Photos by Bethany Reid
Chef Nick Scott, owner of Alchemy and now Salt&Soy, discusses working his way through the food industry, the art of sushi and the ramifications of the pandemic.
Owner and Chef of Alchemy & SALT & SOY
I started out cooking when I was 15 years old. I went back forth in and out of the restaurant industry. The restaurant industry stuck obviously. I was a sous chef over at Ya Ya’s, which was a Mediterranean restaurant, over in Germantown for four or five years. I also opened Wally Joes’ over where Interim is now.
I bounced all over Memphis. I became the Executive Chef at Flight before moving to Blue Fin where I was the Executive Chef for years and did sushi forever. I worked at Do’ Sushi. I ended up buying Alchemy, which was the first restaurant I owned. I had done some managing, so I had some front-of-the-house experience, but I’m definitely a back-of-house person. So running an entire restaurant was definitely a different experience.
I was also a Chef-Partner at Fleming’s Steak House. Since it’s corporate, they really shove the business aspect of it down your throat non-stop. By the time I left there I had a grasp on the business side of things, or as much as you can have grasp on it.
But, it was still a terrifying jump. It was a huge risk. Going from having a stable job as an Executive Chef where you know what your salary is going to be forever to having no salary until after everything gets paid.
Alchemy is also a very cocktail-oriented restaurant, which I’ll get into later, so I kind of had to learn more about bartending as well. I enjoy a good cocktail, but I was never able to make one. I kind of tried to change the way we looked at everything. I wanted us to start looking at the bar as a liquid kitchen. I wanted to use some technique we had kind of developed in the kitchen at the bar.
But, it all worked out. Then me and my former partner bought Interim and started City Block Salumeria with Brad McCarley, who is working with me at Salt I Soy as the Executive Chef.
Even though I love Alchemy, I always wanted to open my own original restaurant. But when you do that you have a ton more overhead. Alchemy was kind of a turn-key situation. The guys who had were ready to get out of it and I was ready to take it over.
Salt I Soy will be my first original concept, but it’s been in the making for a long time. Brad and I started doing our Butcher Dinners across the city a few years ago. They were coursed out dinners where we collaborated with different chefs. Our first one was at Porcellino's when City Block was there, and it just kind of grew from there. It was kind of like a trifecta thing between me, Brad and the guest chef, where we would all drink the wine we’d feature and kind of brainstorm a dinner together. We brought in a lot of different cooks and most of the dinners turned out really great.
Salt I Soy kind of evolved out of those dinners. It started as a pop-up in 2018 at 409 S. Main, when Brad took City Block Salumeria down there. That was its first real incarnation.
I already owned Alchemy and Interim, but I was on my way out of Interim. I really wanted Salt I Soy to take the creative workload of Interim. We looked for years and years to find the right brick and mortar spot, but it just never happened.
I’d done all kinds of different foods. Working with Wally Joe, who is Chinese and from the Delta, he kind of put an Asian lean on Southern cuisine. I’m kind of accustomed to adding those Asian flavors and techniques into the southern fine-dining style of cooking.
As I said earlier, I ended up getting a job at BlueFin where I made sushi for about 12 years and there are a lot of different techniques within that style. While I was there we had a bunch of guys from Japan who would come over and work with us to learn some of the Americanized recipes, and they would teach me more traditional techniques. We’ve worked with some really great guys who now have their own restaurants with Michelin Stars across the world.
I just feel like sushi is a really limitless style of food.
So when the pandemic first started I dedicated to do sushi instead of Alchemy’s regular menu because I didn’t think the food we did at Alchemy doesn’t really lend itself to the whole ‘to-go’ thing. We just felt running Salt I Soy through the Alchemy kitchen was a no-brainer. And it turned out really well. We already had a pretty good following from the pop-ups, so a lot of people were familiar with it. It just worked out for us.
Sushi is something you can have hot or cold. You can obviously use fish, but you can also use beef, duck, or really anything and it can be ‘sushi.’
