Nashville chef Trey Cioccia sits across the table from me, relaxed and happy, a glass and Styrofoam cup in front of him: one for his water, the other for the Copenhagen tobacco he is enjoying.

This is one of the few times Cioccia can relax during the 90 hours he spends at his restaurant every week. Nevertheless, he devotes all of his attention to our conversation, pausing only briefly to wave at passersby out the window or bid a good afternoon to an employee.

Thinking our conversation would provide me just a mere glimpse of Nashville’s culinary scene and Cioccia’s restaurant, I was soon to be surprised as I listened to Cioccia keenly connect food to family, our country, the commercial nature of society, and life in general.

The Roots

We converse in Cioccia’s restaurant The Farm House, located in the middle of downtown Nashville’s constant ebb and flow of country music and rowdy tourists. The restaurant lies directly off of 3rd Avenue and right beside the Country Music Hall of Fame; inside, it is tastefully decorated with Edison bulbs and exposed wood.

The Farm House has been serving some of Nashville’s best upscale Southern cuisine for three years, and Cioccia is the restaurant’s founder and head chef.

Raised in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, not far from my hometown, Cioccia draws upon many inspirations for his food. His grandfather immigrated to the United States from Sicily, which has led Cioccia to find strong parallels between the South and his grandfather’s homeland.

“Being a Southern boy, the culture [in the South] is so similar to how people lived in the south of Italy,” Cioccia tells me. "We're poor people. That's who we are."

Furthermore, Cioccia looks to his other grandfather and the 100-acre farm his family has owned for years for further inspiration. Talking about his passion for food and skills in the kitchen, he says, “Maybe it’s in my DNA. Maybe it’s in my blood.”

Utilizing the techniques of Italian cooking and the lessons he learned growing up near a farm, Cioccia has married the south of the Mason Dixon to the south of Italy to create the farm-to-table food he serves at The Farm House. 

Staying Local, Staying American

All of the produce and meats Cioccia serves at The Farm House are from the South. His trout are sourced less than 2 hours from Nashville. His bacon comes from East Tennessee. His cheese comes from Kentucky.

 In fact, unless Cioccia has personally been to the land on which his food was grown or raised, it isn’t served in his restaurant, which itself was built by local contractors and features wood from a flood in Bellevue, Tennessee.

Cioccia says that his devotion to fresh and local ingredients can be seen in his menu, which, like life in the restaurant business, is always changing and evolving. "Not a day is the same. I fucking love it," he exclaims.

In fact, as I begin to look around his restaurant Cioccia directs me to the glass I’m drinking from, repurposed from a wine bottle and made in Chicago. Even the earthenware plates on the tables are made by a friend of Cioccia.

“We are the only all-American bar and grill,” Cioccia says with a twang in his voice and immense pride. “We don’t even carry Budweiser.”

Cioccia's efforts to be all-American are an effort to better the country he loves. His devotion to local food and American goods may not be the least expensive options, but he keeps in mind that in the end his efforts could drive down the cost for everyone. “It takes 3 percent of people to change and make a difference,” he says.

The Food

For Cioccia, his food is an escape. "In America we get so caught up in money and greed. Cooking is a way out," he says. 

At The Farm House, Cioccia directs all of these all-American and local components into a unique array of original dishes and revamped Southern classics.

Instead of serving pimento cheese, a Southern staple and favorite that is too often served on sandwiches or crackers, Cioccia fills unsweetened beignet batter with the creamy spread and tops it with 'onion ash' instead of powdered sugar.

Elsewhere on Cioccia's ever-changing menu, diners can find his popular "pop tarts": pastries which he fills with braised pork belly and jam, or pastrami, pickled cabbage, jam, and goat cheese. 

Cioccia attempts to channel "grandma's flavors" into dishes that look different, filling his pasta salad with squid ink, or making his deviled eggs with duck eggs. For him, his restaurant is meant to leave room for exploration and education on the culinary world. Hearing his customers positively exclaim "Oh my God - what is this?" is what he lives for.

The Southern Experience

When providing his customers the Southern experience, Cioccia values much more than the food. He also recognizes the sanctity of Southern hospitality, an integral part of the South that I tell him I have missed, having left my hometown to attend college in the Midwest.

At The Farm House, ladies are served first. Veterans and police eat 50 percent off. His employees refer to diners as "sweethearts" and hold doors open for people. Sweet tea is proudly served. "We'll share the shirts off our backs," says Cioccia.

Despite The Farm House being a relatively upscale restaurant with higher prices, Cioccia ensures me that everyone is welcome in his restaurant. Diners include CEOs with big businesses, moms and dads who haven't had a night out in a while, and the trash collectors who pick up garbage from his restaurant. 

The Farm House is not stale. The Farm House is not rough. There is no dress code. "It's fine," Cioccia says, "Drop a shit bomb! Put your elbows on the table. We are who we are."

Forward Progress

Cioccia recalls his early days in the food business, working at The Hermitage Hotel's Capitol Grille, where so many Nashville chefs got their starts. Back then, Cioccia explains that "shit was thrown at me," and yelling in the kitchen was not uncommon. It took him 16 years to advance beyond being a line cook, and he never wore his feelings on his sleeve in the kitchen.

"We have filthy mouths. We drink like sailors. We are OCD," he says, talking about how chefs should act and calling them the ideal soldiers.

"Gentleman chefs" like The French Laundry's Thomas Keller are no longer respected by young, green chefs, Cioccia tells me disappointedly. As someone who views Keller as one of his inspirations and admires Keller's determination and influence in the culinary world, Cioccia finds this troubling and expresses concern about young people who have recently entered the field.

"Failure makes you the person you are," he says, and he firmly believes that steady progression and hard work are ever-important. 

Cioccia smiles and recalls one of his skilled line chefs, whom he employed for his first job. Cioccia notes that the man's determination has paid off because of his work ethic and willingness to learn. 

It is obvious to me that Cioccia pushes his chefs, but more importantly, it is obvious that their well-being and personal sense of pride is heavily valued by their boss.

Family & Future

Having talked to Nashville chef Trey Cioccia for over an hour and gotten a firm grasp on his love for food, his country, and his employees, I ended our conversation talking about his family and future.

Cioccia, a father to two young sons, stresses to me the importance of taking care of oneself, and devoting time to the little things in life like coaching his son's tee-ball team. He tells me that he wants to teach his kids to grow up with respect; he wants his kids to learn how to fail, and learn how to deal with that feeling.

"Failure makes you the person you are," he says.

Nevertheless, he ensures me that he is not slowing down.

Looking to the future, Cioccia has many plans for his career, and little regard for online reviews, cumbersome food critics, or what is happening on the Food Network.

He expresses to me a firm devotion to staying in Nashville, and tells me about his plans for bottling his sauces and opening a new restaurant called Black Rabbit in Nashville's Printer's Alley. Serving only cocktails and small plates, his new place will feature an open kitchen, no televisions, and a 1920s-themed ambiance.

Moreover, Cioccia plans to write a book one day about the life of a chef, the hard work and dedication required in the food industry, and the difficulties of the business, which will hopefully inspire the young people looking to do what he loves. 

"I want to know at the end of my career that we made an impact on Nashville," he says.

It is fully apparent to me, however, that Cioccia's impact has already been made, and I am positive that his influence as a groundbreaking and rebellious Nashville chef will continue to grow exponentially in the future.