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Soul Food in the Bible Belt

Brett Swayn_The Cookery
All Photos: Lu Lu Burns

Brett Swayn, founder of The Cookery, would agree that if a picture is worth a thousand words, a homelessness experience is worth a million. Being homeless in Nashville sparked a passion in Swayn that ultimately expressed itself as the nonprofit restaurant he started on 12th Avenue South, that wears the slogan, “Serving hope one plate at a time.”

In 2002, personal issues found Swayn angry, broken and lost. Even though he wasn’t religious, he opened the Bible for the first time and asked God, “What do you want from me?” The message he clearly heard? “Go to Nashville. Take nothing. I will meet you there!” A one-way bus ticket and a few hours later he found himself feeling “like I had fallen into a hole on the other side of the world and nobody knew I was there. I was hungry, homeless and happier than I had ever been.”

Swayn lived at a mission for months working in their kitchen. That’s where he met Thomas Oglesby, a sous chef from Fleming’s Steak House, who volunteered at the mission. Oglesby recognized Brett’s potential and offered him a job at Fleming’s. Swayn started as a line cook doing prep work and making desserts, but soon was asked to be a trainer for their new restaurants opening across the Southeast.

As early as 2003, with the help of servers who donated their time and vendors who donated their food, Swayn began opening Fleming’s to the homeless for Thanksgiving and Christmas. After a few years he rose to sous chef, the number two position in the kitchen. However, instead of becoming complacent, his heart remembered all of those lost souls at the mission starving for something much deeper than physical food. They needed soul food.

As his vision grew and took form, others mobilized behind him. In 2010 they bought an abandoned, run-down building on 12th Avenue South that eventually opened as The Cookery in 2013. Their espresso bar was popular and the dishes were inventive and well executed. The Rockin’ Moroccan chicken salad alone, with its fresh orange slices and chutney toasted almonds, proved that their food would be competitive with any in Nashville.

The Cookery

Despite some counter-intuitive business practices, like closing on Saturdays to feed those in need, The Cookery remains the financial engine that drives a five-month rehabilitation program for the homeless, furnishing their housing, medical care, monthly stipend, culinary training and job placement after certification – along with sides of love, nurturing and forgiveness, plus a great menu. However, the visionary innovation does not stop there.

Live “Homeless Got Talent” and open mic comedy performances are in development, according to Swayn, plus the space already doubles as a gallery for homeless artists. Swayn has demonstrated that this model is a self-sustaining weapon to combat one of the major problems facing America. Because the members share similar goals, activities and needs, the community that has been born at The Cookery is rooted in trust and cooperation, one man’s vision inspiring a powerful, comprehensive and tasty approach to ending homelessness.


Brad Blankenship

Brad Blankenship is a retired integrative medicine doctor who has resided in Nashville for over 50 years. He, along with his wife Lulu Burns-Keller travel the US in search of new flavors. Together, they write, photograph and review for Beyondish in the Nashville area and beyond.


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