Kathy Cary retires from her 46 year culinary career
By Liz Bingham
Photo by Andrea Hutchinson
After nearly half a century of cooking in Louisville, being the first Kentuckian nominated for Best Chef Southeast six times by the James Beard Award and leading the local “farm-to-table” movement, culinary legend Kathy Cary, owner and head chef of Lilly’s Bistro and La Peche, is hanging up her chef’s coat and retiring from her lifelong career. “The whole thing was a very hard decision, very hard,” said Cary. “But I keep telling myself I know I’ve done the right thing for me. After 46 years of cooking in Louisville, it’s been great, Louisville’s been great to me, but it’s time for me to do something else.”
Cary attributes her initial interest in cooking to growing up on a working farm surrounded by a variety of fresh ingredients. From an early age, she learned to care for and utilize chickens, beef, fresh fruits and vegetables, a skill she carried throughout her career. In middle school at Louisville Collegiate School, Cary and her sister made fudge sauce from her grandmother’s recipe to sell at recess, “before the principal shut us down,” said Cary. In high school, she loved reading Gourmet magazine, poring over the photos and recipes. “That’s when Gourmet was high-end cuisine with great stories, great writers and beautiful pictures.” At that time her mother was taking cooking classes from local celebrity chef and author of “The Heritage of Southern Cooking,” Camille Glenn, and frequently hosted parties at their home. Cary developed a fondness for watching and learning from the caterers, amazed by what they could create and was inspired to teach a cooking class on Saturday mornings for several students in her class. “I loved it,” said Cary. “We made things like quiche and homemade mayonnaise that were easy to make and just delicious.” When she and her family traveled, she was always interested to see the various menus and diversity of what each new place had to offer.
After graduating high school from Collegiate, Cary decided to take a year off and go to Washington, D.C. to join a friend. While working at a local boutique, she saw an ad in the Georgetown paper for Cordon Bleu cooking classes taught by a woman named Barton Connett. Cary called to inquire about the classes, and upon learning their high cost, Connett invited Cary to her home and offered her a job as a cooking assistant, and if she accepted, she would reduce her tuition to half the cost. Cary accepted her offer and worked under Connett for the next year, and because Connett was married to a man who worked in international foreign affairs, many of the women taking Connett’s cooking classes were wives of foreign diplomats who had a need for catering. Cary recognized this need and decided she would start catering for the women in the classes, using the recipes she learned under the instruction of Connett. Cary says, “I did parties where Tom Brockaw and Ed Bradley were there.” When the movie “All the President’s Men” starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman was being filmed in D.C., Cary befriended Shirlee Fonda, wife to Academy Award winning actor Henry Fonda, who was considered for a role in the film. When her catering business took off at the young age of 19 thanks to her newfound social connections, Cary decided that her next step was to gain restaurant experience. She was hired at an upscale restaurant in D.C. called “The Big Cheese,” where she says American politician Henry Kissinger had his wedding reception. “I was a line chef and learned really quickly,” said Cary. “When you throw yourself on the line, you have to throw yourself in the fire and see if you survive, and I survived.” During this time, Cary was also a part-time student at George Washington University.
Not long after, Cary went home to Louisville for a visit where she met her now husband of 44 years, Will Cary, and said, “basically I fell in love with Will and decided to move home.” At the time, Will was working downtown in the Weissinger-Gaulbert building where he learned that a new restaurant called The Fig Tree would be opening. Cary was introduced to the owners and did an auditioning dinner and was hired on the spot. Cary said, “At that time in 1974, there weren’t a lot of young women chefs around.” At the age of 21 in her new role, Cary was in charge of changing the lunch and dinner menus, hiring an entire front of house and kitchen staff and had to earn the respect of suppliers. “As a 21-year-old gal, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was a caterer, but I didn’t know how to manage an entire restaurant.” After a few minor staffing issues, the restaurant was a success, featuring French and Southern inspired cuisine. “A lot of people from the Courier-Journal and the Brown Theater would dine with us. We had a real captive crowd. It was hopping,” said Cary. After a year of working hard at The Fig Tree, she decided it was time to move on and open her own restaurant. “I said to Will, ‘I’m never working in a restaurant ever again unless I own it.’ It’s just too hard.”
