Kentucky's Most Anticipated New Restaurant Opened at the Best and Worst Time
In a new era of social distancing, a restaurant set on 683 acres could not have had worse or better timing. Barn8, from Louisville hoteliers Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown, is now open for business—mostly.
For a restaurant a decade in the making, what's a few months more?
That was the attitude on the evening of March 12 on Hermitage Farm, when midway through a series of soft-opening dinners—first the contractors, then neighbors, friends, and family—Barn8 chef Alison Settle came to accept a plague of tornado warnings would be the least of her problems. There was something else in the air.
That night's Louisville game was canceled, and rumors of a postponed Derby were passed around like smoked hickory old-fashioneds. "Will I have to cook for Mitch McConnell?" she asked herself the next morning, scrolling through Twitter news about the Senate's reticence to take up a House bill offering coronavirus relief.
Everyone she knows back in Louisville, where she cooked at Red Hog and Holy Grale, would soon need it. Settle was still planning to cook for Kentucky governor Andy Beshear at a ribbon-cutting pig roast one week later, but by Monday she got the call. The farm's owners, husband and wife art patron hoteliers Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown, were pushing the opening until some indeterminate April date.
Barn8 was meant to be Kentucky's biggest restaurant opening this year. The concept marks an aggressive shift to agricultural tourism for Wilson and Brown, who for years brought contemporary art to the South and Midwest through their 21C Hotels, which in cities from Bentonville to Chicago double as contemporary art museums where the public is free to enter 24 hours a day and explore exhibitions with a cocktail in hand. Their goal is to draw city dwellers into the bluegrass with an art walk along the creek and carriage-driving lessons. In a new era of social distancing, a restaurant set on 683 acres could not have had worse or better timing.
The farm’s 48 employees, including the restaurant crew, continued to receive pay during the worst of the pandemic while taking up odd jobs on the farm, including gardening, mending fences, and bookkeeping. At the end of May, Barn8 opened at 33% capacity, welcoming diners inside and out, even accommodating additional diners by selling takeaway picnic dinners that could be enjoyed at picnic tables spread across the grounds. That’s not going to change anytime soon, but beginning July 10, guests can begin booking private farm tours and bourbon tastings for up to 10 guests, as Hermitage Farm begins to fulfill its greater purpose.
Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown (she of Brown-Forman) live just down the road in Goshen at Woodland Farm, where they raise bison and pigs that have long served as fodder for diners at Proof on Main and Lockbox, the restaurants that anchor 21C Hotels in Louisville and Lexington.
The couple had their eye on Hermitage Farm for years—a "thoroughbred nursery," Wilson calls it, as he toured me through the visitor center, where busloads of guests will eventually arrive by day for "bourbon education" tastings at what he claims to be the first venue in Kentucky to combine whiskey and equine experiences—if you don't count Churchill Downs on race days.
Such outings will be paired with box lunches, featuring sandwiches like muffuletta, barbecued lamb, and brownschwager, that Settle can make in advance "because they're only made better after sitting for a long time," she says. Yet it was her vegetable dishes at Red Hog that won over Wilson, who found Settle after a nationwide search for a chef came up short. Last October, ten months into Settle's job at Red Hog, Wilson walked in, ordered everything, and made her an offer the next day.
"We can't go back there," Wilson jokes.
After one day on the job last November 18, he pointed Settle toward his vision for Barn8 by putting her on a plane. "Steve sent me to Amsterdam and New York, and in 48 hours I was back," she says. That gave her ample time to visit ABC Kitchen, and the Dutch plant-to-plate restaurant De Kas. "All he said is, 'Well, it's in a greenhouse and they sell cool vegetables and it's my favorite restaurant in the world.'"
Now she has her own greenhouse and consults an on-site horticulturalist to develop seasonal dinner menus she can tweak daily. The opening menu, meant to nourish on nights when bourbon barrels constrict and appetites grow in the cool March air, included a whittled winter salad of shaved and brined parsnips, celeriac, radishes, and beets, dressed in a sauerkraut vinaigrette, and a grilled Kabocha squash first roasted with olive oil and barbecue spices, then showered with labneh, carrot tops, candied walnuts, and a Massaman curry oil. Now at the peak of summer picnicking, Settle's introduced a golden watermelon gazpacho splashed with coconut milk and chili oil, and local Kentucky carp dredged in a batter of Weisenberger white grits and punched up with some green tomato chow-chow. Proteins sourced from Woodland, meanwhile, have shifted from a nourishing pork shoulder kimchi-jjigae to a bison ribeye seared to soak up garlic scape gremolata and rosemary butter.
Many of those condiments, pickled root vegetables, sauerkrauts, and sauces will end up for sale in jars across the farm's three gift shops, where guests can also stock up on single-barrel bottle releases that go beyond Brown-Forman holdings. In the meantime they're going nowhere. Like all good things on Hermitage Farm, they're conceived to weather storms and only get better with age.