Tennessean: 18 questions with Party Fowl chef Bart Pickens
Party Fowl Executive Chef Bart Pickens brings his 33 years of culinary experience to Nashville’s newest hot chicken concept where he has introduced Music City to a level of heat known as “poultrygeist.” He helped create the menu back in 2014 and has been evolving its options ever since.
1. How did Party Fowl get started?
The concept for Party Fowl came from a softball team that the owner, Austin Smith, started years ago. I came into the picture when they were designing the menu. Austin knew he wanted to do hot chicken, so I gave him some plates and ideas. From there, the original menu was born.
2. What spurred your interest in cooking?
I’m from New Orleans, and New Orleans is food. The city was my inspiration. At 15, I started cooking as a fry cook to make money to pay for dates.
3. When did you know you’d be a career chef?
I started out in college as a commercial art major. I moved from there to fine art with a focus on culinary art. When I am cooking, the plate is my palette. I enjoyed mastering the art of food presentation and that’s when I knew this was for me.
4. What brought you to Nashville?
My true love, my wife Patti — she is from Nashville.
5. What is your favorite thing about New Orleans?
The party, the vibe and the culture. Did I say the party? You can feel it in the air. It doesn’t exist anywhere else.
6. What's the most unique/strange ingredient you like to use?
Caul fat. It’s the thin membrane that surrounds the internal organs of some animals like cows, sheep or pigs. Caul fat is used for encasing food like stuffed pork loin or stuffed filet. It looks like netting; it’s all about the appearance.
7. What’s the secret to really great hot chicken?
It’s really about the blooming of the spices. Blooming is how you open up the peppers in the sauce. Doing the process correctly makes all the difference in the world.
8. How do you diversify your menu to grow beyond just chicken?
“Fowl” implies any bird, not just chicken and we’ve played with all types of fowl. Understanding the concept, its origin and how it can work in harmony with our menu is important.
9. What’s the funniest comment/feedback you have gotten from a guest after eating your chicken?
We had a big, manly construction worker in once who had big muscles and a cut-off shirt, the whole nine yards. He wanted to try "Poultrygeist," our hottest level. A couple bites in, his face turned bright red and he was sweating profusely, he even had tears streaming down his face. We tried to give him milk to help calm it down, but that didn’t help. We brought him downstairs and took him in our cooler to cool off. Needless to say, he didn’t finish the meal!
10. What do you like to do in your spare time?
I love to fish. I just got back from Florida where we went deep sea fishing for swordfish. And if I’m not fishing, I’m probably napping.
11. What’s your backstory leading up to Party Fowl?
I began my career with Al Copeland of Popeye’s Chicken fame. Al was the chicken king of Louisiana. We came across Cajun cuisine when we found Paul Prudohme’s blackened red fish. Cajun cuisine was born! I worked with Cajun cuisine for a few years before moving to Destin, Florida, to work in fine dining to develop my culinary skillset. I met my wife there when she applied to be a waitress in the restaurant where I was working at the time. The only problem was that I don’t date the waitresses, so she quit before she started. Six years later, the casinos came calling. After working as an executive chef in the casinos, I moved to Miami with a management group. I was reunited with Patti, my wife, in Miami years later and she brought me back to Nashville. I worked in various catering and fine dining venues in Nashville leading up to Party Fowl. I saw hot chicken in the same light as Cajun cuisine was in 1983, ready to be developed. It really feels like my career has come full circle.
12. What’s the best thing to wash down hot chicken (i.e. cool you off)?
Some people say milk, but I say bourbon. Our Bushwacker features both.
13. Any tips for making great chicken at home?
The best way to do it at home is to buy the spice blend and place it in a microwaveable dish with oil and lard (be sure to use a lid). Microwave on high heat for three minutes then take it out and shake it. Put in back in and microwave again for three minutes and shake again.
14. Why all the fuss over hot chicken these days?
It’s a reflection of the Nashville culinary culture. Nashville has seen an enormous increase in popularity as a tourist destination. Hot chicken is a part of that destination. And, it’s sexy.
15. Do you cook at home? If so, what’s your go-to dish for the house?
Not usually. I do enough cooking at work. If I do, I make my wife a “toad-in-the-hole.” It’s just an over easy egg in the middle of a piece of bread. She loves it.
16. Where do you like to eat around town?
I like Lost Cajuns in Hendersonville if I am in the mood for authentic Cajun cuisine. I go to The Southern if I want steak or seafood.
17. What music are you listening to these days? Any shows on your DVR?
I always listen to the Top 40s. I sing Rihanna at work all the time. I like to watch a few different shows on color TV, like Life Below Zero, Lost Alaskans, Criminal Minds and Dateline to name a few.