Kentucky may be responsible for bourbon. Bluegrass. The Kentucky Derby. Astoundingly expensive thoroughbred horses. The Mint Julep. The Manhattan. But it still can’t seem to shake that ‘banjo and bible’ reputation.
Now, bourbon is helping Louisville’s finest chefs explode the myth that food + Kentucky = KFC. Fine dining menus are awash with bourbon-infused dishes. And this Autumn, the state’s favourite spirit was the ingredient of honour in a six course dinner at New York’s hallowed culinary hall, James Beard House.
Jim Gerhardt richly deserves his reputation as master and commander of the Louisville dining scene.
In September 2003, Gerhardt opened his own restaurant, Limestone, in an affluent neighbourhood northeast of the city. Until then, he had ruled the kitchen in Louisville’s internationally-recognised Seelbach Hotel.
Limestone’s airy dining room is light years from the Seelbach’s old world grandeur. High ceilings and open-plan walls play host to art deco chairs, a large copper pot containing ‘by the glass’ wines and bright aquariums filled with local fish. What Gerhardt did bring from downtown is his award-winning cooking style.
“Our mantra is ‘new southern cooking, old southern charm’”, he says. “We take the old flavours of the south and prepare them in a healthier manner with upscale presentation. If it’s not from this area, we pair it with something that is.”
He doesn’t have to look far to find exceptional bourbon. And after 20 years in Kentucky fine dining, no-one makes better,(or more inventive), use of the local spirit. Sour mash – the grain mash discarded after the first stage of bourbon distilling – is the chief ingredient in Limestone’s signature bread.
“In the distilling process, the only thing removed is the starch,” explains Gerhardt. “All the minerals remain. This bread is one of the highest protein, highest fibre breads on the market. The carbohydrates are derived from whole grain, not sugar. It’s extremely good for you.”
Not to mention extremely tasty. The warm waft of sour mash is enough to rouse even the most hardened taste buds. All the better to launch into Limestone’s grateful greens salad, finished with bourbon toasted walnuts; and the seared ahi tuna, served with a bourbon soy vinaigrette.
Putting in a return appearance at dessert, the sour mash is dried into a biscuit and topped with bourbon-marinated berries and bourbon-sweet-bourbon cream.
“We even use the barrel staves (oak) and bungs (walnut). We bake salmon on the staves and put it under the broiler. Get the flavour of the oak and nuances of walnut. We also use new spirit, or corn whisky – the white spirit that goes into the barrel to age. It has a flavour profile that competes with grappa or vodka. We use it in dressings or to drink with caviar, similar to the way vodka is used in Russian cooking.”
The modern artiste
A new breed of chef has galloped into Louisville. Born and bred elsewhere, they are loyal to Kentucky’s succulent local produce, but not strict adherents to her southern style.
“We serve eclectic American cuisine – we basically cook from all over the world,” says Dave Cuntz, executive chef at Equus Restaurant. “We are very open as to how and what kind of cuisine we present.”
Born in Pennsylvania and raised in Colorado, Cuntz had a tough time deciding between becoming an artist or a chef. Cooking won out, but artistry still makes nightly appearances.
“I incorporate my artist’s style; using new ways of cooking and adding an artful touch to what I am creating. For me – it is a full-on picture – see it, smell it, taste it. I use my art side in designing and decorating the plates.”
Equus exudes warm Kentucky hospitality from the tops of its mahogany tables to the tails of its equestrian-themed art. The menu is bursting with local ingredients, and bourbon is top of the list. Equus’ bartender, Joy, was recently voted Louisville’s best – recognition of her talent for creating amazing infused bourbons.
“We are definitely very proud of our bourbon,” says Cuntz.
“It has so many different flavours. Nuttiness, caramel, spice. It’s great with desserts, great with savoury foods. And every year we’re doing more extensive training and testing – Woodford Reserve and others are showing people that it can be used not just for desserts, but with every style of cooking.”
