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Cool Jobs: Chef Mark Williams at Brown-Forman's Bourbon Street Café, Louisville's most exclusive restaurant

by David Serchuk

Barrel Garden

(Editor’s note: This is the first post in a regular feature on Louisville’s coolest jobs. If you wish to submit a suggestion, email: melissa@insiderlouisville.com)

The steak was tender, aromatic, and burst with smoky flavor. As it should, said Chef Mark Williams, Executive Chef at Louisville’s Brown-Forman Corp.

Today’s meat had been marinated in Old Forester, the signature bourbon upon which the Brown-Forman spirits empire had been built. Williams then explained the chemical reaction between the bourbon and beef.

“Alcohol and water are natural enemies,” he said. “The alcohol attacked the water in the meat cells, and injects itself, breaking down the tissue.”

The soup was also made with a spirit, wine. It was West Coast chowder, made with a chardonnay from Brown-Forman’s Russian River vineyards. These spirits, he explained, were not gimmicks, but used to make tasteful, logical combinations.

Making such combinations isn’t just Williams’s job, it’s also his pleasure. This was obvious as he explained how he creates his menus. “We let the seasons and availability dictate what we do,” he says. “We watch the plates and see what comes back. We are our harshest critics, and are here to serve what people want.”

That evening Williams focused an entire banquet on Brown-Forman’s Gentleman Jack whiskey, the upmarket brother to Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey. The food included lamb chops marinated in Gentleman Jack, bourbon-based jelly, and even a lobster salad.

Williams mainly works at Brown-Forman’s Bourbon Street Café, the firm’s on-premises upscale eatery. The Café might just be the most exclusive restaurant in town. It is only for Brown-Forman employees, their guests, and various luminaries and VIPs.

Chef Mark Williams

Williams heads a staff of four. Despite having been there 12 years, he is still only the third most senior member of the kitchen. The head baker has been there 25 years, and Williams’s sous chef has worked there 13 years.

He says people don’t quit because they sincerely enjoy working in the kitchen. Due to the team’s longevity they’ve all developed a sort of shorthand, he says. “We all know each other’s moves.”

This is a good thing, because they prepare each platter to order during lunch rush. “Food dies when it sits around,” he says. “When one platter leaves that’s when we start the next one.”

Williams cooks a third of all meals served. He estimates 150 people eat at the café each day.

It’s a shame most of Louisville can’t sample Williams’s food, because he is one of the more celebrated chefs in town.

He has cooked for Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Bill Gates and Paul McCartney, among other famous names. On his first day at Brown-Forman he even cooked a meal, lamb, for one of his idols, Julia Child. He was also honored as a featured chef at the celebrated James Beard House in New York.

Williams came to Brown-Forman from California, where he had been chef-in-residence at the Sonoma Cutrer Winery.

And how about this for a cool job: Williams even worked as a chef for George Lucas at his Skywalker Ranch. Still, the Brown-Forman beat makes his blood pump just a bit faster. “You know what’s the coolest part of my job?” he asks. “Being associated with one of the coolest icons in the world, Jack Daniel’s … The fact that they give me a bottle and tell me to do something with it is cool too.

“They even gave me Jack Daniel’s chef’s pants!”

Another cool thing, he says, is that he’s been able to grow a good amount of the food used in the Bourbon Street Café on the Brown-Forman campus.

Williams showed me his gardens, which were unlike any I’d seen. Instead of rows of crops there were hundreds of halved, repurposed bourbon barrel planters. There was also an old skylight Williams planned to convert into a combination greenhouse/shade.

It’s all organic, no pesticides. “Sustainability is the key to what we do,” he says. “Everything we make is from nature. For our own products, if the ingredients are not exceptional the product’s not going to be.”

The garden’s tiny, pale organic strawberries had just become ripe.

Williams plucked one. I’ve eaten thousands of strawberries. This was the best. Its tiny size belied its almost unearthly strawberriness. I could have eaten 200 more.

The garden’s growing season lasts from March through November, Williams says, and will likely include tomatoes, melons, radishes, and potatoes.

Williams says that for the cost of a few hundred dollars in ingredients, and his time, the garden grows most of the herbs the café needs, and 25 percent of its produce.

Williams also uses the garden for public outreach. “We’ve donated hundreds of whiskey barrel planters to the JCPS,” he says. “We also host JCPS teachers to teach them how to grow plants in the barrels.” He also allows the general public into the garden, once a year.

He also started a Garden Club for employees. “They each get a barrel, and they weed and turn the soil,” he says. “We have people from accounting down here working.”

There are also a few downsides to the job. He’s on his feet and in motion all day, which is exhausting. Almost as bad, no one ever wants to cook for a chef. “Of course we’re going to critique your food,” he says, “but we’re also going to enjoy it.”

By and large, though, he has few complaints: “I’m living the dream.”

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