The question to Bobby Benjamin is simple: What are you thinking about when you aren’t thinking about food or Butchertown Grocery?
Benjamin’s response is a blank gaze. It’s as if the interviewer he’s been talking with suddenly has grown another eyeball. Finally, he comes up with his answer.
“My life is pretty simple,” he says, looking around Butchertown Grocery, the restaurant he opened with some business partners nearly four years ago. “I don’t want much; I don’t need for much. I want to make sure my family is happy, my team is happy. My team is my extended family. I’m always thinking about this.”
Benjamin talks up his team — most restaurant owners do, but he may do it more than most. He touts the energy and teamwork he sees each day when he’s at the restaurant. He uses the word “family” quite often when talking about his team. He marvels when he sees a pre-brunch meeting taking place without him. The place can run itself, and it makes him happy.
“It’s totally, totally different, you know,” he says. “Being a chef is one thing, being a business owner is another. It’s about as different as night and day, but I love it. I don’t know that I would do anything else. Or pick another career or lifestyle. I don’t know what else I would do.”
He might be a farmer. When he’s not gushing about his employees, he is talking about the farming partners who provide the ingredients that serve the organic farm-to-table mission at Butchertown Grocery (so named because, yes, it was indeed a grocery store in its original life).
He brings up Lisa Windhorst, owner of Spade and Table Farm, several times, mentioning the many quality organic products the farm provides, from tomatoes to eggplants. He talks up Matt Jamie and Bourbon Barrel Foods, as well as Erika Chavez-Graziano of Cellar Door Chocolates, and how lucky it is to have those sources just steps away.
Joe Heron’s acclaimed project, Copper & Kings American Brandy Distillery, is another Butchertown Grocery partner just a block down Washington Street.
“I feel like I’m one of most spoiled chefs in the city of Louisville,” Benjamin says. “To be able to be here and be able to go to those stores, I can walk 200 feet. To be able to have that here, it helps me keep my creativity going, too — being around lot of talented people just out your door.”
Creativity at Butchertown Grocery recently has taken the form of a Rosé Tasting Experience, a six-course meal that pairs each food item with a specific rosé wine, with the selections coming mostly from Europe. For instance, your Hudson Valley duck breast in course five will be paired with a 2016 E. Guigal Tavel wine from Rhone Valley in France.
A similar pairing menu puts six courses of food with select bourbons.
And Benjamin won’t let you bypass the communal chef’s table — in the dining room, not the kitchen — where diners seated there will enjoy special flavors, seasonings and other suggestions from the chef. Benjamin beams when talking about some of the ingredients that help make the chef’s table a different experience.
“I think what’s unique about this table is how we highlight ingredients from around the world,” he says, explaining that 99 percent of spices are organic, olive oils come from all over Europe, some vinegars are barrel-aged in house, and the restaurant also offers barrel-aged hot sauce and mustard.
Another recent attraction at Butchertown Grocery is the family-style tasting menu. And with the expansion to seven-day service, there now are daily specials, from a rotisserie duck (Tuesday) to porchetta (Saturday), and plenty of others. In addition to the lounge upstairs (Lola) — where the full menu is available — there’s also a bakery producing breads and pastries.
Suffice to say, Benjamin stays busy. He estimates he is there from 6 a.m. to 9 or 10 p.m., six days a week. (“I take Sundays off,” he says, “but sometimes we come in for brunch.”)
“We” includes his wife, Hanna, and daughters, Copeland and Phfifer, with whom he shares his love of fresh, organic ingredients and cooking.
“I take them to farmers markets, teach them about food, cook for them,” he says. It’s always about food.
Benjamin had lived in Louisville previously — he’s originally from New Hampshire — but admits he didn’t interact with the city much. He moved around, working with chefs such as Sean Brock, Wolfgang Puck and Gino Angelini. But when he returned to work at the Oakroom and the Seelbach, and later worked with Falls City Hospitality Group to open La Coop, that changed.
“I fell in love with the city, and most importantly, my wife fell in love with the city,” Benjamin says. “The people here have embraced us so much. It’s amazing. We decided to stay here for the rest of our lives. I said, ‘You know what? This time I’ll open a restaurant.’”
Which means Louisville will never want for fresh, quality food. He sees Butchertown Grocery as a true neighborhood bistro where anyone and everyone can come for a good, healthful meal. To him, it’s still a bit like what its predecessor grocery might have been like, selling goods produced by local farmers and butchers.
“We want to tip our hat to what this building used to be,” Benjamin says, looking around his restaurant. “When I think about a grocery, I think about something that’s built organically.”