After leaving The Fig Tree, Cary took a hiatus from cooking and was the fashion director at Stewart’s Department Store in Louisville for several years. During her time at Stewart’s, Cary got back into catering and started a company called Creative Cuisine with a friend once they both left Stewart’s to cater full-time. She moved the operation to her and Will’s Highlands apartment kitchen which she quickly learned was not sustainable. Will then found her a place in 1974 that was 800 square feet to house her new and very successful catering business. When it came time to rename the new space for her gourmet-to-go, Cary said, “No one thought I should call it La Peche because they said no one is going to understand French and they’re not going to get it. And I said, ‘Tough! The peach is the most perfect fruit with its color, texture and flavor. I’m calling it La Peche.’ Sure enough, people did start to understand it.” So on October 13, 1974, Cary opened the doors of La Peche.
Approximately ten years later when Cary was pregnant with her first child, Lilly, she decided it was time to expand and moved into the space where Lilly’s Bistro currently resides. Soon after, Cary purchased the entire building to house the bakery, offices for her business, La Peche and the Lilly’s Bistro dining room by 1989 when her second child, Will, was born. La Peche was doing so well in the Highlands location, Cary opened a second East End location in the Holiday Manor Shopping Center where it thrived for over a decade. Cary then briefly opened La Peche Express on Longest Avenue behind Carmichael’s Bookstore that was open for five years. She began to feel like she was spread too thin, and closed all locations other than those located in the original building at 1147 Bardstown Road. In 2006, Cary brought her story full circle and had both Lilly’s and La Peche in the same building once again. “I learned that sometimes growing and expanding isn’t always all that great. Sometimes it’s better to stay put. This building has been a great spot for us and is really conveniently located,” said Cary. She continued, “It’s been a great time here, with so many loyal customers, great friends and great staff. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot from my staff. When you work in the kitchen with people day in and day out, you get to know them pretty well. But now it’s time to take care of me.”
When asked about her secret to success, Cary said, “A strong work ethic and a sense of pride in what we did is why we survived for 43 years. Your name is on what you create, so when you cater a party, it’s your food that you and your staff make that people remember. I held high standards and word of mouth is the best method of advertising. I also like to think we always stood for quality food, fresh ingredients and supported local farmers as much as we could.” Cary said it’s also important to designate time when you’re not working, no matter how brief. “Will and I made a rule that I wasn’t allowed to talk about work at home on Sundays so we could take a break from it.”
Being in the business for nearly five decades, Cary said, “The most rewarding part of my job is feeding people and seeing people happy with the food you create, that’s why I got started.” Cary said people always came back because they felt a sense of place at Lilly’s and had many fond memories there, like it was their own dining room. Guests also enjoyed the various food and wine pairings Cary offered. “And that takes work,” said Cary. “It takes work with other chefs, creativity and always trying to come up with new ideas. We were big on changing the menu frequently and even the decor every four years so it was fresh. Even people who were regulars knew it wouldn’t always be the same.” Cary also traveled frequently and enjoyed incorporating her culinary experiences abroad into the menu at Lilly’s. “The more I traveled, I would bring ideas that inspired me and guests would look forward to it.”
Reflecting on the past 46 years and what the future holds, Cary said “The great thing about being a chef is you’re always learning and experimenting. It doesn’t stop, you don’t ever know it all. I can’t wait to start cooking for me and Will and to do things I haven’t done in a while because often you don’t have time when you’re working 24/7 in a restaurant.” Cary plans to start hosting small dinner parties at her house once it is safe to do so. “I’m going to miss the social part of the restaurant scene, all the people I see every day. I’ve told a lot of our friends and customers, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll have you over to our house! We’ll sit outside, four to six people and we’ll be fine. I can cook for small crowds and I can cook for 500 people, so I know I can cook for a small group at home and keep exploring new ideas for things I’d like to make that I haven’t done in a while.”
Cary’s advice for the next generation of aspiring local chefs is, “Have a real passion for cooking and don’t go into it thinking you’re going to make a lot of money. Your passion must be stronger than your desire to make money. You need to be willing to work really hard and to learn the many skills needed to open and own a restaurant — cooking, prepping, baking, cleaning, maintenance — know all the aspects of it and try to be a leader who can teach people. And be patient and slowly grow. Don’t start with a menu that has too many things on it and is overwhelming. Start slowly and build up your success so people have trust and faith in you and that you’re making something amazing. Build on that.” Cary encourages all current and future chefs to use as many locally grown ingredients as possible. “And try to do things seasonally so it’s more interesting for the guests,” said Cary. “It’s great for the local farmers and it’s great for the staff because, as you change up the menu, they learn too.”
The building where Lilly’s Bistro currently resides is for sale and the Cary’s have already been in talks with a few interested parties. “We put 43 years of love into this building and have taken care of it really well,” said Cary. “I would hope that, for the community, someone buys it and keeps it a nice restaurant and makes it something we would respect. It’s a great neighborhood restaurant and we’d like to keep it that way.”