Louisville’s New Southern Cuisine - United Hub
Hemispheres

Louisville’s new Southern Cuisine

By The Hub team

Story by Ellen Carpenter | Photography by Scott Suchman | Hemispheres July 2019

To misquote Joni Mitchell: You don't know what you've got till you've gone. At least, that's how I feel about Kentucky.

Growing up there in the '80s and '90s, I scoffed at so-called “Kentucky food," like country ham and spoon bread. Sure, biscuits and gravy was good, and Derby-Pie (walnuts, people! Not pecans!) was tradition, but did it compare to the Ethiopian food I tried on vacation in Washington, D.C., when I was 10? Or the tiramisu I devoured in New York at 13?

I moved to New York at 22, sure I had hit the culinary jackpot. And I had. But a few years later, my mom moved from my hometown of Murray to “the big city"—Louisville—and told me that she had hit the culinary jackpot. Every time I went back to visit, she took me to a new restaurant and all but taunted “told you so" when I cleaned my plate. On my last couple of trips, what wowed me the most was how many of these restaurants were taking typical Kentucky ingredients or dishes and reinventing and elevating them in ways that no one dared when I was a kid. I realized I had to go back and investigate further (aka stuff my face).

And so here I find myself, in Louisville, a week before the Derby, pink dogwoods lining the wide streets, phlox overfilling window boxes. “You can't beat spring in Kentucky," says my mom, who, I should note, is a Londoner by way of Canada who has now lived in the Bluegrass State for 43 years. And I'm ready to eat.

Couvillion

Paul Skulas

First stop: Couvillion, a “Kentucky-Cajun" spot in Germantown that LEO Weekly, the local alt-weekly, named the city's best new restaurant of 2018. The chef, Paul Skulas, a friendly, bearded Midwesterner whose arms are blanketed with colorful tattoos, meets me before dinner service in the spacious barroom, which is decorated with old cast-iron skillets and local voodoo-inspired art. After five years in the Marine Corps, Skulas went to culinary school and cooked at a Creole fine-dining spot in Mississippi before moving to Louisville in 2012 and working at a handful of “meat and potatoes" restaurants. He opened Couvillion in April 2018, seeing a gap in the market for a Cajun spot—but, he notes, “not a cheesy, Bourbon Street concept." Instead he wanted to emulate how the Acadians would have cooked when they first arrived in Louisiana in the 1700s. “I thought about what consists of the Cajun vibe and those people taking in their surroundings and the way their mothers or families cooked, and putting a spin on those traditions," he says. “Being in Kentucky, it only makes sense for me to put spins on those same traditions the way they would if they were here."

Couvillion's eponymous catfish dish and smoked corn bread

For Skulas, that means adding country ham to the gumbo—“I put country ham in as many things as I can!"—and serving up pinto soup beans, an Appalachian standard, instead of red beans and rice. “That's the classic-heritage Kentucky thing," Skulas says. “Country ham and soup beans. You have to have that on a menu—that's Kentucky." He also swaps in catfish from Lake Barkley (right near my hometown) for his restaurant's eponymous couvillion, which itself is a play on the French dish court-bouillon and is generally made with redfish in New Orleans.

Of course, I have to try it all. I start with the smoked corn bread—the most popular dish on the menu, Skulas tells me—which is made with cold-smoked cornmeal from local organic grain supplier Louismill. The country ham lends the gumbo a smokiness that beautifully cuts through the roux, and the catfish holds its own in the rich and tomatoey couvillion. I also try the duck creole with ricotta dumplings, Skulas's Cajun take on chicken and dumplings, because, well, how could I not? I leave with a newfound respect for local Kentucky ingredients—and enough take-out boxes to feed my mom for a week.

