Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of interviews with local chefs.
Life as a chef can mean stressful, 70-hour work weeks. It can mean ignoring the personal aspects of one’s life. And for many, if not most, at some point there has to be a change.
Tim Smith, executive chef at the Craft House, is being new.
Smith is one of many locals who started their careers in the hospitality industry at Mama Grisanti’s — for him, it was as a busser in 1990. He worked there through high school, went to Murray State University for one semester to study communications, then returned to Louisville and moved into Grisanti’s kitchen.
“They saw I was a go-getter,” Smith recalls.
His future was set, and he would go on to spend years at Grisanti’s, rising to sous chef and later executive chef at its descendant Napa River Grill. His work ethic is what drove him. Well, that and lapping up knowledge, learning every inch of the kitchen in the process of making himself an invaluable asset to a restaurant.
“I didn’t go to culinary school, I went to the school of the 70-hour work week,” Smith says. “I held myself to such a high standard, which is one reason I went from being a busser to executive chef in 10 years. If I was put on a station, I was going to be the best salad maker they ever had or the best pasta maker they ever had.”
Today, he is a husband and father, with a second child due soon. He knew the 70-hour work weeks had to dial back closer to 45 to be the best husband and father he possibly can. (OK, maybe 50.)
Bottom line, he manages his work hours more carefully these days as chef at Craft House, although he still strives to succeed.
Cooking came early to him while he was growing up in the Chenoweth Park neighborhood, as did his drive. He describes himself as being “pretty high-strung as a kid.”
His memories bear that out.
“My mom bought me an Easy Bake oven when I was 4,” he says. “I would bake cakes and cookies and sell them around the neighborhood. I was always very intrigued with fire. I used to go into the bathroom with the lights off, pour rubbing alcohol in the sink and light it on fire. I’m surprised I didn’t set the house on fire.”
But he parlayed that natural curiosity and drive into a career following his graduation from duPont Manual High School, basically doing it all and joining another list of chefs who came up through the ranks of the Grisanti restaurants, like the late Dean Corbett and Dominic Serratore (who opened Ditto’s), among many others.
“It was a fun time,” he says. “Back then, in the early ’90s, this business was booming. … It was always a sense of accomplishment at the end of the night. That’s kind of the way it is now; you’re kind of putting on a show every day, and the curtains open at 4 o’clock.”
He says the culinary scene in Louisville then was different in that it was nothing for Grisanti’s to send out dozens upon dozens of $40 plates every night. Service was key, and experimentation was ongoing.
“When I went through it, it was before Food Network, before the food scene became a big thing,” he says. “It was before Yelp, when everybody became a food critic. We could do whatever we wanted to do, and it was fun.”
After Napa River Grill closed its doors in 2006, Smith bounced around — he was part of the Wild Eggs team for a time, worked briefly at Avalon, Red Star Tavern, Café Emelie and 60 West.
Long hours continued. But, while those 70-hour weeks are fine when you’re in your 20s, even 30s, they’ll eventually catch up. Smith will turn 45 this spring.
In 2011, Bluegrass Brewing Company hired him to be the executive chef at the Bourbon Barrel Loft downtown, mostly doing private parties. But in 2014, they asked him to write a menu for Craft House, and the owners liked his work so much they asked him to take over chef duties.
“I was pretty content just doing private parties,” he says with a chuckle, but he went for it.
But his life has changed. He recently quit smoking, and last year he opened 812 Pizza Company in Southern Indiana with colleague Beau Kerley. He calls that business his “retirement plan.” And while he focused full-time on the pizza restaurant for much of last year, he’s back to a full-time role again at Craft House, but doing so with balance.
He says he drops in 812 maybe once a week. He comes in early at Craft House and does prep and ordering work, but he’s getting home earlier these days to be with the family.
His son, Joseph, is 2. His wife, Angela, is nearing the end of her pregnancy with their daughter, to be named Alayna, and needs more help around the house. Sometimes, that just means keeping Joseph busy.
“Right now, his favorite word is, ‘No, no, no,’” Smith says. “At least it’s not, ‘Why, why, why.’”
By becoming new himself, the present and future look new. He can do things he didn’t allow himself to do before he began slowing things down after marrying Angela in 2013.
“I missed family funerals,” he says. “I missed friends getting married. I was literally working all the time; I literally was obsessed with my job. Once I got married and started having kids, I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’ There has to be balance of life. It took me 20 years to get that through my head. Over the years, you learn it’s not about how big your bank account is, it’s about if your kids are fed and your wife is fed. It’s a no-brainer.”
Craft House is located in Crescent Hill at 2636 Frankfort Ave. 812 Pizza Company is located in Georgetown, Ind., at 7600 Highway 64.