In Memoriam 2021: Food | Cover stories
After a successful banking career, Sandra Austin sought a post-retirement challenge. She decided to turn her baking profession into a vocation by opening Shugga Hi Bakery and Cafe with her sister, Kathy Leslie. From 2016 until his death in September, Austin helped run an important gathering place in an underserved community that became popular as a happy destination after church during their Jazz Brunch.
The attitude of the sisters towards hospitality was inspired by their mother. âOur mom was a full-time nurse,â says Leslie, âbut she always took the time to prepare a full meal for the family, including dessert. We wanted to create a place where people could enjoy what we went through: eat, have fun, listen to music and dance.
Austin’s dedication to serving the community around Shugga Hi’s Dickerson Pike location has been even more impactful. âShe would always say, ‘It’s not a shame to be hungry, it’s a shame not to be fed,â says Leslie. Austin spearheaded an annual community meal around Thanksgiving, where Shugga Hi staff fed hundreds for free. A connection with World Food Kitchen and the local community development organization Rethink Nashville has enabled Shugga Hi to provide meals to food insecure neighbors.
Even after the death of her sister, Leslie remains committed to her legacy of selfless hospitality. âWe’re going to make it bigger and better,â she promises. âSandra was the nicest and most loving person I have ever known, and she always looked for the opportunity to serve others. She was always doing, helping, working and blessing, and her angelic spirit lives with us all! âChris Chamberlain
Restaurateur, member of the community
Long before hot chicken became a flavor used to season everything from potato chips to ramen noodles – and long before it was appropriated by fast food outlets and chain restaurants – the most famous culinary calling card of Nashville was the home of the initiator Prince’s Hot Chicken as well as Columbo’s Hot Chicken. The latter was opened in the 1970s by former Prince’s cook Fry Bolton Polk at the western foot of the Shelby Street Bridge. Nashville’s most ardent hot chicken promoter former mayor Bill Purcell had his first hot chicken experience at this humble store and told author Timothy Charles Davis for his book The Hot Chicken Cookbook, “From the first bite of hot chicken, I knew life would never be the same.”
When the redevelopment of the new SoBro neighborhood and Polk’s failing health shut down Columbo’s, there was a hiatus until its glorious resurrection in 1997 as Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish. With his uncle’s recipe in hand, Bolton Matthews and his wife Dollye Graham-Matthews opened what was originally a take-out-only window at 624 Main Street in East Nashville. In 2007, Bolton’s and Prince’s laid the groundwork for the inaugural Music City Hot Chicken Festival, the annual event that draws thousands to East Park every July 4th. Although several hot chicken restaurants have been added over the years, Prince’s and Bolton’s retain the most avid fans.
In 2018, Matthews was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer which had metastasized into his liver; a GoFundMe page created to help with chemotherapy spending quickly netted more than its initial goal and then its second, thanks in large part to small contributions from Bolton clients. In 2021, the City of Nashville passed a resolution honoring Matthews “for his contributions to the culture, economy, development and panache of the City of Nashville.” Bolton’s, one of the oldest black-owned businesses on Main Street, is recognized by the Southern Foodways Alliance as a Nashville Food Heritage Site. The resolution was presented to him in person at the restaurant on May 23. Ten days later Bolton Leroy Matthews passed away.
Lamar Hurt, owner of Hurt’s Hot Chicken food truck, remembers his friend and his succinct but wise advice for running a business: “Never let go of the gas, baby.” âKay West
Prayote “Sam” Kopsombut
Restaurateur, beloved father
Even before Prayote âSamâ Kopsombut opened The Smiling Elephant with his wife Boonjit in 2010 on 8th Avenue South before the boom, the sign outside the small building proclaimed it the âBest Pad Thai Restaurantâ. Their son Guy Kopsombut laughed: âHe had great confidence in his Pad Thai, he knew it was the dish on the menu that everyone would love. So confident, in fact, that the menu always advises diners to “please note that our Pad Thai is not the sweet / sticky Americanized version but traditionally made with tamarind sauce and palm sugar”.
Sam Kopsombut came to America from Thailand about 40 years ago with $ 500 in his pocket. His sister Patti Myint had opened the Nashville International Market several years before, and although he was there frequently, Sam worked as a mechanic at the auto store he owned, PK Imports. But Guy says his father’s passion was cooking, so when he finished his work at the boutique each day, he and Boonjit worked on the space above to create the restaurant they dreamed of.
They opened The Smiling Elephant without marketing, relying on word of mouth from the community, the queues that always meandered from the door of the 10-table restaurant to the parking lot and the smells that escaped outside. Guy says his sister Gift remembers the first time she cooked there some people walked in and said, “We don’t know what you’re cooking, but we want it.” So many wanted it, in fact, that The Smiling Elephant regularly dominated the SceneBest of Nashville reader survey since it opened. They still only serve one curry a day, and the dishes are homemade recipes developed by Sam and Boonjit with the mantra “authentic and healthy”.
Sam Kopsombut was the happiest walking into the dining room, seeing people enjoying his food, and talking to diners. âMy dad said when he had PK Imports it was all business,â Guy explains. “But when they opened Smiling Elephant, her customers became her friends.” âKay West
James “Frank” room
Longtime Gold Rush Manager, Musician, Storyteller
When the Gold Rush closed for good in February 2019, it was covered by all of the city’s media outlets, and most of them interviewed Frank Hall, director for the last 16 of his 44 years. Like the Exit / In through Elliston Place, the Gold Rush was a landmark of the Rock Block. Unlike Exit / In – at least for now – the Gold Rush did not survive New Nashville. That’s how Hall saw it, and he didn’t hesitate with his opinions.
âNobody wants old Nashville right now,â he told WKRN. âThey want something new. They want fantasy. They want shine.
Although not from Nashville, Hall knew his history and was 74 when the bar closed. With fondness and laughter, Pamela Cole – co-owner of Fanny’s House of Music with Leigh Maples – remembers Hall as “an old folk singer and one of the bands of lonely old men who were our clients.” One of his best clients, actually. Although he also did business with Gruhn Guitars, his affection went to Fanny’s. âWe liked the kind of guitars he collected, which were Harmonys and Kays, guitars like the ones you find in the Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs. He liked those. He would put an old birch-top Harmony against any existing Martin. There are a lot of brand snobs out there, but Frank was not one of them.
Cole says they could often cajole him into playing and singing when he passed by the store, but they couldn’t convince him to let them catalog the 336 guitars he kept in his house. A stroke in late 2020 left him paralyzed on one side, and when transferred to rehab, Cole was unable to visit him due to COVID, which he died of on January 1st. His ex-wife and son contacted Fanny’s to manage archiving and selling âher babiesâ.
A member of the Serendipity Singers in the ’60s – a folk group that performed in Woodstock – Hall liked to tell people that right before the helicopter scene in the movie, his face was on screen for at least a second. âHe had a lot of stories,â Cole says. âSome of them were true and some were long stories. He was a special man and we miss him. âKay West
Commemorating some of Nashville’s irreplaceable characters we lost this year
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