“Being in Kentucky, it only makes sense for me to put spins on those traditions"

Boujie Biscuit

Cyndi Joyner

I somehow wake up hungry the next day, and I know exactly where to go: Boujie Biscuit, a new spot on Frankfort Avenue. Here, Brooklyn transplant Cyndi Joyner takes that heavenly Southern staple, the buttermilk biscuit, and piles it high with any combo of savory or sweet toppings you can imagine. "I decided to use the biscuit as a vehicle to introduce people to other foods from around the world," says Joyner, whose bracelets match the copper-colored font on her Boujie Biscuit T-shirt. She credits her creative palate to her melting-pot Brooklyn childhood, Southern grandparents, and time living in Prague and traveling around Europe. Her Euro Biscuit is topped with the Hungarian stew lecsó, and she's debating adding a chicken tikka masala biscuit and an African peanut stew biscuit to the ever-growing menu. "If you can throw it on something that people are already familiar with just to give it a little twist, then it doesn't look so foreign," she says, leading me over to a couch at the front of the laid-back space. "I kind of feel like I'm being sneaky in a way! Some people think they may not be adventurous, but the spices that I use are not necessarily found at Kroger."

A breakfast biscuit at Boujie Biscuit

“I use the biscuit as a vehicle to introduce people to other foods from around the world."

I can't help myself and go straight Southern, choosing The Gravy Train on Fire, which consists of “cluckin' hot" chicken chunks and sausage gravy heaped over a flaky biscuit about the size of my head. Joyner laughs when I prove incapable of finishing our interview because I can't stop eating. “This is the part where I walk away while you take a huge bite," she says, grinning. After helping a slew of hungry customers, including two women celebrating Administrative Professionals Day (“So the whole office is getting Boujie Biscuit!" shouts one woman as she does a little dance of joy), Joyner rejoins me on the couch. She tells me she chose to open up in Louisville after visiting and liking the city's “funky" vibe. “People aren't afraid to experiment," she says. “I think this place fits right in."

Seviche

Anthony Lamas

After a long walk along the waterfront to burn off the sausage gravy (it pains me that I was too full to finish that biscuit), I meet up with Anthony Lamas, a mainstay of the Louisville food scene. He opened his restaurant, Seviche, in the Highlands in 2005 and has been winning accolades for his creativity and flair ever since. Seviche's tagline—“Inspired by heritage. Influenced by locality."—couldn't be more accurate or, for Lamas, more natural. He was raised in California by a Puerto Rican dad and a Mexican mom and cooked at a resort in San Diego before making the move to Louisville in 1994. “I didn't know about Southern things, like country ham, sorghum, or grits. " he tells me, sitting on a leather couch in the restaurant's event space. “But I just started to adapt my flavor profiles to them. It was a natural marriage, because we do use a lot of the same ingredients, just in different ways. You know: corn bread, corn tortillas; grits, pozole. So I fell in love with what was here."

The Tuna Old Fashioned at Seviche

His menu pairs grits with roasted poblanos and manchego cheese; tuna ceviche is marinated in bourbon and Bluegrass Soy Sauce (from local company Bourbon Barrel Foods); and empanadas are filled with Kentucky bison. When Lamas tried pawpaws (a custardy, mango-like fruit) from a neighbor's tree for the first time, he realized they'd be great in flan. But whatever you do, don't call his food fusion. “I don't like that word," he says, grimacing and adjusting his white frame glasses. “I call it confusion. It's bad. People are always like, 'Are you Latin fusion?' No, no, no, no. I'm a Latino chef in Kentucky, and my restaurant's influenced by that. My food changed because Kentucky changed me, because it introduced me to so many things that I didn't know. For a chef, that's exciting, right?"

What I eat that night is beyond exciting. The Kentucky Hot Brown empanadas, filled with chunks of turkey and served with a jalapeño Mornay sauce and pico de gallo, make me rethink the quintessential Louisville dish, a broiled open-face sandwich created at the Brown Hotel in 1926. Even my cocktail, the Best Boy, is a cultural mash-up, pairing bourbon with Aztec chocolate bitters. (“If you don't like it," my waiter, Benjamin, tells me, “I'll finish it for you." Nice try, Ben.) The Tuna Old Fashioned ceviche comes in an old-fashioned glass, naturally, and explodes with flavor. My main is a special that night: a sous vide beef tenderloin topped with ramp butter and served over mashed red potatoes. A chipotle country ham demi-glace seals the deal. I somehow refrain from licking my plate. When I leave (OK, after also eating the flan with chili-spiced peanut brittle), I'm reminded of something Lamas told me earlier: “I always say what 'mi casa es su casa' is to Latinos, 'Southern hospitality' is to the South."