Honestly, I don’t know if there is really a line between what ‘is sushi’ and ‘isn’t sushi.’ I think that’s what I really like about it. It can really be almost anything. You can take almost any technique or flavor and incorporate it into sushi. It can cross all boundaries. That’s the funnest part about it. It’s also just beautiful food.
Before Salt I Soy, Brad McCarley was known around the city for running several butcher programs. The most notable being his own creation City Block Salumeria, which had been running out of 409 S. Main for the past several years. McCarley is planning on bringing his passion for unique cuts to the Salt I Soy menu. Read more about Chef McCarley in the third issue of Memphis Current.
We’re going to have a heavy Izakaya menu, which is essentially Japanese small plate and bar food. It’s going to be a pretty expansive small plates menu. That’s really what I’ve been focusing on. I’ll be more of the hot side, and Nick will be more of the sushi side. Obviously Nick has a big background in Japanese food in general, but specifically in sushi. We’ll be collaborating a lot because we just fucking love working with each other.
We’ll also be doing sausages and Asian-styled cured meats. We’re doing all of our meats in house. Another thing I’ve been working on is fermenting all of our vegetables, making hot-sauces, salted plums, and lots of different kinds of misos.
I’m originally from Owensboro, Kentucky, but I moved to Memphis about eight-years-ago to join a blues band. I’m a jack-of-all-trades musically, but in that project I played a trap-kit drum set with a suitcase, snare and brushes. Very busker style. I quickly fell in love with Memphis and the heart the city has.
I got my first legs behind a bar at Ubees on Highland. I started out barbacking over there. I really fell in love with nightlife. It wasn’t the craft of it originally, but more so curating a vibe — reading a room, getting to know customers, feeling the movement.
Eventually I became a bartender at The Pumping Station. While I was there I learned to deal with just about every situation that could happen in a bar. From gunshot victims to throwing people out. Over those four years I really learned a lot about how to handle situations and eventually became one of the managers.
After that I went to work at the Hu. Hotel’s rooftop bar. I was in charge of putting together their bar program. I quickly found out that the corporate life wasn’t what I was really pursuing.
But, luckily, I saw that Alchemy had an opening. The GM at the time was a regular of mine at The Pumping Station. So I left my job as head bartender at the Hu. Hotel to be a barback at Alchemy.
Once I got to Alchemy I bided my time. I started learning the actual craft of the trade. Alchemy also gave me a lot of freedom to put my own spin on things. It was definitely a whole new experience, but if I’m not being challenged then I’m not going to be able to do what I’m best at.
After being at Alchemy for a couple months, Nick and other management saw what I was capable of and knew that I was overqualified. So, I was promoted to being a bartender. I helped create several cocktail menus and eventually worked my way up to being in a manager position. Now I’ve been with them for over two years.
It’s really exciting to be able to work on a restaurant from the ground up. When we had to shut down during the early part of the pandemic, we decided to actually do Salt I Soy’s food instead. It went phenomenally well. That was my first dive of getting to know my way around sushi and the techniques behind it. I’m building the cocktail menu around those Asian influences and making as many of the cocktail ingredients as I can in-house
I want to say that Nick’s really been good to everybody, especially during the pandemic. He’s always had the staff’s backs and I’m just super thankful for this opportunity to put my own spin on what we have to offer here.
So in late 2019, the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission called and told us that since our liquor sales are higher than our food sales we had to change our license from a ‘full-service’ restaurant to a ‘limited service’ restaurant.
That in itself was a huge ordeal and I actually had to get a former ABC attorney to get it switched over because they gave me such a run around. It’s also a thousand dollars more expensive every year, which is fine because we do sell a lot of liquor. But, I felt like that classification is skewed because we only use premium spirits and ingredients in our cocktails, which in turn raises the price.
