Brewers typically aren’t chefs, and chefs usually aren’t brewers — but beer and food go hand in hand. And while most modern breweries stick to the former, one local brewery has made a name for itself for great beer and great food.
That’s a feather in the cap of Monnik Beer Co. chef Meghan Levins, who joined the brewery and gastropub shortly before it opened in November 2015.
A focus on locally sourced food is just one aspect of what makes Monnik’s menu so interesting; keeping to the tradition of the Germantown/Schnitzelburg area, many of the dishes have German influence, while much of it is all over the map, from burgers to crispy pig ears.
That was by design — sort of. A chef that Monnik owners Brian Holton and Ian Lujik hired before Levins didn’t pan out, and some original menu concepts went by the wayside before they began talking with Levins about her gastropub ideas.
“They had kicked around a bunch of ideas,” she tells Insider. “Like, ‘Maybe we’ll do pizza,’ and then The Post opened. I said, ‘This is my style, and I think it would be cool direction to go in. I did a ‘spec’ menu for them.”
And that menu grew into what diners and beer lovers can find at Monnik today. Interestingly, while most local breweries — save for Against the Grain, along with long-timers Bluegrass Brewing Company, New Albanian Brewing, Floyd County Brewing Co., Cumberland Brewery, etc. — are sticking exclusively with beer, Monnik wanted something different.
Levins notes one of the things she hears often about breweries is that people somehow expect there to be food. And often when there is food available, it’s by way of a food truck parked outside or a very basic pub-grub menu.
“Doing wings and cheesesteaks, you don’t need a chef for that,” Levins says. “Just hire a kitchen manger that will place a competent Sysco order. They made it clear they wanted something different than that.”
They got it. Levins began working in the food service business at age 15 while living in New Hampshire, and she quickly caught on to what makes for good food. It was somewhat accidental, as she simply wanted a part-time job to help save for a car.
“My parents said, ‘If you think we’re going to buy you a car when you’re 16, you’re crazy, so you’d better get a job now,’” she remembers, laughing. So, she got a job bussing tables at the neighborhood tavern.
This led to a pantry position and would inspire her to study at the Culinary Institute of America to become a chef.
“I kind of knew a four-year university wasn’t my thing,” she says. “Once I settled on becoming a chef, I never looked back. My parents were a little disappointed, but it is what it is.”
In 2004, she landed at a place called the Barley House in Concord, N.H., working with a chef who began sourcing farm-to-table food.
“That probably clicked in my mind, knowing that was the way of the future,” she says.
She later was living in the South with her husband, but was looking for a slightly more temperate climate. People she knew spoke of how beautiful Kentucky was, Louisville in particular.
“People were telling me about this burgeoning food scene and the support of the farming community,” she says. “I almost didn’t believe it.”
So, they visited, and, “We just instantly felt a connection.”
Some months after the latter closed, she heard about the opening at Monnik: “When I saw they were looking for a chef here — I love, love, love gastropubs, but I was nervous about applying, because it was a startup, and I didn’t want another heartbreak. But I said, ‘Screw it, this could be amazing.’ And I think it is.”
From the vaunted spent grain bread and beer cheese, to war fries to pork and black currant pie, Monnik Beer Co. boasts a menu like no other. If you want a simple burger and fries, you can get that, but a chicken confit and sauerbraten also beckon from the succinct but surprisingly diverse menu.
“Meghan was given the incredibly difficult task of using local ingredients and still keeping the menu prices reasonable,” says co-owner Holton. “Making local food affordable and profitable requires some real creativity at times, and she has both embraced and executed that vision.”
And, of course, she creates weekly specials to go along with the menu regulars. One of her favorites was spaghetti bottarga, in which she took a traditional Italian recipe and added bottarga, or cured mullet roe.
“I took that standard traditional recipe and said, ‘How can we make it so that bottarga is the star of the show?’” she says. “It tastes purely of the sea. It’s stunning. That’s probably the (special) I’m most proud of.”
In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, Monnik Beer Co. on Friday, March 17, will have a fish fry featuring Asian carp, also known as Kentucky silver carp, an invasive species that have become something of a pestilence in Kentucky’s waters in recent years.
The good news is this type of carp also is delicious — dense, meaty and flavorful like swordfish.
“It takes to beer batter like crazy and has a really nice flavor,” Levins says. In addition, diners can also get lamb shepherd’s pie or corned beef to celebrate the holiday.
Clearly, this is a chef who has found her home. She says she and brewer Scott Hand work in tandem to come up with flavor pairings. And she even notices many people come not just for the beer, but for the food, which lets her know the menu she created is working.
“I think we have good synergy,” Levins says, speaking of the blend of beer and food at Monnik. “The beer is so good, it gets people in the door, and the food is so good, it gets people to try the beer. It’s a good symbiotic relationship.”
And as we know, beer and food truly go hand in hand.