His Kentucky Home
Greg Atkinson - July/August 2009
Already a Louisville slugger, chef Dean Corbett's eponymous restaurant embraces the city's past and future.
Dean Corbett likens his two year old restaurant, Corbett's American Place, to a baby. "This is my pride and joy", says the Louisville chef. And the restaurant is carefully crafted to showcase a chef at the pinnacle of his career.
But Corbett's is not an only child. Since 1985 Corbett has also owned Equus, which was one of only a handful of eateries recognized by Louisville's Courier-Journal with four stars and has been included in the prestigious DiRoNA (Distinguished Restaurants of North America) directory since 2006. With Equus and the adjacent Jack's Lounge, Corbett had already established himself as the "dean of Louisville's restaurant scene".
But unlike Equus, which is located in an upscale suburban strip mall and was already an operating restaurant when Corbett and his father, the late John S. Corbett Jr., purchased it, Corbett's was built from scratch. It's housed in an historic mansion that underwent a multimillion dollar overhaul before it opened in 2007. Ben Palmer-Ball Architecture and Meg Vogt Interior Designs worked closely with Corbett to simultaneously celebrate the building's heritage and coax a contemporary mood with a palette of saturated sage and cream walls, dark leather banquettes, and limestone to match its foundation.
Dining on a warm afternoon last fall on its ample and elegantly appointed porch, with the sound of crickets, frogs, and birdsong wafting over the lawn, it was hard to believe that we were just a stone's throw from a Costco parking lot. And the menu definitely boasted its fair share of timeless Southern ingredients like sweet corn and local watermelon. But those ingredients were combined with ingredients one might not expect to find in Old Kentucky: sweet corn/basil broth with chipotle/cumin fritters and chive oil, or watermelon, mâche, and Danish feta with ginger vinaigrette. Corbett crafts other straightforward American products like foie gras from New York's Hudson Valley into hot and cold foie gras with plums and Southern Comfort gastrique and lump crabmeat into crab cakes with quail eggs, cornichons, capers, aïoli, and herbs.
Corbett's American Place has one foot firmly in Kentucky's past and another boldly placed in its culinary future. The Von Allmen mansion in which the restaurant is housed is a graceful antebellum place that once belonged to the family that owned Kentucky's first commercial dairy. It boasts an intriguing and romantic limestone cellar that now holds the Wine Skellar and The Chef's Table, two of the restaurant's five private dining options, each equipped with state-of-the-art conference amenities, including flat screen televisions wired for easy Internet access or ready to be tuned to a closed-circuit channel that allows diners to watch their meal being prepared in the kitchen.
"We were grandfathered in on the height restrictions," says Corbett, who pleaded an exception to the rule that ceilings be at least seven feet high in Kentucky restaurants. The cellar is just under that. On the main floor, with its grand staircase and 14 foot ceilings, there's the dining room, a waiting area, the bar, and the kitchen. Outdoor dining is available on both the porch and the brick patio, located just behind the kitchen, where the mood shifts from pastels and natural materials to gleaming stainless steel and clean white tile punctuated with Shaker blue tiles.
"I took the color from those cabinets", says Corbett, referring to a pair of blue surgical cabinets rescued from an old hospital. One of the cabinets is installed beside the Bunn coffeemaker to house coffee filters, sugar packets, and other hot beverage service paraphernalia. The cabinets set the tone for the kitchen, which is as immaculately ordered as a surgical theater. Neat rows of stainless-steel drawers labeled "spoons and melon ballers" or "molds and timbales," house the small wares. Inside one of two walk-in coolers, the one devoted to produce, more drawers with the same blue-lettered labels contain freshly harvested herbs.
The house was built in 1850, and its deep colonnaded porches evoke the very essence of an Old Kentucky home. But as if to accentuate the incongruity that defines this corner of the world, the food and the equipment are markedly state-of-the-art. A Jade Titan series plancha-topped range, which includes four open burners, a 36-inch char-broiler, a salamander, and an undercounter convection oven and refrigerator, flanks one side of the cook's line, and a Delfield custom pickup station lines the other.
Beneath the cook's line are lowboy refrigerators from True. And at the heart of the operation are two CVap cook-and-hold units. The units combine heat and vapor to brown and maintain food at optimum conditions. "That's how we can keep five separate private parties happy at once", says executive chef Chris Howerton.
