Phila Hach: Culinary Queen
Editor’s note: We were sorry to learn of the death of Phila Rawlings Hach on Dec. 2, 2015. We have reposted this story from our Winter 2014 issue as a remembrance of this legendary Tennessean.
As a noted chef and author of 17 cookbooks, Phila Rawlings Hach can tell you a thing or two about food. As a world traveler, television personality, entrepreneur, hostess and mentor – with 88 years of experience – she can tell you a thing or two about life as well. Her stories reverberate with wonder, humor and the grace that comes from fully embracing each moment.
Since 2005, she has managed the kitchen at Hachland Hill, the idyllic retreat venue developed by her son Joe Hach on their historic family property in Joelton.
Over the years, celebrities and dignitaries have been nourished at her table – among them, Henry Kissinger, Duncan Hines and Oprah Winfrey. Hach even served as pastry chef at Princess Diana’s wedding.
Yet despite her remarkable past, she remains laser-focused on the present, giving her full attention to whatever is happening now. Remaining open to “the moment,” as she says almost reverentially, has been a key ingredient in Hach’s recipe for success.
“I had – I still have – a mission in my life. And the mission is to empower myself the most that I can. I want to learn. I want to know about you. I want to know what makes the world tick. I know a lot, but I’m still learning. I’m a ‘now’ person,” she says.
The Tennessee native has been fascinated by food since childhood, when she insisted her father taste the mud pies she “baked” in her play oven and watched spellbound as a liquid egg coagulated over the heat of her mother’s stove.
“I grew up in a wonderful family, loving nature and the God-given earth,” Hach says. “My mother was an exquisite cook. I grew up with international food from the very beginning.”
Her thirst for knowledge propelled her to degrees in music and nutrition from Vanderbilt University and a career as a flight attendant, jetting around the world and spending time in the kitchens of The Savoy in London and the Hotel George V in Paris during layovers. Hach went on to develop the first in-flight catering manual for the airline industry.
In 1950, when television first came to Nashville, producers at WSM, on recommendation from Peabody College, invited the young Ms. Rawlings to host a cooking show. Ever eager for the next challenge, she accepted and became the first woman to host a television show in the South. Her 30-minute live Kitchen Kollege aired Monday through Friday from 1950 to 1956, with guests including Minnie Pearl and Roy Acuff.
“If people could just open the door to opportunity, it’s there,” she says. “You don’t do it; it comes to you. If I had known there was a television show coming, I could’ve worked my behind off trying to get it, but you have to live your life so that what you do makes people stop and look.”
Then came cookbooks, among them Kountry Kooking – Opryland’s official cookbook for years. Hach distinguishes country cooking as being unique to Tennessee – distinct from the broader Southern cooking.
“The real Tennessee food – country cooking – evolved from people using what was in their gardens, and almost everybody had cows and chickens,” Hach explains. “So that’s where I am today: I’m a purist when it comes to food. If you want a French coq au vin, I can do that, or you want a hasenpfeffer, I can do that. But there’s just something in being simple. It’s that way with food; it’s that way with life.”
Her popular cookbooks and celebrity status as a television chef led to Hach being asked to prepare a special Tennessee luncheon for the historic United Nations visit to Nashville in 1976 – with practically no budget. Not to be deterred, Hach devised a fitting solution.
“I said, why can’t the people [of Tennessee] raise the flowers? Why can’t they raise the vegetables? Why can’t they supply this thing?”
Sponsors of her former cooking show donated meats and dairy products. A pilot with whom she had flown in her flight attendant days flew the ambassadors to Nashville free of charge. “I got everything donated,” she says.
Mayor Richard Fulton insisted mint juleps be served, and because of liquor laws at the time, state troopers actually “smuggled” Jack Daniels Black Label whiskey in Purity milk cartons from the distillery in Lynchburg to Clarksville, where Hach mixed the recipe in the Coca Cola bottling plant under cover of night. The luncheon was a huge success, commemorated by a historical marker at Centennial Park.
Bed, Breakfast & Beyond
A few years later, when the World’s Fair came to Knoxville in 1982, Hach published the official World’s Fair Cookbook. Cracker Barrel stores throughout Tennessee carried the cookbook, and its successful sales delivered yet another opportunity to Hach’s “open door.”
As Hach recalls, “Danny Evins [Cracker Barrel founder] called and said, ‘We’ve never done a logoed item at Cracker Barrel before. How about doing a cookbook for us?’” In the end, she wrote four cookbooks for Cracker Barrel.
With her years advancing, Hach’s keen interest in life and people seems only to deepen. June 2012 found her opening Hachland Hill’s kitchen to Middle Eastern refugee women from Nashville’s International Center for Empowerment.
She told organizers, “‘I will not try to bridge the cultures, but woman-to-woman, we will cook together; we will empower each other.’ I’ll tell you, it was the most powerful summer I’ve ever spent in my life.”
As for the present moment, she says, “My message in life is to keep it simple, to keep it beautiful, to keep it honorable, to keep it real.”
And so she has – and is.