When I hear locals say Louisville is worthy of being counted among the nation’s great food cities, I have to bite my tongue.
I’ve learned the hard way that arguing that the city has a long way to go to being anywhere near comparable to New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles or Dallas, etc., gets me nowhere.
Face facts: That’s never going to happen.
Yet according to Edward Lee, chef-owner of 610 Magnolia, Louisville is on the cusp of becoming a nationally recognized restaurant town (much like Charleston, S.C., has in the past decade) if it can commit to further investment in the industry.
I spoke at length with Lee for a Louisville magazine story on that subject and others, and since those quotes have yet to be published, I’ll have to paraphrase his encouraging dreams for that part of Louisville’s food future.
Lee said that for Louisville to become another Charleston requires several things:
- Not only will its chefs need to drill down further into local foods, they’ll need to focus more on ingredients in which the state specializes. Bourbon’s everywhere, and that’s good, but he said local chefs tend overlook other state products such as its fantastic sorghum and incredible hams.
- Just as they have invested deeply in the local arts community, Lee believes wealthy patrons and corporations need to invest in creating a serious food festival such as you’ll find in comparably sized markets. Not only will that draw more top-name food and drink talent to the city to participate in such events, the national exposure is invaluable. Plus, Lee imagines some of those outsiders will see the promise here and want to stay.
- We need more and better restaurants. Does that mean 10 more 610s or a half dozen more Corbett’s? Not necessarily. It means a richer variety of cuisines and a cadre of chefs, sommeliers and bartenders who elevate them. Where Louisville has ample room to grow is in its ethnic offerings, he said.
Lee isn’t the only one who sees the potential for restaurant communities that gain corporate support. In the article “Charlotte’s New Course,” published last month in Garden & Gun magazine (if you’ve never seen it, the book is brilliant), writer John T. Edge opined on how Charlotte, N.C., is becoming a fantastic food town, but that it needs more help to become truly great.
“Charlotte boasts an enviable track record of big-picture civic investment that feeds one our nation’s most innovative and generous public arts programs,” Edge began. “Here opera thrives. Symphony does too. Yet the food arts get comparatively short shrift.”
The same happens here, though not out of neglect. There’s only so much money to go around, and generous donors have, so far, put most of their money into theater, opera, ballet and the orchestra.
But not only do none of those arts hold a significant foothold in Kentucky culture, public willingness to support them is waning.
Great food and drink and the farms that supply them, those are truly born of the Bluegrass and need more attention. And without new support, Louisville restaurants may never gain the national regard they could and should.