Is Louisville Really The South’s Tastiest Town?

Louisville is known as the home of the Kentucky Derby, Brown-Forman, Papa John’s, Muhammad Ali and Diane Sawyer.

But do outsiders really recognize the River City for its excellent cuisine?

That’s what Southern Living magazine has been asking its readers to decide in an online contest that pits Louisville against several others in a quest to be crowned The South’s Tastiest Town.

The competition is essentially a popularity contest, not to mention a savvy way to beef up the publication’s online presence, since fans have been able to return to the website and vote once a day.

But what it’s also become is the fuel for a feisty debate by some of Louisville’s most notable culinary experts.

610 Magnolia Owner and Chef Edward Lee is currently one of the last five contestants in this season of Bravo's Top Chef.

610 Magnolia Owner and Chef Edward Lee is currently one of the last five contestants in this season of Bravo's Top Chef.

And for good reason: the city’s cuisine is no stranger to the national spotlight.

Winston’s Executive Chef John Castro whipped Bobby Flay on Food Network’s “Throwdown” in 2008 with his perfectly constructed Hot Brown.

Seviche chef Anthony Lamas has captured the attention of the James Beard accolade – five times  – and he won the “Extreme Chef”  competition of Food Network in 2011.

And don’t forget 610 Magnolia Owner and Chef Edward Lee, who remains one of the competitors on Bravo’s “Top Chef: Texas,” which airs Wednesday nights.

So is Louisville really The South’s tastiest town?

Mayor Greg Fischer certainly thinks so.

“What other city can claim Bourbon as a food group like we do in Louisville?”  he gibed, though he’s serious about the city producing amazing food, particularly when it’s a part of local supporting local.

Fischer has put much time and effort into plugging the farm to table movement (the act of delivering locally produced food to the consumer), an agenda that more “foodies” would like to see implemented.

Since Louisville consumes $3 billion worth of food yearly, it’s understandable why Fischer wants to see that money stay within the state, never mind that it’s healthier or educates the public about what goes into the process of cultivating what we consume.

Volare Chef Joshua Moore and his wife have taken their passion for using local to the extremes: they live on a ten-acre farm.  “For me, it’s a no-brainer,” Moore explains.  “The guest response (at Volare) is overwhelming. They want to know, ‘What are you planting for fall crops?’ If you can stay with your food from start to finish, you have no question as to how fresh it is.”

The Village Anchor.

The Village Anchor.

Geoffrey Heyde, executive chef at The Village Anchor, agrees, though “it’s just so expensive,” he said. “I wish more restaurants would incorporate it, but I understand that a lot of them can’t afford to.”

Both chefs concurred that farm to table is what makes Louisville a great competitor for the South’s tastiest town.  “Of course I think Louisville should win,” Moore said. “To me, Louisville’s culinary scene is so diverse. It’s a melting pot of cultures.  We’re really a small city, but with a huge culinary scene.”

Edward Lee, owner and chef of 610 Magnolia, considers Louisville’s diverse gastronomy to be an essential part of why Louisville was recognized in Southern Living’s contest in the first place. “There’s everything from high-end restaurants to hole-in-the-walls to ethnic foods. It’s a great education in cuisine.”

Lee believes many locals are committed to the food scene at present, which, in turn, fosters hope in future chefs to want to bring their skill to Louisville.  “It speaks a lot when you can have people from all over the country feel welcome to open up a restaurant here in Louisville. It means that people are open-minded, that they want new things.”

Seviche’s Anthony Lamas, however, disagrees.

“We don’t have the diversity of ethnic backgrounds and people. Louisville is nowhere near close to the food scene of Charlestown or New Orleans,” he said.

Seviche's Hap Cohan, Madeline Doolittle and Chef Anthony Lamas.

Seviche's Hap Cohan, Madeline Doolittle and Chef Anthony Lamas.

“I think we’re one of the best (food cities), definitely,” he explained, “(But) we lack the history and the influence of the type of cuisine from the French, the African … the history of Charleston, their heirloom grains and beans and livestock – it’s so much more evolved.”

When pressed to declare who should win the contest, Lamas didn’t miss a beat.  “Charleston. So much has happened there in the last 5 years.  (In Charleston), chefs are actually being their own farmers. A lot of us are doing it (now in Louisville), but I think they have really started it.”

So what is Louisville missing that will catapult it into the company of superior food cities?  “We (need to) get some major food events here, like the Charlestown Wine Festival,” Lamas said.  “These awesome, major festivals bring people from all over. We haven’t had that big draw focusing on food yet.”

Andrew “Andy” Myers, chef at The Anchorage Café agreed.  “There are just more well-known chefs in Charleston and New Orleans.  They’re more established.  Look at what New Orleans did with Cajun cuisine – it’s a major style!” he said. “Louisville still deserves to win. Our style is more representative of American food in general.”

As of press time, Louisville was in second place – with over 130,000 votes – in the contest.

Courtesy of The Village Café.

Courtesy of The Village Café.

That loyalty to the city’s food scene is much appreciated. Ryan Rogers, chef de cuisine at The Anchorage Café, will open his own restaurant called Feast BBQ in April “People are really proud of their city here. It makes me feel more confident to go out and try my own thing.”

Jared Schubert hasn’t even opened his bar The Boiler Room – at The Pointe in Butchertown – yet (it’s slated to open in April), but he’s already been pegged one of the “Top 10 mixologists to watch” by Beverage Network, an industry magazine.

With such obvious talent, Schubert could go anywhere, yet he insists that he’s right at home.

“Louisville is in the center of one of the largest distillation capitals in the world, so why would I want to go anywhere else?”

Schubert perfected the cocktail line-up at the now-defunct 732 Social, a restaurant that also executed the farm to table movement beautifully. He considers the experience a serious influence in his quest to make drinks using quality ingredients.

So, too, is the city’s food scene and its people.

“If Louisville keeps being unique and very centered on their people and their flavor, people will notice.”

Is Louisville The South’s Tastiest Town?

Vote online at www.southernliving.com. Polls close January 31.

Contact writer Kellie Denton at YourVoice@voice-tribune.com.