What a treat it was to interview Nashville restauranteur (and my across-the-street neighbor) B.J. Lofback for the second installment of FW's Seven Dimensions of Wellness Restaurant Series. I chose an interview this time in lieu of a "review," because Lofback is a much more articulate spokesman of his tastes and views than I would ever be. He provides a very candid and entertaining assessment of the current food scene, informed by a restaurant career that spans decades. B.J. is the hardest working man in show business. Though he no longer has the midtown location, he still owns the Funk Seoul Brother at the Factory at Franklin, and I can attest to the fact that the Funk Seoul Truck (pictured above at last year's fabulous Tomato Art Fest) is making many, many trips out of the driveway these days. The restaurant at the Factory specializes in poke bowls, but diehard fans of the sushi burrito, never fear: he plans to bring them back at some point down the road. Read below for B.J.'s thoughts on veganism, the Nashville restaurant scene, and the current obsession with gluten free.
What is your concept of "wellness" as it pertains to food?
I am a firm believer that a MAJOR portion of the health problems we face today are directly attributed to the horrible food systems that exist--here in our country especially. Because I mainly cook cuisines that were or are currently born from areas that struggle with wealth, I see how others countries don’t suffer from the same maladies that we do here. Mostly because the gross chemicals, antibiotics, growth hormones and such don’t exist there. Perhaps it's because they don’t have access to the things we have in abundance, and eat in abundance, and so they don’t have the health issues.
At the same time, I’m a lowly small food-business owner who struggles to keep it up and running. So there are things I am forced to serve that I wish I had alternatives for that didn’t drive the price up. So my reality is that I don’t overuse proteins, and I serve portions that are more fit for what we seem to be designed for. I could go on for hours on this topic, but I try to serve with a conscience as much as I can. But I also love Doritos, so there’s that.
Can you speak a bit about your ingredients, where you source them, and how you select what is best for your poke bowls?
Again the topic of ingredient sources is a difficult one. I would love to constantly serve only organic farm raised foods, but that isn’t a reality for a small business owner in our world. I get the best I can without charging $30 for a poke bowl. Fish is the main concern. Its the most expensive ingredient on our plates. So we work with our suppliers to get as much natural line caught as possible. We’ve been successful in getting a high quality tuna. We research our salmon farms to know that they are using techniques that aren’t disgusting.
Sustainability is also a huge concern. Our suppliers have excellent traceability and we look for that constantly. It's a major time consumption, but worth the effort. We can’t have a restaurant without fish so we need to support efforts to support the supply.
How long have you been in the food biz?
I started my career right out of high school and then left the food business because I wanted more control over what I did. The goal was to open my own [restaurant] one day. It took fifteen years but the food truck allowed me to make that happen. For six years I’ve been a major part of the street food scene in Nashville and founded the Nashville Food Truck Association. I’m proud of what it's become.
Where are you from? What brought you to Nashville?
I’m from Detroit, lived there the first thirty years of my life. I moved here in 2001 to take on an internet marketing job. While it paid the bills, it wasn’t for me.
Do you have any thoughts to share about the current Nashville food scene?
The Nashville food scene is incredible. I actually unabashedly feel the food renaissance here began with food trucks. There was nothing to brag about before food trucks came along. We showed the city that diners wanted better. Those first few years people were rabid for trucks. Now the dining options are abundant and amazing. We proved there was a market. At first existing restaurants were afraid of food trucks. But we showed it wasn’t good restaurants that needed to be afraid, it was the bad ones, the fast food. People will go out of their way for good food and here we are.
Is all the fish you use in your bowls raw? Can you talk about the preparation of the seafood? Advantages of doing things this way?
Most of the seafood we served is raw. Others like shrimp, crab and octopus are not. We try to be honest and balanced with how we serve our seafood. Cut it up, dress it and put it over rice. We take time to balance our sauce, vegetables, and protein. That’s the only way poke works. You want to taste everything without overpowering with salt and sauce.
But don’t get me wrong, we have some decadence on our menu. We just don’t suggest eating that every day.
Is your brown rice 100% whole grain (unrefined)?
Could you speak a bit about your vegetarian options? Anything truly vegan?
We offer seared tofu as a substitute for any fish. We work with tofu all the time to try and find ways of making it tastier. I enjoy the challenge. Vegetarian diets can be healthy and an enjoyable way to cook. As I said before, limiting or even eliminating meat is a good way to eat and great for our food system when we cut back, so I fully support that when someone makes that choice.
This may upset some of your readers, but I really don’t support veganism. I get it when people want to protect animals and I feel that is noble. However, it's obvious that it can be taken too far. When people choose manufactured chemical agents over honest real food, I don’t feel that is healthy. I won’t cook that way, literally refuse. I have people ask me if I could consider using (insert some processed chemical grossness here); I tell them I can’t feed them chemicals.
If someone wants to be vegan and they eat real food, I’m all about it. But when their diet then goes to factories churning out packages of something that resembles meat but isn’t--something made in a lab and mass produced--I think their goals are great but their methods are questionable. Learn to cook vegetables, grow your own, whatever it takes, but don’t eat from a factory to save yourself from eating honey.
Again, I know this will upset a passionate vegan. But people who are passionate about real food also have thoughts and convictions. My name is B.J. and I support this message!
Which of your items is gluten free?
Classic poke is made with shoyu or soy sauce. Anything on our menu that says shoyu is real brewed soy sauce. I love soy sauce and use it constantly. However, I started using Tamari in our other sauces because I couldn’t find a difference in flavor. So all of our sauces outside of shoyu are gluten free.
We train our employees to know that when someone says they have celiac we grab clean utensils, change gloves and take every precaution to feed them. However, 90% of our gluten-free requests are from people who are by choice. I can’t say as I fully support the choice of not eating gluten, but I also haven’t taken the time to understand the science. I am more concerned about someone who has celiac and wants to eat out with their family and friends and not spend days on the floor because we didn’t care for them properly.
The gluten free diet research will be "back burnered" for some time.
Would you ever consider using a low-sodium soy sauce?
No. As a food business I want my food to taste amazing. I tell my employees all the time that these flavors need to POP. I worry way more about my flavors being awesome than I do about limiting salt. However, I get as much flavor from acidity (vinegar and citrus) and fresh herbs as I do from salt. I don’t want my food to be “salty” but I don’t want it bland either. Balance is key.
Plus there are more flavors than just salt in soy sauce. I want that complexity, and it just isn't there in low-sodium. In anything I would rather eat less of the real thing than more of the reduced whatever. The math there is easy. I want the more joy from one bite than the disappointment I get from four that are lacking in excitement.
Why poke bowls? What got you turned on to them?
It's an incredible medium for serving fresh, real flavor. The sushi burritos started the process. But then I realized that there needed to be more flavor. I was really making poke burritos, but marketing words like sushi burritos carried more excitement. Traveling for inspiration showed me what others were doing with poke and I wanted in.
Do you want me to mention the midtown location at this point?
Midtown location is closed as Funk Seoul Brother. So no.
Will you be incorporating any of the selections from the midtown location (the burritos) going forward?
Yes, we plan to bring the burritos back after we show the Nashville world how great poke is.
Is there anything else you'd like for me to include about your business or the food truck?
I talk a lot about balance. I have things on my menu that you can eat every day and could be considered healthy. But I also have things that are very rich and decadent. I like the balance we have. We need treats, we need to enjoy food often. I’m proud of that. I like that someone following a healthy lifestyle would see us as a great option. But, when the reward day comes, I’m here for you!