So then 2020 comes around. And in March, as we all know, everybody got shut down. It was terrible. We had to lay off 35 people and that was a really hard thing to do because I know first and foremost I can’t do anything if I don’t have any employees. I don’t have a business without my employees.
Then we get into lockdown and they allow us to do to-go food. We tried to do some limited menu stuff from Alchemy at first, but our food just really didn’t lend itself to the to-go situation. So we switched it over to doing the Salt and Soy food, which worked great. After a couple months they let everybody open back up. But, within a few weeks I got a call from a local food writer who asked, ‘Hey! How do you feel about being shut down?’ I was like, ‘What? I’m not shutting down?’
Then they released the list, and of course, since our name is Alchemy we were at the top of the list. So, we find out that limited-service restaurants will have to close. And, because of those alcohol-to-food sale percentages, we were categorized as a limited-service restaurant. I didn’t agree with that. Eventually the ABC, not the Health Department, came and shut us down.
We tried to do to-go but we were at such an unfair disadvantage because we are surrounded by ‘full-service’ restaurants that were allowed to let people dine-in as well as get togo food. It just wasn’t worth it for us or our employees to try and compete. It wasn’t worth it for our employees to get off of unemployment to have to come and try to live exclusively off of to-go tips. We tried it one day and only did $500 in sales. We knew after that day that we’d have to shut back down.
So, I stood up and said something, ‘If you want us to close down, you’re going to have to come and shut us down.’ Which they did, and so I, and some other limited-service restaurants, decided to sue the city.
I wanted to make it known, and I feel like we did. We put a spotlight on how arbitrary these categorizations and these decision-making processes are.
So we fought and fought and fought and fought it. We went to federal court with it. They were super focused on the part of our name where it says ‘Alchemy: Cocktails and Cuisine.’ Well, ‘Why does it say cocktails before cuisine?’ I’m like, ‘Medically what the hell does that have to do it? What the hell does our name have to do with spreading COVID 19?’
We’ve got a very big restaurant. We had everything spaced out accordingly. We were sanitizing everything. We sanitized the bar top so much that the sanitizer was eating the lacquer off of the bar.
I respect a lot of these other bars that fought with us, but I still just don’t feel like Alchemy should have ever even been in that category. We’re not a beer bar or a shot bar. We sell cocktails with premium spirits, so our food-to-drink sales are just skewed because of our prices.
I just felt like they were looking at everything so black and white and were lumping everybody together without any consideration. I don’t know if anyone that was making those decisions has ever been on a date before.
But, I feel like at the end of the day I stood my ground and I didn’t roll over. I felt, and still feel, that it was important for everyone. I don’t know what grounds it gave everyone to stand on when they opened back up, but I hope that it helped. Suing the city costs a little bit of money, but it was better than just rolling over and dying.
If you don’t get a basket of fries with your with your beer you’re going to catch fucking COVID and die? It was an arbitrary decision that was made, and it wasn’t actually based on any kind of fact. But the point of the matter is that we made it. Luckily we were able to get through it.
Restaurants are very much alive. If there’s no one there they die. Without water running through them and people using the equipment everything just dries out, rots and collapses. I walked in one day and there was water running everywhere because our main water pipe exploded. Thank God we’ve got such a great landlord. But there was something new happening every day that we’d have to fix.
All of the food that we had ordered had to be given away or thrown out because our reps couldn’t take it back and then insurance wouldn’t cover it. It’s bullshit and there’s a class-action lawsuit going on about that. Apparently, insurance doesn’t cover damage from the ‘flu.’
And they consider COVID-19 the flu. It’s not the fucking flu. We don’t shut down the entire economy because of the flu.
We opened up back on September 25th. We’re lucky to still have some loyal customers. We’re still probably down 60 percent or so in sales compared to a typical year. We’re building a patio behind Alchemy, which is better suited to pandemic dining. I’m just thankful we’ve made it through this and I am really excited to finally open up Salt I Soy. That’s at least one good thing from this year.