Renaissance: Legendary Hermitage Farm’s Rebirth

By Laura Ross
Photos by
Andrea Hutchinson
Hair and Makeup: Alexis Apanewicz and Christy Sowder, NOVA Salon

Even on a rainy day, Hermitage Farm is stunning. Soft mists roll over the gentle hills, like ghostly remembrances of Thoroughbreds past roaming the fields. History is found in every corner. The stately manor house. The distinctive red and black barns that dot the landscape. The lush banks of trees, decades-old, that hold the tales of nearly two centuries of storied farm life.
There is a hush about, and the raindrops patter about like the tick-tock of a clock, waiting for the next hour’s chime to sound.
That hush will evaporate soon. Listen closely, and you can hear the sounds bubbling up from within. Hermitage Farm is alive – and ready to embark on its next journey as it opens Barn 8 restaurant and offers a destination for tours, events, culinary experiences and more.
“Kentucky is so well known for both our heritage and the beauty of our landscape,” said Steve Wilson, who along with his wife, Laura Lee Brown, purchased Hermitage Farm a decade ago. “The farm has a history worthy of preservation. We wanted to keep these 683 acres a working farm and Thoroughbred operation, and open other parts to the public to enjoy as a green space with tours, food, art and bourbon.”
Originally a land grant to General Mercer, Hermitage Farm, anchored by a pre-Civil War era mansion that is on the National Register of Historic Places, has been an active farm for nearly 150 years. Owned from 1936 by legendary Thoroughbred breeder Warner Jones Jr., Hermitage Farm produced winners of the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oaks, Breeders’ Cup and many other stakes races. Even Queen Elizabeth II once paid a visit to Hermitage to review its breeding and training operations. In 2010, Wilson and Brown saved Hermitage Farm from suburban development and placed it in an agricultural conservation easement, which will protect the land in perpetuity.It might seem odd for the founders of the urban-focused, wildly modern and popular 21c Museum Hotel enterprise to have an equal passion for preserving pristine, generations-old farmland, but Wilson says not so fast. Both he and Brown were born and raised on Kentucky farms. “It wasn’t evident to us then, but the farms were a part of us,” Wilson explained. “When Laura Lee’s parents died and their farm, Sutherland, was sold, it was subdivided. It was a dagger in the heart.”
The couple watched as other area farms were swallowed up by rapid suburban development and decided preservation was key. Another golf course or upscale development with 500 houses crammed together on postage-stamp lots was not the answer. The couple saved Woodland Farm in Oldham County from development and made it their primary residence. Hermitage Farm was next on their list, followed by others.
With a nod to popular agro-tourism destinations in Europe, Wilson, Brown and their team spent a decade devising a plan. The main house and surrounding land has been a popular wedding and event destination for years, but the team took it further and is opening the rest of the farm to include multiple equine and farm tours, bourbon tasting events, a visitors’ center and shop and the flagship restaurant, Barn 8. They continue to maintain the Thoroughbred nursery with continuing success.
Barn 8 rests a short walk from the main house and is spearheaded by Executive Chef Alison Settle, who joined Hermitage Farm from Red Hog restaurant. The former horse barn’s renovation and décor was a collaborative effort between Wilson and Brown, architect Haviland Argo and Douglas Riddle of Bittners. Featuring reclaimed wood, private nook dining inside former horse stalls, custom design and a unique and breathtaking event space, Barn 8 sets the bar high for a memorable dining experience. Barn 8 and Settle will also be the exclusive caterer for events at Hermitage.
“For a chef, this is Disneyland,” said Settle. “You can’t ask for more than to have a focus on conservation of agriculture and local food sourcing, to having a horticulturalist and an enormous greenhouse at our disposal. It’s a dream come true.”Barn 8 sources food from Hermitage Farm gardens, a state-of-the-art, computerized greenhouse built specifically for Hermitage and other local and regional farm operations. Bison and other meats come from neighboring farms.The restaurant features southern-inspired cuisine but mixes worldwide culinary influences. “We showcase what our farmers do very well, and we prepare it in an inventive way that best showcases the food,” explained Settle. “We might make a southern greens dish, like momma did, but I’ll reimagine it into a Korean kimchi stew with pork and mushrooms.“In a traditional restaurant, you order the amount of food you need from the food purveyor,” added Settle. “With the farm, we might harvest 50 pounds of beets at once, so we’ll need to figure out how to use them. We can serve some, sell some in the store, reduce the beets and put them in a cocktail, smoke them and put them in a smoked beet aioli, pickle them – the options are endless. We work with what comes from the land at any given time.”
