Louisville is a mutt—so say some of the city’s biggest chef advocates. Culturally, it straddles the South (the Derby, bourbon, ham) and Midwest (Indiana’s just cross the river). And without any real stereotypes to fall back on, it’s not always easy for an outsider to put her finger on exactly what makes Louisville “LOO-ih-vuhl.” Lucky for us, we experienced the city through the restaurant industry’s eyes—more than 40 pairs—and even if we can’t corral one, all-encompassing characterization of the Derby City, we have a pretty good idea of what makes its people and food and drink worth experiencing.
For one, Louisville embraces transplants. It loves fresh faces and supports out-of-town chefs so long as their food is exquisite. Bruce Ucan emigrated from the Yucatan and started his first business out of a food truck that catered to migrant workers. With the support of local diners, he eventually opened brick-and-mortar Mayan Café and pioneered NuLu—what’s now the hippest neighborhood in town. Just a few blocks away sits Annie Pettry’s Decca. Pettry is from Asheville, North Carolina, and has worked in New York City and San Francisco. She makes some of the most nuanced, elegant food in town (and a badass steak, to boot), and her dining room is packed. Chef Anthony Lamas—though he has been in town for 14-plus years—still stubbornly pronounces his adopted city’s name as “loo-ee-vil.” A minor sin people are willing to forgive for some of the region’s finest Latin food, including the most tender squid we’ve ever eaten.
There’s also Tyler Morris of Rye (via California and New York), 27-year Louisville veteran Peng Looie (via Malaysia), former yacht chef Patrick Roney of the Oakroom (via the world), and self-proclaimed “wannabilly” Levon Wallace (via South L.A. and New England). Since chef-driven restaurants started emerging here, Louisville has imported talent. But no one—new or native—can make it in this town without the help of the Boss: ChefBoyarDean, Dean Corleone, or plain ole Dean Corbett. He’s the city’s single biggest cheerleader, chef rally-er, and force behind the culinary community, brokering the likes of chef truces, pay raises, and James Beard dinners.
From Dean Corleone to rum runner Al Capone, Louisville has a long and storied liquid culture. The mob, led by the notorious Capone, ran liquor here during Prohibition. Classic cocktails that have been born here: the Manhattan (according to local lore), and The Seelbach (which takes its name from one of Louisville’s historic grand hotels). Bartender Eron Plevan is the caretaker of such history at the Seelbach’s Oakroom, and his cocktails are a reflection of the city’s drinking history and its modern cocktail-filled future. That future certainly includes bartender Susie Hoyt, the formidable beverage manager, tiki-lover, and bourbon expert behind The Silver Dollar and El Camino, along with Michael Anderson of St. Charles Exchange.
Central to the Louisville experience is bourbon, yes, but there’s more bev culture to behold. We drank beers at Apocalypse Brew Works and at Against the Grain Brewery. We met with members of a small but exciting wine community, bolstered by two of the country’s Master Sommeliers. And we experienced one of the most vibrant (under-the-radar) coffee scenes in the country with eye-opening cuppings at Argo Sons Coffee, Quills Coffee, Sunergos, and Red Hot Roasters—not to mention daily visits to Please and Thank You. Thank you.
Louisville’s emerging artisan community, coffee included, isn’t at the critical mass of Portland or Brooklyn (nor is the twee-factor, thankfully), but what it lacks in numbers, it makes up for in quality. Longtime Baker and Charcutier Bob Hancock has been a pillar of the artisan community with his Blue Dog Bakery, as has Deanna Rushing whose breads (lavender baguettes, in particular) at Wiltshire Market & Pantry sell out every day. In a region obsessed with all things pork, Jay Denham makes some of the best hams this side of the Atlantic. And somehow Louisville ended up with the only artisan producer of soy sauce in the country. It’s improbable but possible in Louisville, a town with an identity all its own and a passionate community of chefs, somms, brewers, roasters, and artisans. That’s why we love Louisville.
In the next few days, we’ll announce the winners of the first ever Kentucky-Tennessee Rising Stars, which we’ll host on February 25 at the Muhammad Ali Center in downtown Derby City. Stay tuned for details and ticket sales. In the meantime, keep your nominations coming for Providence, D.C., and Los Angeles.