Chef Mailea Weger composes dishes with worldly flavors in Nashville
Words by Nicole Letts
Headshots by Ben Rice
My Lyft driver speeds toward Nashville’s Opry House, home of the famed Grand Ole Opry where Dolly, Johnny, and Patsy have all belted out their tunes.
I’m late—28 minutes late, to be exact. I race through security, settle into my seat, and take in my surroundings. The sweeping red velvet curtains, wooden church pew seating, and pacing stand-up comedian are a far cry from the previous two hours of my evening. My mind and taste buds have been preoccupied by Mailea Weger, the chef and proprietor of Lou, a French-inspired bistro where harvest’s bounty takes the center circle.
There, in an old cottage turned eatery in East Nashville’s Inglewood neighborhood, Mailea orchestrates a cacophony of flavors. New England oysters are dotted with peach umeboshi, a Japanese pickled brine similar to mignonette. Parisian house-cured ham is served alongside decadent and creamy salted butter. Peruvian lima beans are doused in chili oil, then dusted with lemon zest. Each ingredient reverberates on the palette. Mailea’s kitchen is her guitar, and her curiosity is her pick. Together, the melody is harmonious.
Tell me a little bit about where your passion for food came from, as well as about your culinary background.
I worked in fashion until I was 30, even spending four years at Juicy Couture. When I turned 30, I was feeling uninspired. I wanted something more fulfilling. I ended up buying a one-way ticket, and I went to Europe for about six months, first to Barcelona and then to Paris. I ended up working for a female chef there doing the cold line, and I fell in love with it. When I came back to the States, I went to culinary school.
You had stints at restaurants in New Orleans, New York City, and Los Angeles. How did you end up in Nashville?
After I'd been cooking for eight or nine years, I knew I wanted to open my own business. I could go anywhere in the world really, and so, my husband Ben and I started thinking of cities that had a dining-serious community where people were excited about food. We were also looking for a city that didn't feel overly saturated quite yet with what I was trying to offer. My parents live in Franklin, but I've never spent any time in the South, and it sounded like a great scene to get involved in. It met all of the matches we needed.
Have you immersed yourself in Nashville at this point? Are you settling in?
I think that's part of the fortunate side of COVID and everybody having to shut down. On one hand, it gave us an opportunity to have time together, but it also gave us time to explore Tennessee’s nature. You can go to any city, but what is outside of the city is what really inspires me. I don't want to just live in Nashville, I want to live in Tennessee, and I want to know what that's like. I watched a documentary on Dolly Parton the other day. It's obvious that she’s great, but this documentary was so empowering about Tennessee. When it was over, I was like, "I've got to go to the Smoky Mountains!”
I notice you don’t share your menu on your website. Can you tell me more about that?
We don't print it because we change it so often, but also we just want you to be excited and buy in to what we're doing here. Come in because you trust us, and you know that we're going to cook you great food.
Patrons of Lou will experience a nod to worldly cuisine, with ingredients such as masala, turmeric, and guajillo. Why do you incorporate these flavors using Southern meat and produce?
Living in Southern California, I got to cook with a lot of Oaxacans, and a lot of the chefs there work with Mediterranean influences. I got to learn about baharat, and I got to learn about halva. I learned how to use those ingredients. For example, how to use a dried chili versus a fresh chili. When I eat, I want something that's super bright and fresh. I want tons of acid, and I always want a heat level. It's so fun to deal with vegetables because you can manipulate them. You can use the same vegetable but change it a million different ways.
What local produce has been a challenge to work with but resulted in a win?
I got a big box of trifoliate oranges. They're a super small Tennessee citrus, and they're very bitter. Since I’m a savory chef, I wanted to figure out how to use them in a savory dish. We ended up folding it into a strained yogurt, and then adding a little bit of shiso. We are serving it with a schezwan pepper-crusted rack of lamb. There's the spice of the pepper, the acidity from the tart orange, the creaminess of the yogurt, and then the herbaceousness from the shiso, so it hits all the notes that are important to me, while using only local products.
In talking with you, the word that keeps coming back to me is “celebrate.” I noticed that you celebrate your staff. You clearly celebrate food. How else does that word play into Lou?
When you come to Lou, it should feel celebratory, even if it’s just on a Tuesday at noon. There’s a mentor of mine, his name is Eric. And he gave me this advice: "Build a brand that has more value than yourself." You see a lot of restaurants that are so focused on the chef, that one person, and I get it, but I just didn't want to be the one person, because it's not just me. I am the chef and the owner. I was the one able to get the money, but it's my sous-chef who's there every single day helping me write recipes and managing the team, my pastry chef who's there by herself doing production for an entire category, and my wine director who buys all of our wines because I know nothing about wines.
You've had quite a first year. I'd like to know, what are your hopes for year two?
I really just want to be able to provide jobs, provide a great working environment for people, and offer something to the community. This next year is really about continuing what we're already doing.