Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of interviews with local chefs.
Casper Van Drongelen, head chef at 8UP Elevated Drinkery & Kitchen, isn’t 100 percent comfortable with the idea that he’ll be featured on the television show “Secrets of Bluegrass Chefs” when the crew comes to his kitchen on March 21.
“I’m just a guy who does the work,” he says.
But there’s a little more to it than that. Van Drongelen recently changed the 8UP menu, giving it a fairly total overhaul from something akin to a classic bar menu to something a bit more, as he calls it, “lounge-y.”
And changing a food program isn’t as simple as slapping a few new dishes onto the menu and then making them.
“The absolute first thing you look at is, does it need to be changed at all?” he says. But Van Drongelen felt 8UP was doing a lot of what every other bar in town was doing. “We’re not trying to be the thing that appeals to everyone. How many ridiculous fried things can you put on a bun? How many different kinds of cheese can you melt on those and have them be something people buy?”
In approaching the new menu, he first wondered what he and his wife as consumers would expect from a menu at a lounge like 8UP. As in, “not a big, fat burger.” Then he talks to his sous chefs to see if they have ideas they’d like to incorporate into a new menu. Then they discuss it at length for several days before choosing a direction.
“There’s not any one website or book you can look at and say, ‘That’s what we’re doing,’” he says.
The experimentation is fun, but the food also needs to be attractive to consumers — or at least a majority of them. There’s no pleasing everyone: “If you’re going to soak something in fish sauce, there are going to be people who just don’t like that.”
The resulting bar menu, which went into effect recently, came down to an eclectic collection of small plates, from beer cheese pierogis to baked oysters to dips and stuffed peppers. He focused on the menu being a bit more healthful, with fewer fried options, although you can still get a burger or a pizza.
The dinner menu is long on hearty meats, with shareable sides like garlic mashed potatoes, a couple of salads and a shrimp fettuccini. But it’s the lounge food he wanted to simplify for the social setting.
“They might not even have the need for a napkin and a bath afterward,” Van Drongelen deadpans.
Van Drongelen moved from the Netherlands to the United States with his family when he was 12, and for the first couple of months they lived in an extended-stay motel. One of his first memories of American food was the breakfast bar the motel laid out each morning.
“I was used to having maybe piece of bread, a piece of cheese and maybe a glass of juice,” he says. “But no, we have pancakes, we have waffles, we have all this stuff.”
His first job associated with food was on a guest ranch, and he enjoyed the hands-on aspect of it, so he ended up attending culinary college in Chicago, where he lived and worked for nearly a decade.
After meeting his current wife, Jessica Meyer, in Chicago, Von Drongelen went to visit a friend in Arizona, and the friend offered him a job. He and Meyer decided they’d had enough of Chicago winters, so they moved. They ended up moving to Seattle and then Bend, Ore., before deciding a couple of years ago that Louisville was going to be home, thanks in part to the presence of some family here.
Van Drongelen is a fan of the city in many ways. He sees progress, and money being spent toward trying to see the city realize its potential. He is a fan of the culinary scene, as well, mentioning Queen of Sheba as a go-to, as well as Tuesday “Cacio e Pepe” pasta at Roc Restaurant.
However, he says he’s still looking for the best burger in town, noting the relative consistency Grind Burger Kitchen offers.
“That’s my guilty pleasure,” he says. “A burger and a beer.”
He also noted Oskar’s Slider Bar: “They’re challenging my hatred of sliders. A slider burger, to me, just the meat and bun ratio is all wrong. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make a delicious, tiny little sandwich. They’re doing good job at that.”
Perhaps the pasta will be enough to keep him around — he and Meyer just bought a house, which is a time-consuming project for the foreseeable future. Mention family (the couple doesn’t have kids) and Van Drongelen’s eyes light up when he talks about his dog Shiloh, a mutt that blends, perhaps among others, some corgi, pit bull and German shepherd.
Shiloh is epileptic, perhaps a result of never being able to nurse — they found her in a dumpster on a Navajo reservation when she was 2 months old — but that’s just part of the package for Von Drongelen. He may not have found the right burger yet, but he found the right dog after having lost his beloved Micah, who still graces his Facebook profile photo.
“She’s the sweetest dog,” he says of Shiloh. “She’s the definition of a mutt. But we’re all mutts, so who am I to decide I want a purebred dog?”
After those, he’ll take a little time off to work on the new house. Confidentially, however, he says not to expect any big culinary secrets if you watch the “Bluegrass Chefs” broadcast.
“What is the secret to anything?” he says. “It’s usually not just a simple thing. It’s not like you reading a book and now you’re an astronaut. It’s planning, it’s execution and it’s time. If you can get those three things to play nice on the rug, you can actually get some stuff accomplished.”
8UP is located at 350 W. Chestnut St.