“My food changed because Kentucky changed me."

V-Grits

Kristina J. Addington

For lunch the next day, I try something even more foreign to Kentuckians: vegan food. Last October, not far from Seviche, Kristina J. Addington opened V-Grits with the aim of serving vegan versions of her favorite Kentucky classics. She grew up in nearby Shelby County, where her mom would make Hot Browns weekly. “All of our food had meat in it—even bacon in the green beans," she says, sitting at a two-top in the bright, airy space, rainbow earrings complementing her Rainbow Brite tattoo and orange-dyed hair. Thirteen years ago, she became vegan, and after five years working for PETA, she started wholesaling her homemade vegan baked goods to natural food stores in Louisville. She won an episode of Food Network's Cutthroat Kitchen in 2014 and, with her earnings, started a food truck. Last year she partnered with False Idol Brewery to open a brick-and-mortar location.

The Vegan Hot Brown at V-Grits

I ask whether she was worried about finding an audience here, and she shakes her head. “Southern food was what I grew up on, and I knew that was the easiest way I was going to win people over," she says. “I think fresh, healthy food is very important, but people around here are used to stick-to-your-ribs comfort food, so that's why we specialize in that." More than half of her restaurant's customers aren't vegan, she says; they just like the food: five kinds of loaded mac 'n' cheese, chicken-fried mushroom wings, a breakfast skillet with grits, hash browns, and baked beans…

Knowing that Addington used to have a weekly Hot Brown habit, I have to try her vegan take. It's served in a cast-iron skillet with vegan cheese grits, a housemade biscuit, vegan turkey, “gouda" béchamel made with coconut milk, and “bacon" bits made with seasoned and roasted coconut shreds. It's decadent and utterly comforting. My glass of False Idol's kombucha provides the perfect zing.

“For me, growing up with the typical Southern family, food is what brings you together," Addington says. “Regardless of what you're eating, it's that feeling of security and comfort. You eat good mac 'n' cheese and you think of being at your grandmother's house when you're five and her making that. Comfort food gives you that sentimental memory of being with your family around the dinner table."

“Southern food is what I grew up on, and I knew that was the easiest way I was going to win people over"

610 Magnolia

Edward Lee

On that note, I ask my mom to join me for my last meal out—at Old Louisville's 610 Magnolia, probably the local restaurant with the highest national profile. Chef Edward Lee was nominated for an Emmy in 2014 for his role in PBS's The Mind of a Chef, and this spring his second book, Buttermilk Graffiti, won the James Beard Foundation Award for writing.

In the book, Lee, a Korean-American who grew up in Brooklyn, challenges the idea of authentic Southern cooking. “I always ask myself, What South are you talking about?" he writes. “Pre-colonial South? Plantation South? Post-colonial? Post–Civil Rights movement? Paula Deen's South? The immigrant South? All are part of the complicated history of the South. None can claim a true authenticity."

Way beef tongue two ways with daikon pancake, sauerkraut kimchi, and gochujang at 610 Magnolia

That's something Lee learned when he moved to Louisville in 2002. He started cooking at 610 Magnolia (taking it over in 2003), at first making regional foods out of necessity, “because I couldn't get tamarind and I couldn't get lemongrass," he tells me. But then bits of his family's Korean cooking traditions started seeping into his dishes. “If you love Korean food but you happen to live in the South, sooner or later you're going to mix the two," he says. “It's inevitable. Because you're like, Oh, I wanna make this pork dish, but I don't have what I really want. Well, what's around me?" He had collard greens for the first time and realized they would be great for kimchi; he started doing a Southern-style dim sum special that ended up being the impetus for his second restaurant, MilkWood. Meanwhile, he notes, “more immigrants moved in, and now there's more of an international presence. So it works both ways: The immigrant food becomes more Kentuckyfied in a way, and the Kentucky food becomes more global in a way. With local food and global food, it's not a line in the sand. That's the place that's most exciting for me: where things crossover, overlap, and mix."