A Kentucky fine-dining experience wouldn’t be complete without bourbon, and Barn 8’s expansive bar will feature more than 100 bourbons and other spirits. Vintage bourbons and “medicinal pints” dating from before Prohibition will also be available for sale and select-pour events. “It occurred to me to add bourbon tastings to the mix,” said Wilson, “since bourbon is truly an agricultural product, coming from grain. We don’t have a distillery on-site, but we do raise and harvest grains that are used in bourbon production.”The rise of Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail has cultivated an entirely new level of tourism. Wilson likens Hermitage’s bourbon tastings and products to a “sushi menu.” “Here, you can choose from whatever brand you want, and you’ll learn from the experience and maybe find the bourbon you enjoy the most. I’m an Old Forester drinker, but as I’ve branched out, I’m surprised at the interesting, spicy, sweet flavors in different bourbons.”
Wilson and Brown, in their worldwide travels, always keep an eye out for “Ah-ha” moments. A visit to an Amsterdam park with a garden-based restaurant, along with other locations worldwide, dropped bits of inspiration into Wilson’s creative design mind.“I wanted authenticity (with Barn 8),” said Wilson. “There are other farm restaurants in America that I thought they tried so hard with a theme, but then it became an artificial effort. We provide authenticity in this space.”Wilson encourages guests to come early, tour the grounds, visit the greenhouse, see the Thoroughbred operation and competition horse training in action, stop in the lounge of Barn 8 for drinks and then indulge in the local fare with a twist that Settle and her culinary team produce year-round.
“Enjoying your meal is paramount,” said Settle, “but learning a bit about sustainable environmental practices is important also. We want guests to understand what organic and sustainable means. Look outside and see greens actually growing. Try a bison schnitzel that uses local livestock and ingredients from area farms. Whether they’re coming in here for a special event or just a solo dinner at the bar, I just want them to be wowed by what we offer.”
Settle has the unique ability to work with a full-time horticultural director, Stephanie Tittle, in carefully planting and planning the produce grown at Hermitage that will be used to continually reinvent the seasonal menu. Tittle creates magic in the aromatic, 4,000 square-foot greenhouse, cultivating produce, vegetables, herbs, flowers and more. Dozens of planted gardens cascade through the farmland under her wise eye and green thumb as well.
“It’s the thunder and the mist,” said Tittle. “I show off the growing process, and Alison and her team create the incredible enjoyment of the dishes. We don’t just pull things from shelves in a grocery. We grow it from the land.”Barn 8’s design, imagined and executed by Bittners, features reclaimed wood from historic barns and fallen trees at Hermitage and a comfortable, elegant design that is at once intimate and farm-fresh. The unique concept in the restaurant, lounge, bar and the upper hayloft event space utilizes Wilson and Brown’s art collection and is dotted with intriguing and custom-crafted furniture and lighting.“The mirror in the lounge once belonged to Tommy Hilfiger, and the German Black Forest bench in the vestibule was owned by Olivia Newton-John,” said Wilson. “We like the witty, sexy paintings on the walls by Tracy Stuckey, which are from our collection.”
Leather saddle blankets in one of the dining stalls were used in the TV series “Zorro,” and Ralph Lauren draperies and wing chairs are a focal point of the comfortable lounge, which also features contemporary leather sofas that mix with antique tables and storage chests, many of which were purchased in New Orleans.
Bittners designed and custom-built several dining tables and other pieces within Barn 8. “Steve likes to keep the design as local and organic to the farm as possible,” said Douglas Riddle, president and COO of Bittners.“Douglas and I daydreamed about this together,” said Wilson. “Douglas is our guiding light, but I like to throw my heart into it, too.”
Up the bourbon-barrel lined staircase is the hayloft event space, which is a popular wedding and corporate/private event locale seating about 220 guests. The soaring, beamed ceiling holds a stunning, custom-crafted chandelier made in Italy of Murano glass. The whimsical, bent arms of the chandelier “weep” with joy, said Wilson. The construction workers who hung it called it the Dr. Seuss chandelier. Large windows overlook the back of Hermitage Farm. It’s a photograph waiting to happen.
“Steve continues to inspire me with his creative genius year after year,” said Riddle. “His vision is always ahead of its time, motivating us all to go the extra distance.”
Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown could easily step away from the day-to-day business of creating an agro-tourism destination. But, they don’t. They relish the art of creating something new.“Laura Lee and I love Kentucky,” said Wilson. “There’s this adage about legendary Kentucky hospitality, and there’s a satisfaction to knowing that you’re influencing people in a positive way. I hope they leave here with a love affair of not only all things Kentucky but of the land also.”
The sun breaks through the clouds and illuminates the pristine farmland. As he walks past the greenhouse and surveys the cascading levels of garden plots just showing the first buds of garlic, herbs and other produce, Wilson mused, “I think this is our legacy project. Hermitage Farm is a place where we can combine our passions for the land, sustainable farming, the environment and art.
“We are caretakers,” he added. “We’re only here for a short while, compared to the history of this farm or even of Kentucky, so Laura Lee and I want to do our part to make sure it lives on for the next generation.” V