Better known for Southern cooking and country music, Nashville welcomes an enclave of fine French dining.
Chef Rene De Leon had just gotten off a 14-hour day at Le Sel, Strategic Hospitality’s latest Nashville venture. The Las Vegas–raised, former Chicago chef started prep work at 9 a.m., worked through lunch and dinner service, and then began the overnight tasks of breaking down whole ducks, curing pork belly, making stock, and more. It was yet another typical schedule for De Leon, whose work ethic is the main culprit for his ability to successfully open and lead the restaurant, his first starring role after working under Grant Achatz at Alinea in Chicago and later serving on the opening team for Achatz’s Next restaurant.
“People always ask me when I’m going to take a day off or a vacation, but I’ve told them not to ask me that anymore,” he admits. “It’s not just about getting the work done, it’s about doing things right. This is what I learned working for Grant.”
Positioned as a “new French” restaurant with a modern take on the classics, combined with an edgy design, Le Sel opened in early October in Midtown after nearly nine months of concept and menu development. With this, its sixth concept, Strategic Hospitality rounds out a diverse portfolio that includes the highly successful, fine-dining Catbird Seat, which includes the cocktail lounge Patterson House downstairs; Pinewood Social, a cocktail-food-bowling hangout; Paradise Park, a late-night, trailer park–themed bar and restaurant; The Band Box, an elevated concession stand that opened nearly a year ago in First Tennessee Park; and Merchants, the group’s first restaurant, a steakhouse, on busy Broadway.
Strategic Hospitality co-owners, brothers Benjamin and Max Goldberg, have made a name for themselves with their one-of-a-kind concepts, and they suggested French, but allowed Chef De Leon to define the food and also help with the overall concept and design. Now, a command of classic cooking techniques, creative inspiration, researching capability, and extraordinarily high expectations keep De Leon running day and night, literally.
The Texas-born chef (no, he’s not French) became a driven and determined individual early in life, after a rocky childhood pushed him out of his home and led him to the New England Culinary Institute. He later moved near his uncle to work in Cincinnati, but Chef De Leon set his sights on working for Thomas Keller or Grant Achatz. He ended up with Achatz after working at Hopleaf in Chicago, and landed in Nashville after longtime Alinea friend Josh Habiger, who made it big at Catbird Seat, suggested he make the move to music country.
“I took a one-way ticket to Nashville,” says De Leon.
At Le Sel, sure there’s a Lyonnaise salad, a French onion soup, and a tartare on the menu—but the salad is made with fat, carefully crafted from those many Hudson Valley ducks that De Leon breaks down every other night. The French onion soup is made with homemade bread and the tartare uses lamb instead of beef, along with the usual suspects: Dijon mustard, egg, capers, and herbs.