By Chris Mohney
Joining the restaurant industry after leaving behind a career in fashion, Mailea Weger served in restaurants from Paris to New Orleans and New York before landing sous chef gigs at Gjusta and Gjelina in Los Angeles. Lured back to Paris to open the Echo cafe, she ultimately returned stateside, where she’s brought together her assorterd influences as chef-owner of Lou, a French/Californian/natural wine bar/brunch spot in East Nashville.
I worked in fashion until I was thirty. I liquidated my life and moved to Europe about nine years ago. I traveled all over, but I ended up going to Paris for one of the legs of the trip. And I started to run out of cash, so I picked up a job getting paid under the table at this cafe in a really beautiful old museum of architecture. I fell in love with the tactile-ness of cooking, and that it uses both your right and your left brain. You know technically how to get there, but you can also kind of take it wherever you want once you have a foundation.
So I came back to the US, went to culinary school in San Diego, worked in restaurants in New Orleans, New York, and back in Los Angeles. I was recruited from LA to open Echo restaurant in Paris. I spent two years there, which was really great. People were really excited about this healthyish take on breakfast. Parisians still just get coffee and baguettes or croissants to go in the morning. The concept of sitting down and having a proper meal at brunch or for breakfast was new.
The other side of it was being able to layer on food that is good for your body, but doesn’t necessarily taste overly healthy, in a setting that doesn’t read like a juice shop. You can get great juices at Echo and oatmeal and stuff, but the spaces are very casual—like takeaway spots. We did all-day brunch. We opened at nine and we closed at three. And it did really well.
My husband and I decided to come to Nashville because my parents retired to Franklin, Tennessee, about six years ago. Both of my parents were entrepreneurs, so it seemed like the natural next step for me to open a restaurant. When we were deciding where to go, a lot of factors played into it. Besides my family being here—and that’s a huge selling point, it’s really nice to be able to live near them when I haven’t done so in, I don’t know, 20 years—it’s also the affordability and the community in Nashville. They’re so dining-curious. They spend their money on eating and drinking, and people are always out. It’s a very lively town.
Around five years ago, a lot of pretty big chefs started moving to Nashville and opening different restaurants. That changed things. Julia Jaksic from Employees Only in New York opened Cafe Roze. It’s really great, it’s down the street. Before that, Sean Brock came from Charleston to Nashville and opened up some really great restaurants here. Folk opened in the last two or three years, from Philip Krajeck of Rolf & Daughters, which has been around longer. Then there’s Peninsula—the chef, Jake Howell, is from Seattle, and he just opened about two years ago, too. And they’re focusing on something different, except for Sean, who does focus on Southern food, but elevated.
It used to be very meat-and-three and very barbecue-style around here, and fried chicken and all of that sort of heavier Southern food. People relocating because of the affordability—expats is maybe a strong word, but people moving from LA and New York and Chicago wanted alternative dining options, and the city started to provide them.
I began writing my business plan while I was in Paris, and I wanted to check out the rent to start mapping the overhead. When I was online, I actually found the space I’m currently in. It had just become available that month. I fell in love with this space. I was so worried that I couldn’t leave Paris in enough time to get it. But I did.
Lou is in an old Craftsman home that was lived in for a long time. They turned it into commercial space about 10 years ago. The seating is limited. It’s kind of small, so for some of the bigger restaurant groups, even though it’s so cute and charming and in such a great neighborhood—it didn’t maybe accommodate the kind of traffic they were looking for. We have 34 seats inside, plus a really tiny bar of five. And then there’s a patio that we just got approved. Now we’re roofing it and enclosing it, which will double our seats and let us seat people out there probably 80% of the year. So we’ll have about 75 seats, which would be great.
When you’re a chef, you specialize in a specific style of cuisine based on the experience you have, what you’re most interested in and passionate about, and what you want to eat. When I was developing the menu for Lou, I definitely wanted to do brunch. I thoroughly enjoy eating brunch and cooking brunch. It’s probably my favorite meal. But I was also very influenced by living in Paris and going to the wine bars.
I really wanted the restaurant to feed you good food that makes you feel good and not heavy—you know, working with whole grains and gluten-free flours and super, super seasonal. We’ve been open for five months. I’ve changed the menu six times. I’m constantly changing it, because it’s fun, right? it gives you another reason to come back. In three or four weeks, I’m kind of bored with that salad, and l want a different one.
I wanted the intimacy that the French have when they’re out. In Los Angeles, it’s kind of loud. There usually aren’t places to sit. It’s kind of sceney. In France, you go and you sit and you take your time. You’re there to make a memory and really enjoy yourself. At night, we focus on shareable plates so that everybody can pick out what they’re eating. It becomes a better dining experience for our guests to be like, “Oh, I want some this and some of that.” There’s already something to talk about. We allow guests to sit for a long time—dinner is at least two hours, if you want it to be.
I also wanted to focus heavily on a wine-bar style, specifically natural wine. I was nervous about being able to find wines I wanted to sell, and then I was nervous about having a customer that would understand why I’m offering those wines. We have about 15 by the glass, and we only have about five by the bottle. In France, you’ll go to a restaurant and try a wine, maybe you take a bottle home and love it. If you go back a couple days later and say, “Hey, we had this bottle and we want to get it again,” they’ll tell you, “No.” At first you’re like, “What? That’s so rude.”
But what they’re trying to do is help you experience something else. And they also want other customers to experience what you had. So it’s really about an adventure. I want you to try one glass, and then try something different, and continue to change your palate as you hang out here. I was pretty worried we were not going to be able to get these wines in middle Tennessee, but we have. People are just so excited about our wine program. We have been welcomed with open arms.
I’m so excited we chose East Nashville because it’s absolutely an artistic spot. A lot of musicians live around here, and photographers, and people who have less structured schedules. If we’re open on a Monday at eleven, we see people in here. Those customers really understand what we’re trying to do and are excited about it.
I play music kinda loud, and we turn the lights for dinner way down. It’s kind of sexy. It’s a vibe. We want you to sit and hang out and drink wine and try food.
I just bought all of my managers and I tickets to Paris, and we’re going to Paris for a week in May. We’re going for six days, and then we’re going to spend two days in New York and eat other food and get them to understand a better idea of the culture I’m trying to create.
Our service aspect is pretty high-end on one level. We pour all of your wine tableside, and we reset every course. But at the same time, I want it to feel like you can converse and have a conversation with whoever you’re working with, that there’s a personality behind your experience here. I think being able to take the staff to Paris will show them exactly what I’m talking about. Before we pour you a glass, we’ll let you try anything. We want you to feel inspired with the food and the wine. We want you to feel leave feeling, not confused, but inspired. That comes with service.