you spend every hour of every day shut away in a kitchen, Turner, a former singer in a punk band, guitarist in a ska band, and visual arts student, picked up his guitar and a paintbrush, and relaxed - creatively.
Aaron Turner's flaming hot chicken. Photo: Paul Jeffers/Getty Images
''It's kind of like learning to walk again,'' says Turner. ''I know that sounds silly but when you start work at 5.30am in the morning and finish work at 2am in the morning, it really doesn't leave much time for anything else.''
Turner now divides his time between Nashville, consulting at Rumours, a wine bar in Nashville's hip Gulch district, where he oversees the European bar-style menu and staff training, and Melbourne. He and McGlone spent time taste-testing Nashville's signature hot chicken, the duo forcing themselves to endure the hottest offerings - research for Belle's Hot Chicken, Melbourne's first Nashville-inspired hot chicken restaurant and natural wine bar, which opened last month at 150 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy.
Turner will stick around in Melbourne while Belle's is getting established before returning to Nashville.
''The other day I was on my phone bitching about having to take another long-haul flight [his third back to Australia in the past 12 months] when I thought that I better suck it up, because the younger version of me would have kicked my ass for complaining about having a restaurant in one country, consulting work in another,'' Turner says. ''I'm firmly a time and a place person, and Loam was a time and a place. I'm very lucky to be able to have these ideas and execute them.
''Who knows. In five years' time I might open a vegan restaurant.''
WHAT IS HOT CHICKEN?
Originating in Nashville, Tennessee, hot chicken is a style of fried chicken spiced with cayenne pepper. Portions of breast, thigh or wing are brined and breaded, and a spicy paste is added after frying, turning the golden-brown crust satanic red. It's served with white bread to catch the juices and dill pickles to douse the fire.
According to local lore, hot chicken was created as a revenge dish by the furious girlfriend of ladies' man Thornton Prince. She served him up a breakfast of cayenne pepper-doused fried chicken, but instead of hating it, Prince liked it so much he put it on the menu at his fried chicken shack, Prince's Hot Chicken, now run by great-niece Andre Prince Jeffries.
Turner recalls a hot chicken experience with Morgan McGlone at Bolton's Spicy Chicken & Fish. ''When we first started researching hot chicken Morgan and I went to Bolton's and ordered the extra, extra hot. We were eating it and it hurt so much that my eyes were watering. Without thinking I rubbed at them and my eyes puffed up,'' Turner says, laughing. ''The owner, Bolton Mathews, came out with wet towels and covered my eyes to soothe them. It was so funny, but so hot.''
Five things you mightn't know about Nashville hot chicken
■ Former Nashville mayor Bill Purcell, a hot chicken devotee, created the annual Music City Hot Chicken Festival, which runs over the Independence Day holiday weekend every July.
■ Nashville has at least five staple hot chicken shacks: Prince's Hot Chicken, Bolton's Spicy Chicken & Fish, Hattie B's, 400 Degrees, and Pepperfire.
■ Many Nashville restaurants do their own version of hot chicken, including Sean Brock's Husk Restaurant, a nod of respect to the city's signature dish.
■ Hot chicken is not considered fast food. Each serve is fried to order to ensure a crisp crust, so expect to wait.
■ Spice is chemically addictive: the more hot chicken you eat, the more you want.
Aaron Turner's favourite Nashville haunts
Rolf & Daughters
“It’s got a great artisan fit-out,” Turner says of the historic Germantown neighbourhood-based restaurant, where chef Philip Krajeck creates modern peasant food using bountiful Southern produce.
“The staff are young and energetic; a lot of them are musicians and you can feel that vibe. Phil’s a great guy and I totally support the chef driven restaurant movement where chefs are getting out there and doing their own thing. I’ve probably eaten the menu three times over.”
700 Taylor Street, Nashville rolfanddaughters.com
“Another great example of a chef-driven restaurant, Tandy Wilson is known for his belly ham pizza and it’s probably the one dish I’ve not tried,” Turner says. “Wilson’s a highly skilled chef that’s paired back a bit to create really tasty ingredient-driven dishes that never disappoint.”
1222 4th Ave N., Nashville cityhousenashville.com
“I love going to Rumours for a cocktail, and not just because I consult there,” Turner says. “I think they’re the best cocktails in Nashville. There’s a really cool vibe there and the staff are all so lovely. You can’t go wrong with a steak tartar and a Moscow mule with house-made ginger beer. Being from Melbourne, it’s how I like to eat.”
1104 Division Street, Nashville rumourswinebar.com
Turner’s first hot chicken experience and his favourite. Tuner says: “I honestly think that they have the best spice blend and it’s consistently good. It’s a really fun space, like what we’re hoping to create at Belle’s Hot Chicken.”
112 19th Ave S., Nashville hattieb.com
“This is my go-to place for coffee,” Turner says. “It’s owned and run by a husband and wife duo who go to the farms in South America to choose the beans that they roast on site. They do a consistently mean pour over and are nationally awarded.”
15 Hermitage Ave, Nashville crema-coffee.com