Chef-Parent Interview: Sarah Gavigan

Sarah Gavigan is a fourth-generation Nashvillian and music executive turned Chef and restaurateur. After twenty years in Los Angeles working in the entertainment industry, Gavigan returned to her hometown in 2010, inspired by her ultimate comfort food: ramen.  Sarah began to perfect her own recipe before launching her restaurant group, POP Nashville, in 2014 that grew to include Otaku Ramen in 2015 and most recently Little Octopus. 

Source: Polished Pig Media

You’ve owned and operated several very successful businesses in the Hollywood film, advertising and music licensing and now own and operate Pop Hospitality Group – which includes Otaku Ramen, Little Octopus, and the newest member POP TOGO. With all of that experience, what lessons about being a Boss Lady have you imparted on your daughter?

Treat people with dignity – always. This is my #1 rule. No one is beneath you and we all play a vital role in the day to day business. It’s important to me that as my daughter moves forward in her life and becomes an adult that she knows you don’t get anywhere alone. It takes teamwork, and teamwork takes patience and perseverance.

Tell us about your upcoming cookbook! Will it include Japanese recipes or will we also get a peek into your family history that includes Italian, Southern and other cuisines?

This cookbook is about my deepest food love – Ramen. Not the 99 cent form, but the artisan noodles and soup version that is the most beloved dish in Japan. The origin of the dish (it’s not what you think) and the timeframe in which it has becomes popular (also not what you think) play a huge role in what it is today. For me ramen has a magic surrounding it no other food does. When I worked in the music biz I had days I would duck out and go get a bowl of ramen by myself. I’d queue up at my local shop, wait for my bowl, take my glasses off, put away my phone and do nothing but eat that bowl of ramen for 15 minutes. And then my day was always better. I taught myself to make this glorious food and now I want to teach you. Its soul medicine.

Soy Braised Shiitake Maz and Cheese / Source: Polished Pig Media

Did you get involved in cooking as a child? Is getting your daughter interested in cooking important to you? Might she follow in your footsteps or does she have a passion she would like to pursue?

I did not show serious interest in cooking until I was in college, with a kitchen and no idea what to do. So I called my Sicilian Nonna and she taught me how to make her infamous Manicotti over the phone. As she said,”It was an expensive phone call.” That was in 1990. My daughter loves food. She has travelled the world through food. Right now as a high school student, food plays a  secondary role in life, but I am excited to see what role food plays in her adult life.

How did Otaku come about?

I missed ramen so much I had to learn how to make it. Period.

What inspires you now?

I am the leader of my team, and now thanks to the popularity of Otaku ramen, it’s a big team. Right now in my life I am honestly inspired by my team and being the best team leader I can be. That requires a lot of insight, and to date in my career, that has not been my default setting. I regular speed is steamroller. As a leader you must be the fly on the wall with the strength of a gorilla. I love it and I take it very seriously.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a restaurateur?

Building a team that believes in the goal of the company as a whole. You can hire people and they can be capable, but do they BELIEVE. It’s such an intangible. We have that at the ramen Shop and it’s a gift that I continually try to cultivate. It’s similar to being a mother. You paint the picture and set the tone for your family as a women. I must do the same for my business. Christmas decorations and all.

What advice would you give someone venturing into the restaurant business?

Start your decision making by the numbers. Come up with an amount of money you NEED to make and the amount of money you WANT to make and reverse engineer it to your business plan. Find someone who will show you how to financially forecast your business idea on paper. The numbers don’t lie. You need the passion to get the business off the ground and sustain it, but if the numbers are not on your side out of the gate, you will never be profitable.

How do you balance being a restaurateur and a parent?

Hardest question to answer. Some days I am great at it and some days I am not. My Mom told me when I started this business to focus on QUALITY time with my daughter and not to get hung up on QUANTITY. It was good advice and I try to adhere to it.

Did becoming a parent change your cooking style at all?

Not one bit really.

What’s your daughter’s favorite dish at any of your restaurants? And is it the same at home when you’re in the kitchen?

Her favorite bowl of ramen is the Shoyu. Its a clear chicken broth seasoned with soy sauce and topped with pork. First bowl we ate off the airplane in Tokyo and it made a lasting impression on her. She is unwavering in her choice of that style of ramen. Love that about her. At Little Octopus she goes for the burger. Its criminal how good it is, but its not gratuitous, which is what I love about it. I call it a “lady burger.”

Tantan Mazeman / Source: Polished Pig Media

Who does most of the cooking at home? And which dishes do you find you cook most regularly?

I still do and I am always roasting a chicken or braising something.  Lamb shanks are an all time fave in our house.

Does your daughter like helping you cook at home? If so, what dishes does she like making most?

She is not totally into cooking yet – but mostly cookies. She loves to make a cookie.

Where do you like to eat out with your daughter on your days off?

We love tacos off the beaten path, or a bowl of PHO.

How often do you all eat out together as a family? (or do you find that you want to eat at home on your days off rather than go out?)

It varies – but we try to eat together at least three times a week.

Do you have a favorite activity to do with your daughter on your days off?

Girls day with the teenager, right now its all makeup and the mall.

Do you have any culinary traditions from past generations that you’ve adopted?

So many. My favorite is my Sicilian Grandmother’s Manicotti with crepes that I make for Christmas Day with meatballs.

Source: Polished Pig Media

Nibble+squeak is all about the joy of taking your kids out to dine at restaurants. Do you welcome children to eat at Otaku and Little Octopus? What dishes would you recommend for children on your menus?

Otaku Ramen is for everyone. Nothing makes me happier then to see a Parent and child with their noses in a bowl of ramen, sharing that moment. Magic. Noodles make everyone happy.

Little Octopus is casual fine dining and we welcome children but the menu is a bit more adventurous at dinner, we see a lot of families for brunch on the weekends. Never met a kid who didn’t like a fluffy crunchy Belgium Waffle.