January has triggered a significant shuffling of chefs in the Louisville restaurant scene.

Last week Levon Wallace announced his March departure from Proof on Main to join Cochon Nashville.

And we just learned that Russell Kook, the executive chef at the brand new 8UP, will leave the restaurant after Valentine’s Day to return to Chicago. (We’ll have more on Kook’s departure later this week.)

Chef Bobby Benjamin. Photo by Steve Coomes.
Chef Bobby Benjamin. Photo by Steve Coomes.

Now we learn that Bobby Benjamin, most recently executive chef and partner at the now-closed La Coop, will not return to Union Common, the shared plates restaurant in Nashville he helped launch last year for Falls City Hospitality (FCH) Group. He’s staying in Louisville to open a restaurant of his own.

FCH’s remaining partners—Chip Hamm, Brett Davis, Steven and Michael Ton—own Doc Crow’s Southern Smokehouse & Raw Bar, and they’re currently in negotiations to open a 10,000-square-foot Mexican restaurant at the former Tumbleweed site in Louisville’s Waterfront Park, and a 12,000-square-foot restaurant as part of the RiverPark Place development in Louisville.

Though he couldn’t provide details, Benjamin said the restaurant will open this year and will be casual. He also added that he has partners in the project.

“I’m not skipping town or going back to Nashville. I’ve got a great opportunity here, and Louisville is our home,” Benjamin said. “I wish I could say more about it, but we’ve got to wait a few weeks. There’s no timeline set yet, but it’s going to happen.”

In a news release, FCH’s Ham said, “We are thankful to Bobby for his contributions and dedication during the last three years with our group. We understand his choice to be in Louisville full-time with (wife) Hannah and their new baby. We will support him and wish him all the best in future projects.”

Benjamin said his partners were surprised he was leaving but very supportive. He said he was grateful they gave him the chance to move from fine dining (he was the chef de cuisine at The Oakroom when they hired him away in 2011) to do upscale casual food at La Coop and Union Commons.

“I think I’m like every chef in that I want to do my own restaurant,” Benjamin said. “What’s hard is those things never happen on your time table. This one is serendipity. So when you’re given an opportunity like this, you don’t pass it up.”

For the time being, a pair of sous chefs at Union Common will step up to assume Benjamin’s duties. Meantime, he and his family will enjoy a few weeks’ break from the restaurant business.

Not that his mind will have a rest. He’s already planning seasonal menus and considering what dishes from his past menus will reappear on his new menu. (Good news, La Coop fans, the green salad with walnuts and bleu cheese ice cream will be one of those!)

“I think I’ll be able to really give Louisville something to be proud of with this new place,” he said. “The city has been so supportive of me and the food I want to do that I’m that much more excited about what we’re going to do.”

More on the aforementioned 8UP…

In addition to Chef Kook’s departure, 8UP co-owner Todd Rushing told me Friday that Len Stevens, 8UP’s general manager, resigned last week.

“We both agreed it wasn’t the best fit for him,” Rushing said. “So we’ve parted amicably.”

Appears there are some good positions in need of filling at 8UP!

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Steve Coomes
Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned award-winning food, spirits and travel writer. In his 24-year career, he has edited and written for multiple national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. He is a feature writer for Louisville magazine, Edible Louisville & The Bluegrass and Food & Dining Magazine. The author of two books, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and the "Home Distiller's Guide to Spirits," he also serves as a ghostwriter for multiple clients.