When I first got wind that Jess Rice was opening Nashville’s first raw food eatery Avo, I could not wait to try some of the treats I’d seen featured on her blog My Poor Tired Liver. Following her journey from the –often times unhealthy– music industry lifestyle to a raw food chef and aficionado, Rice had seemed to master a variety of unique recipes that peaked my interest. So naturally when Avo opened its doors, I was one of the first in line to get a taste of their inventive menu.
Walking into the basic, upscale cafeteria-styled space, I was intrigued at the items on the debut menu. My group ordered a salad, the pad thai, and a pesto “pasta” dish to share. Suddenly the simple decor –which features a living wall that steals the show– makes sense. The blank canvas of the space allows the food to be the star. Each dish was packed with fresh flavors that made up for the fact that it’s served cold …er, raw. The menu’s showstopper though was the pad thai, which offers a new twist on the traditional dish and made me a raw-leiver!
Finishing my first experience strong, Jess sent out a coconut ice cream with a raw peanut butter cup crumbled on top that was even better than the popular Reese’s brand. In fact, it was more satisfying than any dessert from the city’s top dining establishments. And as my crew and I walked to the car, we found ourselves already daydreaming about our next chance to dine raw.
Since it’s Summer opening, I’ve been twice for lunch, once for dinner and once to taste the brunch offerings. Each time, I have had equally satisfying experiences and look forward to the expanded menu to come (did she say Bushwhackers?! Count me in!). The boldest new restaurant [as picked by Chef Arnold Miynt in our interview with the Food Network Star chef here] is a welcomed, healthy and perfect new addition to Music City’s food scene. Find out more about the city’s new hot spot in my interview with Chef de Cusine and Co-owner Jess Rice below.
Interview with AVO Co-Owner & Chef de Cuisine Jess Rice
Chris Vetrano: You spent most of your career in publicity and working in music, so where did your love of food come from and how did that eventually turn to cooking/ eating raw?
Jess Rice: I started a blog called “My Poor Tired Liver,” which was originally meant to document funny experiences and reviewing albums/shows. When I started MPTL, I was playing music, booking a couple rooms in Austin, TX and had begun dabbling in PR. I would be out extremely late, beer and shot in hand. I was (and still am) really passionate about music, but the late hours, traveling, and lifestyle in general were starting to negatively affect my health. I decided to go vegan as a challenge to see how I felt (this was after I moved to Nashville from New York, after Austin) and then went fully raw shortly after. I felt amazing!
I changed the focus of MPTL to health and wellness (“detox” instead of constant “retox”) and decided to pursue a more holistic approach to nutrition as a permanent lifestyle change. I graduated with a BFA (illustration and design) and have always loved cooking for other people, so I went back to culinary school to learn the ropes so I could do it professionally. I am so happy I was able to combine all of my passions and turn it into a job. I’ve studied raw food and holistic nutrition all over the world; I love it and I want to give back and help other people live healthier, fuller lives if I can.
Chris: You started sharing your raw recipes on your blog a few years ago, so when did you decide to turn that into a restaurant concept?
Jess: I was making raw food for The Wild Cow, Juice Bar and 8th and Roast at the time, while pursuing an education and training in holistic nutrition and detox coaching. I was planning to go to Bali for a month to immerse myself in a raw food and detox certification program in Ubud and decided to take a few yoga classes before I went so I would be better prepared for that part of the curriculum. In short, that’s how I met my business partner, Susannah Herring. We put on a fully raw women’s yoga retreat together in Rosemary Beach months later and it was a huge success. The women on retreat said if they had the food available to them all the time, they’d always eat that way… I guess that’s when Susannah and I started to think that someday a full blown restaurant could be a possibility. Really though, all of these pieces just fell into place at exactly the right time for me… I am incredibly grateful.
Chris: What is your favorite dish on the menu?
Jess: My favorite is either the Caesar salad or the lasagna. They are both super fresh and unique but also very familiar and nourishing. I also love our avocado margaritas and can’t wait to roll out our vegan bushwacker! The fall menu is almost done, too… It’s going to be so good!
We didn’t expect to be producing such a huge volume of food right out the gate, so we’ve had to grow the menu slower than we had originally planned… But we’re a couple weeks away from having a lot more storage room and a bigger workspace in the kitchen, so keep an eye on social media for new regular menu items! It’s all so good for you… I’m really excited to share.
Chris: What’s one raw dish that you like to make that is not on the menu?
Jess: I love making raw superfood cookies which will eventually be added to the menu… They are full of nutrient-dense superfoods and healthy fats. Brain food, for sure!
I also love the maitake BBQ sliders that will be on the menu soon, too. The BBQ sliders will be my little “healthified” homage to Nashville.
Chris: What would you say to those skeptics that think raw food is flavorless or too “organic” to taste good?
Jess: Incorporating more raw, plant-based foods in your diet is just eating the way nature intended us to. No one can deny that whole fruits and veggies are amazing for you. At Avo, we like to play with traditional flavors and textures found in cooked comfort foods while still celebrating the raw ingredients for what they actually are. We also source quite a bit of our produce locally which really enhances the story and the flavors in each dish.