Update: Shortly after this story posted, the opening date was pushed back from Nov. 10 to Nov. 15.
Chef Russell Kook walks briskly and talks quickly during a tour of the not-fully assembled 8UP, a 14,000-square-foot upscale-casual restaurant he’s charged with helping open next week. (The restaurant originally was slated to open Nov. 10, but that date’s been pushed back to Saturday, Nov. 15.) Though patiently answering all my questions, he’s got a new staff to train and a lot of ground to cover before handing me off to another manager. Though courteous, he clearly needs to go.
“Seriously, I don’t mind talking, but yeah, there’s a lot going on,” he says. “We’ve got some menu items to practice tonight, but we’re fine. I want you to see everything.”
The restaurant is huge, consuming the top floor — the eighth, as implied in its name — of the Hilton Garden Inn at 350 W. Chestnut St. It’s about three times the size of most Bardstown Road restaurants; the petit La Coop Bistro a Vins would fit inside the 4,000-square-foot open-air roof garden alone. Kook takes me outside for a look at the dramatic space, whose west- and north-facing edges are cantilevered beyond the building’s edge to hang out over the streets below. The view’s a dandy and surely a tad spooky for acrophobic folk.
“We’re not short on space here, that’s for sure,” Kook adds, hustling back inside to discuss kitchen equipment. Included in this chef’s playground (divided into two kitchens; a smaller one is devoted solely to the rooftop garden and a lounge) are a wood-fired grill, a wood-fired pizza oven, flat-top ranges, sous vide immersion circulators, a large CVap oven, a tilt skillet, a steam-jacketed kettle, a convection oven and much more. “They don’t mess around.”
“They” are Concentrics, the buttoned-up Atlanta-based, 34-restaurant company known nationally for producing some of the industry’s most dramatic one-off concepts such as the award-winning One. Midtown Kitchen. That founder Robert Amick, a man with big-time industry bona fides, would pick Louisville for site No. 35 speaks volumes about the opportunity he sees in this surging restaurant market.
“Louisville has never seen a restaurant and bar space like we’re about to open in 8UP,” says Len Stevens, the restaurant’s general manager. Stevens owned and operated L&N Bistro and Wine Bar with wife, Nancy, for 10 years before closing it two years ago. Since then he managed Milkwood for about a year before taking on shorter stints at Main Street Café and Manny & Merle.
He nearly signed on to manage Mesh Restaurant, now under construction at the old Azalea lot near Indian Hills, but Concentrics circled its managerial wagons, brought him to Atlanta to see several of its restaurants, and convinced him to join the organization.
“As big a deal as Concentrics is, it’s not like they have this attitude that, ‘We’re from Atlanta and we’re coming here to show you how to do it,’” Stevens says. “They see what’s going on in the restaurant scene here, and they want to be a part of it.”
Badly, apparently. My ballpark guess of a $4 million investment in the space by Concentrics yields a grin and an “I’m not telling you other than to say you’re low” response from Stevens. Either way, Concentrics is pouring mad skrilla into this business.
Though the facility was a pre-opening mess the day I saw it (thus I was asked not to take photos), Kook’s tour revealed enough first-rate materials, modern lighting, custom fixtures and equipment — including the four massive gas-burning fire pits on the roof garden — to confirm some of the impressive stories I’d heard about Concentrics from restaurant journo peers.
Creating and operating high-end restaurants is fun for Amick and business partner Todd Rushing, but it’s no game. Once opened next week, this beast will be a beauty bent on creating a dazzling dining experience for guests and profitable transactions for Concentrics.
The main dining room, which will seat about 70, is separated from the 70-seat bar and lounge by an elegant glass-walled private dining space seating 20.
Though just a wood frame when I saw it, the lengthy bar promises to be a great place to perch for extended sipping; the lounge surrounding it will be outfitted with loads of cushy furniture.
Even the private bathrooms are spacious enough to seat four at a table (no, not per toilet — let’s not get creepy). Illuminated thresholds outside of each water closet will signal whether the throne is occupied or abdicated.
Kook describes his food as “progressive American cuisine,” but he admitted that sounds a bit fussy “when what we’re doing here really is just about great food done really well.” He’s pleased to know the area’s farmers and restaurants are well connected, and he’s “glad to have access to what other chefs around here are getting.”
He declined to share many menu details (whether out of shortness of time or secrecy, I’m not sure), but he did show me a stack of brined bacon chops in his fridge. Yes, bacon chops: Homer Simpson’s dream food. The cut combines the belly and loin bound by a rib bone.
“Cool, right?” he says, holding it up by the bone, caveman style. “It’ll feed two.”
Along a wood-trimmed wall in the dining room are hundreds of empty bottle holders soon be filled with wines curated by Stevens. Sean Thibodeaux, most recently assistant bar manager at St. Charles Exchange, will handle beer and spirits as 8UP’s beverage director.
Like Kook, Thibodeaux is reticent to share details about his drinks, but he volunteers that his first craft cocktail menu will be short: nine cocktails “that will be very culinary focused and seasonal.”
That means at least one drink will use butternut squash. Another, called the Downtown Derby, will employ a technique called “saccharification,” meaning Thibodeaux will create a small mash of corn, rye and malted barley to make an unfermented sugar syrup he’ll use in the bourbon drink.
Also busy training a new staff, Thibodeaux is courteous but eager to get back to sharing his vision with the drink makers: a talented lineup that was handpicked from multiple high-profile Louisville bars. (Unsure whether all had given notice to their previous employers, I won’t list their names here.)
Before moving on, Thibodeaux adds, “We will be on the Urban Bourbon Trail, and we’ll start with at least 60 bourbons. As a hotel bar, we expect to have a lot of out-of-towners in here, and hotel people like to ask questions about things like bourbon. … We’ve got a lot of training to do.”
Stevens insists on walking me out, which is a mixed blessing since, at the moment, construction crews have control of the elevators. Stepping across scattered boards and packing paper, Stevens apologizes and directs me to a back door whose stairs lead to the next door parking garage. Stepping out into the afternoon drizzle, he explains that 8UP also will be responsible for room service in the new hotel, a new challenge on his job description.
“I’ve been in restaurants all my life, so learning hotels at my age — this is an education,” he says. So is managing managers, he adds, recalling how he’s always been a hands-on operator with direct customer contact. “I love that part of it, but this is a much bigger operation than what I’ve run. It’s pretty stressful right now, but I can’t wait to see it open and running.”