My four-course tasting menu does just that. There's miso-chicken-liver mousse with benne seed crackers; beef tongue with a daikon pancake and sauerkraut kimchi; delicately cooked halibut with buttermilk, navy beans, ramps, and bok choy. Dessert, the Bourbon Aficionado, ends up being the showstopper. Our waiter removes the slate tile covering the serving dish and bourbon-barrel smoke rolls out, immediately transporting me to a campfire at my childhood friend's property by Kentucky Lake. My mom has the exact same thought, and we laugh as we dig in, scooping up bites of banana cake, freeze-dried corn, butterscotch, brown-butter ice cream, and Pappy Van Winkle maple syrup—“everything you find in bourbon," our waiter notes. We each sip a cocktail made of Michter's rye and ruby port, savoring our last bites and our time together. “Go ahead and say it," I tell Mom, shaking my head. “Told you so!" she sing-songs, and then adds, “Does this mean you'll come visit more often?"

“With local food and global food, it's not a line in the sand"

Thinking back on everything I've eaten over the last three days—and knowing how much more there is to try—the answer is obviously yes. As Lee writes in Buttermilk Graffiti, “In order for any cuisine to evolve it has to be passed on to people who have not lived the authentic life from which it germinated." And, as I've learned, in order to appreciate the cuisine and ingredients you grew up with, maybe you have to go away for a while and come back with an open mind—and an empty stomach.

The Lee Initiative

Edward Lee and Lindsey Ofcacek were brainstorming a mentorship program for their two-year-old LEE (Let's Empower Employment) Initiative when the #MeToo moment hit the restaurant world, at the end of 2017. “We were like, This is terrible, but for every bad chef there are 100 good ones," says Ofcacek, the executive director of the Initiative and the wine director for 610 Magnolia. “We wanted to find a way for young women in the industry to go and work with great chefs."
Last year, they launched the Women Chefs Initiative, a six-month program that pairs five budding female chefs from Kentucky, Cincinnati, and Southern Indiana with female-led restaurant groups across the country. The program culminates with a dinner at the James Beard House in New York, where the women cook their own food alongside Lee. “That partnership is invaluable, because every young chef dreams of cooking at the Beard House," says Ofcacek, adding that it was emotional for the first class of women last summer: “At the end, they were all weeping." This year's mentors include Nina Compton, the chef-owner of Compère Lapin in New Orleans, and Mindy Segal, the pastry chef behind Chicago's Mindy's Hot Chocolate. Lee notes that last year's class is also invested in this year's mentees: “Now they're mentoring the five chefs that are in it this year," he says. “Can you imagine after five years? That's 25 chefs. That's an entire community. That can make change." leeinitiative.org

Looking back at a landmark year with Special Olympics

By Ryan Wilks, October 19, 2020

Earlier this summer, we shone a light on our flagship partnership with Special Olympics and our commitment to the Inclusion Revolution. In that same story, we introduced you to our four Special Olympics Service Ambassadors, Daniel, Kyle, Lauren and Zinyra (Z), who, this month, celebrate one year working at Chicago O'Hare International Airport as part of the United family.

This groundbreaking, inclusive employment program took off as a part of our ongoing partnership with Special Olympics, a community relationship that employees across the company hold close to heart. The original 'UA4' (as they call themselves) have become an integral part of the United team serving customers at O'Hare Airport. Even from behind their masks, their wide smiles and effervescent spirit exude and bring life to the service culture of excellence we strive towards every day.

"The UA4 are more than just customer service ambassadors. They are shining examples of how inclusion, accessibility and equity can have monumental impacts on the culture and service of a business and community," said Customer Service Managing Director Jonna McGrath. "They have forever changed who we are as a company. While they often talk about how United and this opportunity has changed their lives, they have changed ours in more ways than we can count."

