“It changed my life,” says Kathy Cary of the March night in 1994 when she first cooked up a meal in the kitchen at the storied James Beard House in New York City.
“It was a ratification of everything I was doing, and everything I wanted to do. I was proud of what we were doing at Lilly's,” she continued. “But I really felt as if I were there representing Kentucky. Showing the people in Manhattan all the wonderful things our farmers and gardeners were producing here. It was a sellout crowd and the response was amazing. It just made me so proud of Louisville, of Kentucky — to realize that what we were accomplishing here could have that kind of impact in a city like New York.”
That night was a watershed moment in the history of Louisville dining, but not because it signaled an abrupt change in the quality of Louisville's dining scene.
By 1994, Louisville's table was already set with high-quality players.
Prestigious old-line restaurants like Hasenour's, Kunz's, Pat's Steakhouse and Del Frisco's were centers of excellence. An innovative generation of restaurateurs like Cary (Lilly's), Dean Corbett (Equus), Bim Deitrich (Deitrich's), Anoosh Shariat (Shariat's) Agostino Gabriele (Vincenzo's), John Frey (The Inn on Spring), Peng Looi (August Moon, Asiatique), Nancy Shepherd (Café Metro, Uptown Café), and Maggie and Miguel delaTorre (DeLaTorre's) had already made their mark. And places like the Bristol, Baxter Station, The Irish Rover, Lynn's Paradise Café and Vietnam Kitchen were offering a rich array of casual meals and interesting ethnic options.
But the notion that Louisville might become a nationally recognized dining destination must have seemed pretty farfetched.
These days, things have changed. Those of us who live and dine in Louisville believe that we live in one of the best dining cities in America. That's not to say that Louisville's scene is comparable in scale or scope with internationally renowned culinary centers like New York and Chicago, but that in terms of overall excellence and variety, Louisville's scene holds its own against any comparably sized — and many much larger — cities.
Let's stipulate that those of us who live here are a bit biased. Even so, there's plenty of external evidence to back us up.
Over the years, the Louisville-Beard House connection has developed to the point where it sometimes seems that Louisville's chefs ought to band together and buy a time-share condominium in Manhattan.
The list of chefs who've cooked there — many on several occasions — includes Cary, Corbett, Looi, Shariat, Anthony Lamas (Seviche), Michael Paley (Proof On Main), Shawn Ward (Jack Fry's), Daniel Stage (Le Relais), Todd Richards (formerly of The Oakroom), Jim Gerhardt and Michael Cunha (both of Limestone) and Edward Lee (610 Magnolia). And don't forget the dozens of sous chefs, line cooks, sommeliers and bartenders who have made the trip as assistants and subsequently have gone on to run their own operations.
The Beard House exposure has contributed to the rising national profile of Louisville's dining scene. After an editor at the late, lamented Gourmet magazine fell in love with Edward Lee's cooking, the magazine featured 610Magnolia in a 16-page spread.
Likewise, other national media have picked up on the Louisville scene: In 2008, Bon Appetit dubbed Louisville the fourth-best small town in America for food lovers; in recent years, Esquire magazine has placed Proof On Main and Corbett's: An American Place on its list of best new American restaurants. And it would take a good-sized scrapbook to hold all the mentions of Louisville restaurants in other national magazines.
That raises the question: Why has Louisville's dining scene become so prominent?
Let's face it, Louisville lacks certain natural advantages: It's not a coastal city or a mountain town. Perched on the border between the Midwest and South, it doesn't have the clearly defined regional cachet of, say, Charleston, S.C. It's not a hub for the movie or music industry, and it isn't home to any major league sports teams. And yet it has this outstanding dining scene. Why?
In conversations with folks familiar with the scene, several explanations surface.
There's the vibrant collection of creative, entrepreneurial chefs, some with longstanding reputations, others who've migrated in, attracted by the strength and reputation of the local scene. There is a history of close-knit, collegial connections in the restaurant community. We have easy access to outstanding local products, and, as a United Parcel Service air hub, easy access to global goods. There is the presence of an outstanding culinary school at Sullivan University. But most of all, it is the enthusiasm of area diners who are sophisticated, loyal and adventurous enough to spur area chefs to climb to new heights.
Izabela Wojcik, director of house programming at the James Beard Foundation, is responsible for booking chefs who cook at the Beard House.
“Louisville ranks very high with us,” she said, “both in terms of the number of times we've featured Louisville chefs and in the quality of what they present when they're here. It's a very eclectic scene there. You have chefs who highlight Southern cooking. You have Nuevo Latino. You have interesting fusion chefs. You have chefs who are quite traditional, and others who are very innovative.