It doesn’t get more modern American than Equus’ Woodford Reserve bourbon milkshake for dessert. Milk, bourbon and ice cream, blended with a touch of vanilla and cinnamon, and served with a side of ginger snaps. Thick, straw-defying, and well worth the potential bourbon brain freeze.
Like Dave Cuntz, Anthony Lamas moved to Kentucky for love.
“I met this Kentucky girl, and my friends in California were saying ‘isn’t that where everyone is running around barefoot and pregnant?!’”
Lamas can laugh now. His Jicama (hi-ka-ma) Grill has been a sensation since opening in June 2000. No other Louisville restaurant has gathered such a steady stream of accolades. He has even sparked a new trend for ethnic-themed fine dining in Kentucky.
“I didn’t invent Nuevo Latino, I just introduced it to a town that didn’t have it,” says Lamas, whose parents are Mexican and Puerto Rican.
“Empinatas and mojitos were big in California, but people in Kentucky didn’t really know about them. It’s been exciting for me, because I’ve been able to give the flavours of my heritage to people who haven’t experienced it before. We get these 65 year old couples, and by the time they leave they’re moving their hips and snapping their fingers to the beat!”
Alarge selection of compact discs belt out hip, modern Latin American music. Contemporary earth tones add to the relaxed, south-of-the-border atmosphere.
Jicama Grill’s menu combines Latin American dishes and upscale local ingredients, a distinctive style that recently landed Lamas a new honour. Grand Prize at the inaugural Woodford Reserve Cocktail Tour for creating the best dish using Woodford Reserve bourbon.
“One of the reasons that they picked my dish, (pork tenderloin served with Woodford Reserve orange demi sauce), was that I stayed true to my cuisine, but I also used local produce.”
The Grand Prize was an invitation to prepare a dinner at James Beard House in New York in October - the first time that an entire dinner at the renowned culinary institute was prepared using the same spirit.
“It’s kind of like Carnegie Hall for chefs,” explains Lamas. “Alot of critics go. It’s a big deal, because you have the press there, foodies there.
“The first dinner I presented (in 2003) was from my restaurant, so I knew what worked. This time was more challenging for me, because I had to think of dishes.”
In October, 95 people sat down to Anthony Lamas’ ‘Nuevo Latino in the Bluegrass’ bourbon-themed dinner. It remains to be seen how many will get up again. Lamas’ menu has already floored the James Beard Foundation members, and they have yet to savour a bite.
Nuevo Latino in the Bluegrass
Bocaditos (hors d’oeurves)
Spicy Lamb Picadillo Empanada with Serrano chile bourbon/mint mojo
Ahi Tuna Ceviche with coconut, ginger and pineapple-bourbon-soy broth
Beef Tenderloin Satay with roasted tomato-bourbon BBQ
Smoky Aji Amarillo-Bourbon Rubbed Tiger Shrimp with sweet corn pico de gallo
Spinach and Roasted Pear with black walnuts, strawberries, capriole goat cheese and balsamic mustard-bourbon vinaigrette (2002 Bonterra Viognier Medocino County)
Pan Seared Diver Sea Scallops with Woodford Reserve Sheltowee Farm mushroom-manchego cheese toast and tomato sweet corn butter (2001 Sonoma Cutrer Les Pierres Sonoma County)
Hudson Valley Foie Gras with apple-walnut Maytag blue cheese bourbon-bread pudding and Steens pure cane syrup
(1999 Jekel Arroy Oseco Sanctuary Estate “Sanctuary” Red Table Wine)
“Grand Prize” Adobo Niman Ranch Pork Tenderloin with Woodford Reserve chipotle-orange glaze and Indiana sweet corn salsa (2001 Fetzer Reserve Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir Bien Nacido Vineyard)
Fried Banana Roll with toasted pecan-bourbon dulce de leche and local berries (2002 Jekel Monterey Late Harvest Riesling)
Woodford Pineapple Manhattan
Woodford Reserve Mojito
Woodford Reserve on the Rocks