In The Kitchen: Jeff Bridges

Jeff Bridges began his culinary career slicing roast beef at Arby’s. Having graduated from Prosser and Sullivan, he served stints at Jack Fry’s and Proof. Now, Bridges is head chef at Frankfort Avenue outpost – Bourbons Bistro. The Voice-Tribune sat down with the young head chef to hear about his career, and his thoughts on all things food-related.

On his beginnings…
The first time I cooked was at this restaurant called Diefenbach Café. I was just washing dishes, but one day the owner asked me if I could open a can of green beans and chop some bacon up and throw it in there. And then I made a soup. Then he asked me to cook a burger. The owner was this overweight, alcoholic guy. He just sat at the bar all day and drank and ate. So I worked there for just two or three months. I was 16. But then I went to Prosser, in New Albany, because they offered [culinary arts] to juniors and seniors. I did that for two years and then got a scholarship to go to Sullivan University through a cooking competition. After Sullivan, I was an intern at Jack Fry’s, then got hired there through the internship. I was a sous-chef there, then left for a little bit in 2010 to work at Proof on Main, and then I returned to Jack Fry’s for a year before coming to Bourbon’s.

On what attracted him to cooking….
The type of people that gravitate towards it [cooking]. I’m not serious a lot of the time, and I think a lot of people in the restaurant industry joke around a lot and they have a good time. So I think I was drawn to that, because I’m pretty easy going.

But cooking is kind of like going to war without having to fight. It’s kind of the same mentality in the kitchen. There are knives and flames and yelling and crazy people. You know, there’s drinking and drug use which is exciting when you’re 16 or 17. As you get older and you start managing people it’s not as fun, because then you have to deal with alcoholics and drug users, depending on whether you keep at it or if you kind of phase out of it. I phased out of it. I still like to drink, obviously, but no drugs or anything, obviously.

On what drives him in cooking…
I’m the type of person who likes to create. I have a lot of hobbies on the side, for example I just got into knife making. I’ve been making beer for the past eight or nine years as well as woodworking – things like that. I like to work with my hands and I think food’s cool because if you make a nice chair, that’s cool you can look at it. But with something delicious you can devour it.

I’m a big fan of meat. I love pork. Chicken. I just like the idea that you can get this raw material and make something really interesting out of it. And you can make something really functional, and not very stylish with chicken or pork or you can spend more time on it and make something really unique. I think pork is really versatile, too. I know it’s kind of been played out over the past decade, everybody wants to use bacon on everything and cure their own pork belly, but I don’t think it’s a trend that’s going away.

On what he’d like to see more of in the area….
It’s easy to get venison if you go out to Colorado or somewhere like that, but Kentucky – I just found this out recently – actually has the most deer, per-capita, of any state. We should be able to get venison more readily around here. You can buy it through Mattingly or Superior Meats or a couple of local places, but it’s all from somewhere else, it’s not from Kentucky.

If you go to Europe, in Germany for example it’s a luxury meat and it’s delicious and it’s way better for you than most other meats you can eat. I actually know a lot of people who hunt. I’m from Southern Indiana and my family owns 20 acres in Henryville. I’ll go up there sometimes because if it’s your property you can hunt year round. They consider deer a nuisance. With venison I think I’d like to use multiple cuts to do something different. Braise the shoulder or the leg, you could even confit that, you could do it in duck fat or in butter. And then sear the tenderloin and keep it really simple, do it with some nice, local fruit with whatever’s in season – apples or blackberries. And then a nice celery purée with it, something to accent it.

On chefs who inspire him…
Sean Brock is a really interesting chef. I haven’t eaten at any of his restaurants, but I really want to. I just bought one of his cookbooks, and he goes into such great detail. Each little ingredient you learn the history of, which is really cool. He saves corn seeds and he talks about his buddies who got him into it, it’s pretty cool. The corn varieties alone are very interesting. And then there are a lot of native plants that you wouldn’t necessarily think to use, which is a whole other thing.

There was one episode of “Mind of the Chef,” where David Chang was eating potatoes. They weren’t rotten, but they were like a year-and-half old. So they had softened up, and gotten darker inside. But he was using them as an ingredient. I think it’s cool to look at something that you had never thought of eating or you wouldn’t initially want to eat, and finding a way to make it work.

For example a banana, a lot of people think it’s the best when it’s bright. But if you wait until it’s solid black it’s the sweetest, most delicious thing you can eat. But it’s kind of disgusting looking and people don’t want that. There was a brunch event we did about a year ago and I picked the bananas out that were just starting to turn a little black and the owner was really upset about it. So, I had him eat one and he was really amazed at how delicious it was. And since then, he kind of understands certain things. Like if you see something that looks not perfect in his eyes, he understands there’s a reason for it.

Bourbons Bistro is located at 2255 Frankfort Ave., Louisville, Kentucky 40206. For more information, call 502.894.8838 or visit www.bourbonsbistro.com.