Though RJ Cooper has only called Nashville home since January, he’s already made a dent in exploring its surrounds, often from the back of his motorcycle. Henley’s executive chef lives in the residences adjoining the Kimpton Aertson Hotel with his wife and two children, and in the rare downtime he has from keeping his patrons well-fed, he’s off eating his way through the local culinary scene.
A James Beard-winning chef, the Detroit-born chef has bounced around kitchens in Charlotte, Atlanta and D.C. before finding a home at Henley in Nashville’s Midtown neighborhood. Nashville was always on his wish list as a future home so he jumped at the chance to sculpt Henley’s menu with his philosophy of using quality, regional ingredients from “as close to home as you can.”
“I love Nashville,” RJ says. “It’s got art, it’s got music, it’s got food, it’s got great people, it’s got open-mindedness. It’s a fantastic town.”
We pulled RJ out of his kitchen long enough for him to share a few of his favorite Nashville haunts—so far.
Favorite Overall Restaurant: While RJ cites Bastion, Catbird Seat and Nicky’s as restaurants in his regular rotation, it’s an East Nashville izakaya (a kind of laid-back Japanese gastropub) that gets him most excited. “I love Two Ten Jack. I think it’s the best sushi in the city, as well as one of the best ramen shops,” he raves. “For brunch, I love Urban Cowboy. I go there every other week on Sunday and drink rose all day long and all night. The menu changes, and it’s always good—I’ve had a play on a honey bun, this fantastic melon salad and fresh cheese with Tabasco oil.”
Favorite Bar in Nashville (and the World): Chef is adamant that his favorite bar in Music City—the famed double-wide trailer, Santa’s Pub, run by a Kris Kringle doppelganger—is also the best bar anywhere. “End of story, hands down, the best bar in the whole world is Santa’s, Santa’s, Santa’s!” he exclaims. “You can get $3 Bud Lights and have fun all night long.” Cooper, however, doesn’t partake in the bar’s biggest draw: karaoke. “I don’t sing. I cook. There’s no way in Hell I would try to sing with the people who perform there!”
Favorite Cocktail Experience: RJ is a cocktail bar enthusiast and a repeat visitor at Hemingway’s and Bastion, although he visits popular speakeasy The Patterson House more than any others. “It’s two blocks from my home in the Aertson,” he explains, “so I can walk on home. Cooper’s spirit of choice is bourbon, but his last cocktail at Patterson House was “a Painkiller, probably one of the best cocktails I’ve ever had,” he recalls.
Favorite Staff Hang: “We like to drink beer over at South Street Smokehouse. It’s like 20 steps to my door.” RJ says he and his staff can be found there after hours at least three times a week.
Favorite Dive Joint: “Paradise Park for the burgers.”
Favorite Way to Spend a Day Off: As a chef in a new restaurant—and a husband and father of two—RJ doesn’t get a lot of downtime, but on a rare day off, he hops on his motorcycle and gets out of town. “I go out into the country, I look at farms,” he says. “And I’m going to ride it down to Huntsville really soon, too.”
Favorite Nashville Hot Chicken: “My favorite hot chicken is here [at the Kimpton Aertson Hotel]. We make it for banquets, and it’s fantastic,” he says, though he says don’t expect to see hot chicken on the Henley menu because there are too many excellent hot chicken joints in town. “I also love Prince’s and Hattie B’s—two different methods, but they’re both great.” RJ prefers Nashville’s signature dish served “HOT … with milk and beer.”