In the two years of partnership with Special Olympics, United employees have volunteered over 10,500 hours of service at events around the world and donated over $1.2 million worth of travel to the organization.

"This inclusive employment program is what community partnerships, like ours with Special Olympics, are all about: collaborating to identify areas where the needs of the community intersect with the cultural and business opportunity, then creating the infrastructure and programming to bring the two together," said Global Community Engagement Managing Director Suzi Cabo. "Through this program, our goal is to show other companies that when you put a committed effort and focus towards inclusion and breaking down barriers, you transform lives. I challenge other business around the world to follow our lead in joining the Inclusion Revolution."

Check out the video below to hear from our Special Olympics Service Ambassadors firsthand.

youtu.be

Spotlighting our own during Hispanic Heritage Month

By The Hub team, October 13, 2020

We celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month from September 15 th through October 15th and take the time to recognize the important contributions of our colleagues of Hispanic descent in the United family.

This year, we hosted virtual events organized by our multicultural business resource group UNITE to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, covering topics ranging from immigration reform to Hispanic leadership. We're also taking a moment to highlight Latinx employees nominated by their peers for their contributions both at and outside of work.

These nominees have demonstrated leadership in their position and through their character. Take a moment to read their own words about how their background and heritage plays a role in the way they interact with customers, in how they support their colleagues and why it brings valuable perspective to their work.

Vania Wit – VP & Deputy Counsel

Photo of Vania Wit, VP & Deputy Counsel for United Airlines

"I am the Vice President and Deputy General Counsel in the legal department. I am an attorney and have worked in the legal department for over 21 years and am currently responsible for a number of different legal areas – such as litigation, international, commercial and government contracts, labor, employment and benefits, antitrust. I have the privilege of working with a tremendous team of attorneys who are directly leading and managing these areas. One of the things I like most about my job is simply getting to know the backgrounds and personal stories that everyone has about their paths to United or their passion for the industry. Being the daughter of immigrants from South America and growing up in a family who relies heavily on air travel to connect us to our close family and friends is an integral part of my story and what drew me to this industry and this company."

Kayra Martinez – International Flight Attendant, FRA

Photo of Kayra Martinez on board an aircraft

"I love that my work as a flight attendant brings me all over the world and allows me to connect with diverse people across the globe. Because of my Spanish heritage, I've been able to use my language as a way to connect with passengers, crew members and people from every nationality. In addition, my heritage gives me a very close connection to family, creating community and using inclusion as a way to bring people together. After transferring to Europe, I was able to study German, more Spanish, Italian and Arabic. Outside of work, I'm the director and founder of a nonprofit organization that empowers refugees through art. Hundreds of children and adults fleeing war-torn countries have found healing through my art workshops. These refugees are currently displaced in Greece. Their stunning paintings are then sold in art galleries and communities around the world, raising awareness and putting income directly into the hands of refugee artists."

Adriana Carmona – Program Manager, AO Regulatory Compliance

Photo of Adriana standing in front of a plane engine

"I've been incredibly lucky to have amazing leaders during my time at United who have challenged me from day one to think outside the box, step out of my comfort zone and trusted me to own and deliver on the tasks assigned. I think this sense of ownership is largely shaped by my Latino background, which values responsibility, respect and accountability and taking full charge of what's in your control to be able to deliver accordingly."

Harry Cabrera – Assistant Manager, AO Customer Service, IAH

Photo of Harry Cabrera

"My desire to help people is what drove me to start my career in Customer Service over two decades ago. Currently I provide support to our coworkers and customers at IAH , the gateway to Latin America and the Caribbean. As a Colombian native celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month, I'm proud to see the strength that my fellow Latinos forge every day at United Airlines. Family values are a cornerstone of the Latin community; I consider my coworkers to be part of my extended family. Mentor support throughout the years gave me the opportunity to grow professionally. The desire to do better and help others succeed is part of that heritage. I collaborate with our Latin American operations and create ways to improve performance. No matter what language you speak, the passion for what you do and being approachable makes the difference in any interaction."

