Kathy Cary, chef-owner, Lilly’s: A Kentucky Bistro

This May, Louisville will host the second-annual James Beard Foundation‘s Chefs Boot Camp for Policy Change.

That this is an honor for the local restaurant community isn’t obvious to many, but it’s not lost on chefs both here and elsewhere in the United States.

The event will convene 15 nationally recognized chefs who fight the good food fight daily in their kitchens, and in the media, as advocates for improving the U.S. food supply.

Louisville was chosen as this year’s site because its restaurants and area farmers have long practiced sustainable, farm-to-table initiatives, said Kathy Cary, chef-owner of Lilly’s–a Kentucky Bistro, and one of the fortunate 15 invited.

“What’s going on as far as fresh food and food advocacy in our restaurant scene here has gone on a long time, far longer than in most cities that have drawn more attention for it,” said Cary, who is commonly acknowledged as Louisville’s first chef to consistently source local produce and proteins for her restaurant. “I think it’s a feather in the city’s cap because it recognizes the strong effort we’ve made, and it brings national attention to Louisville.”

The first JBF Boot Camp was held in 2012 at Blackberry Farm, the luxury farm-to-table resort in Walland, Tenn. Its aim was simple: convene chefs who’ve proven themselves serious about using better foods in their kitchens; provide networking opportunities with other likeminded chefs; and provide media training and information to help those chefs further the good-food cause publicly.

Since the official announcement about the Boot Camp has yet to be made, JBF spokesman Kristopher Moon was unable to release more details, including the actual date. When that press release goes public, the complete list of chefs invited from around the country will be shared, along with the agenda for the two-and-a-half-day event.

Cary only knows scant details about the event, but said it runs over a Sunday to Tuesday stretch next month. The event kicks off with a reception at the 21C Hotel (where the chefs will stay), followed by dinner at Proof on Main that night. (Levon Wallace, Proof’s executive chef, is the Boot Camp’s host chef, but declined to comment on the proceedings until the Beard House speaks.)

Monday includes meetings to discuss current food policies, followed by an afternoon trip to Woodland Farm in Oldham County (home to Proof and 21C owners Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson), where the chefs will prepare a family-style meal centered on one of the farm’s heritage breed hogs.

Following a half-day meeting on Tuesday, the Boot Camp ends.

Why so hush-hush?

Possibly because the list of guest chefs awaits full confirmation and because lots of chefs applied for the chance to join the Boot Camp.

“The application is 20-pages long,” said Cary, adding that multiple local chefs applied. “It takes some time to fill out, so you know it’s important to (JBF).”

Asked why she thought she was chosen to participate, Cary figured her track record of connecting with farmers, serving their foods and even championing their businesses on her menu bore some weight.

“All I’ve been doing is working my tail off doing the right thing with the right people over the past 30-odd years, so I guess that’s worth something,” Cary said. “I know one thing for sure: I’d put a thousand dollars to win on me being the oldest chef there!”

Most importantly, Cary said, is the nation’s growing acceptance of chefs as highly influential in the process improving the foods we eat and the land from which they come.

“When I started cooking in the ‘70s, chefs weren’t the rock stars they are today,” she said. “But now they have a voice in this matter and the public looks to them for guidance. It’s a nice twist to approach this necessary change by going through chefs rather than the federal government.”

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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.

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