“They have some things in common. The meals are always superb. They seem to have a real sense of seasonality, and there's a strong focus there on local ingredients. And based on my relationships with Louisville, I sense that there's a very warm, small-town sense of connectedness among the chefs. Louisville chefs always tell us about other great chefs in the city.”
Several area chefs agreed that although the business is competitive, the competition in Louisville is friendlier by far than in most cities.
Dean Corbett noted that many of the city's restaurateurs got their start at two storied Louisville restaurants: Casa Grisanti, the city's legendary Northern Italian restaurant, and its sibling, Sixth Avenue, a pioneer in what was known as “New American Cookery” in the 1970s. A few dozens area restaurants, some casual, some upscale, are run by folks connected to those restaurants, including Vincenzo's, Ditto's Grill, Saffron's, Volare, Pesto's, Qdoba, Stevens & Stevens, Z's Oyster Bar& Steakhouse and Z's Fusion.
“We've been friends for years,” Corbett said. “We call each other for advice. We share information and ideas. We compete hard for business, but we trust one another, we help one another, and we want each other to succeed. And the great thing is new chefs keep coming in — like the Ton brothers at Basa, Bruce Ucan at Mayan Café, Edward Lee at 610 Magnolia — and the scene just keeps getting better and better.”
A relative newcomer, 732 Social chef/owner Jayson Lewellyn concurs in that assessment.
“I've worked all over the world,” said Lewellyn, who came to Louisville in 2005 to help open Jeff Ruby's. “And after I'd been here for about a week I decided I never wanted to leave. The chefs in this town made me feel as if I'd lived here all my life. It's always a challenge to figure out the best local sources when you come to a new city, but everyone here was really eager to help, to tell me about the local farmers and give feedback and advice. It's really not like anyplace else I've ever been.
“And to have great chefs come into your restaurant — people like Kathy Cary and Anthony Lamas and John Varanese — and eat your food and give you encouragement.… It doesn't even feel like we're competing. It's like all of us are working together to do the same thing. I just feel like I've found a home here.”
Jamie Estes, president of Louisville's Estes PR, specializes in working with restaurants and food. She has clients in 12 states, from Hawaii to the East Coast, but believes there is something special about this town.
“Louisville is really an extraordinary dining city where all sorts of factors come together,” she said. “First, we have a very dynamic group of chefs. We have an abundance of farmers who really understand what chefs need, and are willing to work with them to grow the best possible materials. We have very talented and entrepreneurial food artisans, so our bison, beef, pork, poultry, cheeses, produce, grits, sorghum and other products are very high quality.
“We're also a UPS hub, which means not only do we have local products, but chefs like Anthony Lamas can get great seafood and other goods shipped in from almost anywhere in the world. And we also have one of the top culinary schools in the country. It used to be that people were amazed at what we have here. Back in 1999, when Food Arts magazine sent a crew to do a spread on the Louisville scene, an editor told me she expected to get two pages at most. They ended up giving us a six-page spread. But nowadays, when I talk to people around the country about Louisville, especially food professionals, they already know about us.”
Anyone looking at the resumes of area cooks and chefs would agree with Estes that Sullivan's program has had a huge impact on the restaurant scene.
“I have about 16 chefs and cooks on my team who are Sullivan graduates,” Corbett said. “Heck, I (only) have a business degree — I think most of them are better educated about food than I am!”
But if collegiality, access to excellent foodstuffs and a surfeit of well-trained culinary professionals are important factors in the rise of the Louisville dining scene, every chef in the city seems in agreement that the key ingredient is the dining community.
Michael Ton, a Culinary Institute of America graduate, had extensive restaurant experience in other parts of the country. Then he opened Basa Modern Vietnamese in 2007.
“This is absolutely the best place in the world for us to be,” Ton said. “Louisville people really love their independent restaurants. They're very generous and very loyal. We're really fortunate to be here, I think.”
That sentiment is echoed everywhere.
“Being a chef in Louisville is almost like holding public office,” Lewellyn said. “People here are really into the restaurant scene. You get a lot of acclaim, and you feel like you have a lot responsibility. People have really high expectations, but they're also willing to let you make a mistake and learn from it and improve.
“And they love it when you try something new. I really don't think there's another city where 732Social would have been as successful as it's been in Louisville. And the great thing is that people here don't want cookie-cutter places. They really want us to bring them new things.”
On the relationship between Louisville diners and their restaurants, Kathy Cary may have put it best, and most succinctly:
“It's really a love relationship.”