Juciaria Meadows – Assistant Regional Manager, Cargo Sales

Photo of Juciaria Meadows in a Cargo hold

"During my 28-year career, I've worked across the system in various frontline and leadership roles in Reservations, Customer Service and Passenger Sales in Brazil. I moved to the U.S. in 2012 to work as an Account Executive for Cargo. It did not take too long for me to learn that boxes and containers have as much a voice as a passenger sitting in our aircraft. My job is to foster relationships with shippers, freight forwarders, cosignees, etc. and build strong partnerships in fair, trustworthy and caring ways where United Cargo will be their carrier of choice. That's where my background growing up in a Latino family plays an important role in my day-to-day interactions. I've done many wonderful sales trainings provided by United and my academic background , but none of them taught me more than watching my parents running their wholesale food warehouse. Developing exceptional relationships with their customers, they always treated them with trust and respect. They were successful business people with a big heart, creative, always adding a personal touch to their business relationships and I find myself doing the same. It's a lesson that is deep in my heart."

Shanell Arevalo – Customer Service Representative, DEN

Photo of Shanell Arevalo at work

"I am Belizean and Salvadoran. At a young age my family moved to California from Belize. Although I grew up in the United States , one thing my parents taught me was to never forget the culture, values and principles I was raised on. This includes showing love, compassion, and respect to all people. We learned to put our best foot forward for any situation and always put our heart and mind into everything we do. In my position as a customer service agent, it's the difference of showing the love, compassion and respect to our passengers to show that this is not just a job but rather a passion of genuinely caring for our people. Being Latina, we are raised to always take care of our family, and the way I take care of passengers is the way I would take care of my family. If there's one way I know I can make a difference with our Spanish speaking passengers, it's being able to speak the language. The glow that comes over a passenger's face when they realize there's someone who can speak Spanish is absolutely an indescribable feeling. With that glow comes comfort and joy. The small comfort they get from knowing someone can connect with them makes all the difference in their experience."

Around the web

United Cargo responds to COVID-19 challenges, prepares for what's next

By The Hub team, September 30, 2020

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, United Cargo has supported a variety of customers within the healthcare industry for over 10 years. Three key solutions – TempControl, LifeGuard and QuickPak – protect the integrity of vital shipments such as precision medicine, pharmaceuticals, biologics, medical equipment and vaccines. By utilizing processes like temperature monitoring, thermodynamic management, and priority boarding and handling, United Cargo gives customers the peace of mind that their shipments will be protected throughout their journey.

With the global demand for tailored pharmaceutical solutions at an all-time high, we've made investments to help ensure we provide the most reliable air cargo options for cold chain shipping. In April this year, we became the first U.S. carrier to lease temperature-controlled shipping containers manufactured by DoKaSch Temperature Solutions. We continue to partner with state-of-the-art container providers to ensure we have options that meet our customers' ever-changing needs.

"Providing safe air cargo transport for essential shipments has been a top priority since the pandemic began. While the entire air cargo industry has had its challenges, I'm proud of how United Cargo has adapted and thrived despite a significant reduction in network capacity and supply," said United Cargo President Jan Krems. "We remain committed to helping our customers make it through the pandemic, as well as to doing everything we can to be prepared for the COVID-19 vaccine distribution when the time comes."

Our entire team continues to prioritize moving critical shipments as part of our commitment to supporting the global supply chain. We've assembled a COVID readiness task team to ensure we have the right people in place and are preparing our airports as we get ready for the industry-wide effort that comes next.

In cooperation with our partners all over the world, United Cargo has helped transport nearly 145 million pounds of medical supplies to aid in the fight against COVID-19, using a combination of cargo-only flights and passenger flig­hts. To date, United Cargo has operated more than 6,300 cargo-only flights and has transported more than 213 million pounds of cargo worldwide.

Scroll to top