Kevin Ashworth is only 30 years old, but he's already been the executive chef at some of Louisville's best new restaurants. From Ed Lee's famous 610 Magnolia and now at MilkWood, Ashworth has become the name printed next to Lee's when it comes to Louisville food press. You can even see the baby-faced exec in Lee's episode of Mind of a Chef on PBS.
Ashworth's skills aren't limited to the kitchen, either. Along with his exec duties, he maintains both a small home garden and a very large 610 Magnolia greenhouse. Back when I interviewed Matt Shull from White Pines Wilderness Academy, he said that only after living with a plant for a year can you know it well enough to eat it. Though that adage usually applies to eating foraged foods, you might also argue that Ashworth's experience as the restaurant's farmer means he understands the flavors of the food he's serving in a way chefs without gardens cannot.
Being in Louisville also serves their food community in another way: Eastern Kentucky falls on the border between two growing zones. The garden enjoys longer seasons and less harsh winters, which means more produce on the plate.
"Between Louisville and Indianapolis, it's probably a difference of ten degrees, and that makes a difference, especially for getting started earlier."
What comes out on the menu at Milkwood is a refreshing cross-cultural mash-up of Asian food and Kentucky traditions. They're known for offering a menu full of variety, but focused within that category. You can get a huge plate of ribs (but that's the only very large plate), a bowl of ramen, two kinds of burgers and ten cocktails. The small plates menu includes things like sweetbreads, octopus bacon, and pimento cheese spread with spoonbill caviar. And MilkWood hosts an outstanding dim sum Sunday every week.
Lee and Ashworth's work is part of a larger changing food landscape there, with lottery-style dining club Ten Table taking off at the same time. In short, the sea change that the Indianapolis scene craves has already happened — or, at least, is happening — in Louisville.
So what's the secret?
"A lot of chefs in town are from out of town. We come from different places and we see different things, and then we come together in a place where the produce is top-notch. We have different meat purveyors knocking on our door trying to sell us this local pig or this lamb or goat. It makes it special."
"Over the last five years, even towards the middle or end of a "depression," people were still coming into the restaurants. And we've just gotten busier and busier.
"It's all about the good ingredients and produce. And, well, people with disposable income who like to go out to eat." Pure and simple, it's butts in seats.
Louisville is uniquely flush with businesses that pay employees enough to have money to spend on nights out, from GE, YUM! Foods, Zappos and Amazon, to a variety of Medical centers and pharmaceutical companies. Corporations source from the seven nearby universities, and those well-paid young professionals return the money back to the restaurants. Ashworth credits these kids with a finer taste for allowing the bloom of local dining. There's no sign of it slowing down, either.
"When Ed came to do 610 Magnolia, there was probably a limited audience that wasn't interested in sitting down to a four- to six-course prix fixe menu. But now, due to his own trailblazing and his being on TV, there are so many more people coming to the restaurant."
The boom at the restaurants has allowed them to participate in another restaurant revolution: Fair pay.
"The servers at 610 Magnolia make about 15 bucks an hour," he said. "Anything that the customer wants to tip beyond that gets split among the whole staff." That includes bussers, line cooks and dishwashers alike. In a larger sense, their staff turnover is lower.
"I do think that creates a different kind of culture. We have servers who have been working here for 15 to 20 years," he says.
- A plate from MilkWood
Customers come back not just for the food, but to see their favorite servers like meeting old friends. The stability offered by a living wage goes beyond an economic impact, and has raised up with it a sense of community among loyal diners. Of course, that's because the restaurant's previous owner, Ed Garber, had pared down his once-grandiose 610 Magnolia service to an exclusive, once-a-week, 10-person dining club with prix-fixe service. By the time Lee rolled up to the River City, he had at his disposal a dining public that was accustomed to and hungry for the high end experience.
Somewhere in the melange that created the empire now overseen by Ashworth and Lee, there are the ingredients for turning a city into a destination food city. Some, like the attraction of high-paying jobs and attention from nationally-broadcast TV, are out of the control of the dining community. The two things they have in common — creativity and world-class ingredients — are equal between our two cities. Everything else is on us: building buzz, spending money at restaurants with new concepts and ideas, and bringing more people out to dining events.
Ashworth's CNO dinner has long sold out, but that doesn't mean you can't still help the growth of the community by visiting a new restaurant this weekend.
Unless the network TV stations start showing up in droves, it's on us, the dining community on the other side of the kitchen door, to get our friends and neighbors hyped about creative, daring local dining. It couldn't be easier to help make Indianapolis a dining city. All you have to do is eat.
Profile: Kevin Ashworth
Exec Chef: MilkWood, 610 Magnolia
Culinary School: Midwest Culinary Institute
Style: New American, Asian-Southern fusion
Hobbies: Farming and gardening at his home garden at the 610 Magnolia greenhouse