The CVap units are manufactured by Louisville-based Winston Industries, a family-owned company located just a few miles away. Founded by Winston L. Shelton in 1969 and originally incorporated as Commercial Appliances, Winston's signature product for decades was the Collectramatic fryer, developed by Shelton and enthusiastically supported by the legendary Colonel Harland Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame. The innovative self-filtering fryer allowed KFC restaurants to fry multiple batches of chicken without interruption, and KFC continues to be one of Winston Industries' largest and most valued customers.
The development of Controlled Vapor Technology, or CVap, came in the 1980s and was quickly embraced by industry professionals in institutional settings, but the technology also lends itself to fine dining, and premier chefs, including Michel Richard of Citronelle in Washington, D.C., and Zach Bell of Café Boulud in Palm Beach, Florida, endorse the CVap on the company's Web site. In fact, perusing Richard's book, Happy in the Kitchen, after learning that he uses a CVap made many of his complicated techniques seem easier.
Howerton first encountered the appliance at Louisville's Sullivan University, a career-focused school with an exceptional culinary program. "On any given day," says Corbett, "literally hundreds of Sullivan students and alums are cooking in Louisville's best restaurants." Corbett should know; he stays on top of the Louisville food scene by hosting a weekly cooking show, Secrets of Louisville Chefs Live, which pries culinary confidences from local chefs and is taped in a studio on the Sullivan campus.
Originally established in 1776 as a western county of Virginia, the land that is now the Commonwealth of Kentucky became the 15th of the United States in 1792. Land grants of 60 acres were available to anyone who would grow corn, and since the best way to preserve the corn was to convert it into spirits, most of that corn was converted into whiskey. Unlike Old World spirits based on barley, wheat, and rye, this whiskey was based mostly on Indian corn or maize. The whiskey was distinctive, too, because of the local water supply being naturally filtered through mellowing limestone, which removes all of the iron, nemesis of good whiskey.
The distilled spirits were stored in burned oak barrels, stamped with the word Bourbon to identify the county, then shipped off to New Orleans, a city which happens to share Louisville's penchant for good whiskey, wrought iron, and the fleur-de-lis, symbol of the Bourbon kings of France who lent their name to the county and established the city near the mouth of the Mississippi. Indeed, Louisville is something of a sister city to the Big Easy. Whiskey had already made the city fairly rich, and its old hotels, dining rooms, and bars quietly evoke the look and feel of another American river city, minus the intensity of its Mardi Gras, voodoo, and hurricanes.
Corbett's makes several subtle nods to the city's whiskey antecedents, dressing tuna carpaccio in a soy sauce hand-crafted by America's first artisan soy sauce maker, Matt Jamie, who uses local non-GMO soybeans and recycled whiskey barrels to brew his distinctive Bourbon barrel-aged product. Even the water he uses is hand delivered in five-gallon carboys from a limestone-filtered spring that supplies an area distiller. That same water is the secret behind the sweet tasting Kentucky Bibb lettuce that's the foundation of Corbett's signature salad with local strawberries and pecans.
Hard as it may be to believe, Juleps aren't the preferred drink at Corbett's. Leave those mint-infused cocktails to the old hotel dining rooms downtown. In a blatant attempt to push Louisville's culinary and cocktail boundaries into a new dimension, Corbett hired Rebecca Heitzman, an adventurous mixologist who uses only fresh-squeezed juices and carefully crafted house-made infusions to flavor her libations. "Every cocktail tells a story," she says. And her interpretations of that New Orleans standard made with Kentucky whiskey, the Sazerac (Pappy Van Winkle rye, house-made orange bitters, absinthe, and orange) or a "Just Peachy" (Woodford Reserve Bourbon, ice tea, fresh peach, and basil) are cocktail tales Corbett's regulars like to contemplate again and again.
"At Jack's," says Corbett, referring to his more casual venue that packs a full house even on weeknights, "we have Joy Perrine, a local legend who pours cocktails the way Michael Feinstein sings." Perrine interprets standards with her own signature Kentucky variations, replacing the rum and lime in a Mojito with Bourbon and lemon--"Lime's too bitter to work with Bourbon," she notes--or infusing Bourbon for several weeks with the standard orange and cherry garnish to coax new life from an Old Fashioned. "The Old Fashioned's my favorite drink, and variations are endless," she says.
In a way, Corbett's (and its siblings) has everything, and it's nice to know that in Louisville a sense of tradition mingles easily with an adventurous spirit for the new.