Sous chef steps up to lead charge in Nashville’s new eatery
June 20, 2017
There was no divine calling, no enduring photos of a toddler baking in his memaw's kitchen, chef hat atop his head.
For Eric Zizka, the ascent to culinary captain was messy, jotted with football injuries and car crashes, dreams stolen and abandoned plans.
"You don't realize it until now," he said, "but every single place that you've ever worked teaches you something."
It's a sobering thought for the 38-year-old sports-junkie-turned-chef, and the lesson is more vivid in the wake of it all.
Growing up in Windham, Conn., his days were full of football, basketball, wrestling and soccer, too. Yet his folks begged a family friend to give the rambunctious teen a summer job.
"My parents said, 'Is there anything you can give him to do to take the energy out of this kid? 'Cause sports isn't doing it…'"
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Soon, the high school freshman's Monday and Tuesday nights found him arms deep in dishes. Revisiting the introduction to his life's passion, Zizka's eyes still ignite.
"We'd head home out the back and I'd see the guys cooking on the line. I always admired them," he said.
The impression was immediate, the outcome, more of an accident.
As executive chef of Nashville's new Oak Steakhouse, Zizka wakes up each morning and heads to the heart of Music City's business district and the latest addition to The Indigo Road Restaurant Group. At 801 Clark Place, he's in charge, no dishes to wash.
That's not to say Zizka hasn't paid his dues.
In fact, after a decade of working in back of the house and front, the kid from Connecticut has been on the Indigo Road team since 2013, first as renowned Chef Jeremiah Bacon's right hand at the Oak's flagship restaurant in Charleston, S.C., before heading to Oak Atlanta to get the sister restaurant up to speed.
For 18 months, Zizka honed his craft and built the culture to mirror what was happening in Charleston.
Still, the chef wanted more.
That's when Music Row called. A group of investors had built a hotel downtown and wanted the Oak as its casual, fine-dining fixture.
"It was the right time, the right place, the right people to be involved with and so, you know, Steve (Palmer, owner) shook their hand, signed a deal, and here we are in Nashville."
Oak Steakhouse Nashville wasn't first in the Oak's well-known world but it stands on it's own just fine. It's swanky, with a modern vibe and open floor plan; a wine wall cascades down two stories as diners overlook Nashville's street scene.
"People come out to eat for all kinds of reasons," Zizka says. "To celebrate life, happiness – we want to make sure we're giving them the most pleasurable experience we can."
The food guarantees just that, he said.
In contrast to its modern dress, a classic menu includes cuts like Certified Angus Beef brand Prime New York Strip, both wet- and dry-aged.
"It has everything to do with the Certified Angus Beef brand," Zizka said of what sets the restaurant apart. "The marbling, texture, flavor and richness. The beef is in a class by itself."
If it weren't, the chef would tell you.
"We've tried and tested consistently. The best thing about CAB is that, as a chef, the only thing I need to do is cook it properly. The beef speaks for itself."
Zizka credits the ranchers for making it that way.
"It's more than a brand. The final outcome, the reason it tastes good, it all goes back to the ranchers and how they're raising their cattle," he says. "The love and care that goes into the cattle is the same love and care we want to show our guests."
Rest assured, they do just that. This time with Zizka at the head.