Interview with Kentucky-Tennessee Rising Star Chef Annie Pettry of Decca – Louisville, KY

by Meha Desai
February 2014

Meha Desai: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Annie Pettry: I’ve been drawn to cooking since I can remember. I toyed with the idea of cooking for a long time but didn’t commit to it. I was working in restaurants trying to figure out what else I wanted to do with my life and how else to make a living. I realized that I was looking in the wrong place and that it had been right in front of my face the whole time. Food and hospitality were my life already. It was that realization that gave me the driving force to dive in and give it everything. I’ve been working in the restaurant/food industry since 1995 but my first official culinary position was in 2002 in San Francisco, California at The Meetinghouse Restaurant.

MD: How was your experience of culinary school? Would you recommend it to aspiring cooks?
AP: It depends on the person and the situation. I enjoyed culinary school. I’m not sure if it’s the best way to learn how to cook. To me the main benefit of culinary school is to give you a base knowledge of cooking and to jump-start your résumé. In an alternate universe, I would have rather traveled and staged or apprenticed in great kitchens around the world. Overall, I think working in kitchens is the best way to learn.

MD: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
Food at its best is nourishing, delicious and a pleasure to eat. Food and dining are about hospitality and about bringing us together in a shared experience. I believe that food has the power to transform.

MD: What does “American Cuisine” mean to you?
I find it hard to define partly because American cuisine is so diverse offering many regional styles each with their own cultural influences. I guess American cuisine is an amalgamation of its influences. Maybe that’s the beauty of it—it combines varied histories while embracing new influences inviting them all into the melting pot that is America Cuisine.

MD: Which person in history would you most like to cook for?
My mother. She shared with me her reverence for ingredients and her hospitable nature. I cooked with her and for her growing up but I never got to cook for her as a trained chef.

MD: Who would you most like to cook for you?
Auguste Escoffier—“Good food is in effect the basis of true happiness.” Or, if I can pick a fictional character, Tita de la Garza from Like Water for Chocolate.

MD: What steps have you taken to become a sustainable restaurant?
Our building was remodeled using sustainable and environmentally friendly resources, and is heated and cooled by geothermal energy. We compost and recycle everything we can—even our cooking oil gets recycled for biodiesel. The majority of our produce, dairy, and meat come from local farmers, producers, and purveyors. We only use sustainably caught or raised seafood. We always use locally and/or family owned businesses, services and products when [possible].

MD: What ingredient that you like do you feel is underappreciated?
Celery. It is often used as a building block or background flavor, as in stock, but it isn’t often used as a main flavor component.

MD: What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations?
Ooh, that’s a tough one. Celery and Cherries; Rutabaga and Apricots; Harissa, Preserved Lemon, and Mint.

MD: What question gives you the most insight to a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen?
AP: Honestly, I haven’t found the holy grail of questions yet. Mostly I go by my gut feeling. I’m looking for someone with a great attitude who is eager to learn, willing to work hard and do what it takes.

MD: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
Hopefully, cooking locally, seasonally, and sustainably will become the threshold of the restaurant industry not just a trend.

MD: If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
Something in the tech industry.

MD: What will success look like for you?
Owning a humming restaurant (or a few) where diners flock for an enjoyable and nourishing meal. Providing a work environment where employees are inspired and challenged to grow. Supporting and growing a sustainable food system. Having the resources to travel and experience new cultures and cuisines. Striking a balance between a successful work life and a satisfying personal life.