With culinary accolades and top 10 listings from the likes of Zagat, Southern Living and Saveur magazine, there’s no question that the capital of Bourbon Country is officially a destination city for food connoisseurs — and whiskey connoisseurs too.
Bardstown Road (site of Louisville’s first “restaurant row”), Frankfort Avenue (the second) and now NuLu (the latest) are musts, not just for The Food Channel and celebrity chefs like Anthony Bourdain, but for foodies everywhere. While culinary clusters increase buzz and foot traffic for all neighboring restaurants, higher expectations make it harder than ever to succeed in what many have long said is the toughest business.
In pursuit of the secret recipe for restaurant success, LEO talked to Dustin Staggers, owner of the newly opened Roux on Bardstown Road; Michael Trager-Kusman, owner of 3-year-old RYE on Market Street in NuLu; and Bea Chamberlain, owner of the well-established, well-loved El Mundo on Frankfort Avenue — hot spots in each of the city’s three major restaurant clusters.
All three restaurateurs agree that the business is indeed challenging, stressful and relentless, yet all claim to love it and say they wouldn’t choose another, leading us to conclude that the secret recipe to restaurant success may be one part masochism, one part tenacity and an undisclosed amount of mad talent.
Bea Chamberlain of the venerable El Mundo
With its speakeasy-esque upstairs entrance and dangerously delicious cocktails, El Mundo is one of the coolest restaurants in the city, and it’s that seemingly effortless kind of cool that never looks like it’s trying too hard or following anyone else’s agenda. After almost 20 years, it still runs a steady wait most nights and spills out onto the sidewalk during happy hour and on weekends. Clearly, El Mundo has still got what it takes. We talked to owner Bea Chamberlain about how she keeps it hot after all these years.
LEO: What’s behind the name of your restaurant?
Bea Chamberlain: We had a long list of names, but chose “El Mundo” because we wanted a Spanish name that would be easy for everyone to pronounce.
LEO: How did you select your Frankfort Avenue location?
BC: My brother found this spot in 1995. He just stumbled across it. At that point, it was only the downstairs; we took over the upstairs in 1998. Before we moved in, the location was home to a Middle Eastern carryout place.
LEO: When you opened the restaurant, did you work with a chef?
BC: I am a chef, and I came fully loaded with recipes that I had developed while working at a Mexican restaurant in Martha’s Vineyard. I had run that place for three years, so the food on our menu was already tried and true.
LEO: Everyone loves El Mundo’s ever-changing specials menu, but the core menu has been the same for as long as I can remember.
BC: When we opened, we had five entrees and five appetizers … I just came across an old menu the other day. Over the years, I just kept adding stuff because I love food. Although the core menu has always been somewhat stable, I introduced specials pretty much right from the beginning. I had worked in some creative restaurants in Seattle, New York and Denver, and wanted to bring all that energy and diversity to El Mundo and needed a creative outlet apart from the core menu. For the past five years, I have been partnering with Chef Mike Boyle. Mike graduated from the CIA [Culinary Institute of America] and has taken over the specials and overall kitchen operation.
LEO: The food is undeniably great, but another favorite aspect of El Mundo is the decor and vibe of the dining room.
BC: That just organically developed. You have to understand that when we opened El Mundo, it was just the three of us — my brother, sister-in-law and myself — and all we wanted to do was have a carryout burrito shack in the downstairs space with those five tables. Because we had such an overwhelming response to what we were doing, we just had to roll with it one step at a time while figuring it out. We only had $17,000, so everything, from the equipment to the tables, was secondhand. We scraped by for many years, putting all of our profit into improving the space.
LEO: What was the best thing about opening El Mundo?
BC: That I got to do something that I love to do and made a decent living at it. That is the absolute best thing because most people don’t get to do that. Although I work very hard, I feel very lucky that I get to do that.
LEO: So then what would the worst, hardest thing be?
BC: The growing pains. Figuring out that you are doing something wrong and doing something to make it better. You have a great many customers out there, and you are supposed to be able to please them all, which can be a very difficult thing to do.
LEO: Many people have this dream of opening up their own restaurant. They’re on vacation having a cocktail and think, “You know, why don’t we quit our jobs and come here and open up a restaurant?” So, what does it take to open up a restaurant?
BC: It takes incredible dedication. It takes knowledge of the industry — you absolutely have to have experience. There are many people I talk to who say, “I love to cook, I would love to have a restaurant!” I discourage them, thoroughly and completely. Don’t do it. You have to be a certain type of person with passion, and there has to be no way to discourage you. You have to know what you are getting into, because it can be rough — really, really rough.
Michael Trager-Kusman of NuLu’s RYE
RYE opened in December 2011, not too long after the East Market District became known as “NuLu,” and at just the right time to help establish the city’s third major restaurant cluster. Louisville native Michael Trager-Kusman worked in the back of some of New York’s premier eateries. When he returned home, he brought his business partners and some trendy ideas with him, all of which had enough substance to see RYE through the toughest phase of opening a new restaurant.
LEO: What’s behind the name of your restaurant?
Michael Trager-Kusman: I think it’s interesting that 20 years ago people used to name restaurants after themselves; that doesn’t work anymore. There used to be the guy walking around in the front of the restaurant wearing a nice dinner jacket, shaking hands with diners, saying, “I’m Joe, welcome to my place.” That’s just not the way things are now. The process was miserable. The name was the only thing we argued about during the entire process. What finally happened is that we were in from New York on a bourbon country tour, and we had been learning about rye and how it is used to modify the flavor of bourbon. Also, about that time, “Boardwalk Empire” was getting popular on television and our graphic designer [Jason Pierce] was watching the program and saw the name “rye” stamped on the side of a box. So he came back to us with the name, he said he liked it and that he wanted to work with it. We all liked the name and so it stuck.
LEO: How did you select your NuLu location?
MTK: When I got back from New York, I really had this mindset that place was not that important, that if the food was good then people would go to anyplace. Everyone was talking about NuLu and the first time I heard about it, I didn’t even know where in the city it was. However, it was the first building I saw, and I thought that we couldn’t do it. I mean, it was 7 in the evening and there wasn’t a soul on the streets. We looked in the Highlands, Frankfort Avenue … we looked in St. Matthews, pretty much anywhere there was a property available, and we eventually made our way back down to Market Street, where we placed an offer on our current building that was accepted. We tried to keep those 120 years of character in place as we renovated it.
LEO: So I know you have a longstanding relationship with your chef, Tyler Morris. What are the origins of your partnership?
MTK: I actually reported to Tyler when we both worked at [New York gastropub] The Breslin, and we developed a close working relationship. After I left the Breslin, we remained close; however, I didn’t want to poach him and damage my relationship with The Breslin. About three months later he came to me and said, “Look, I know what you are doing. If you are looking to open a restaurant, I would love to come join you.”
LEO: Did you know what the menu concept was going to be from the beginning, or did it evolve?
MTK: So Tyler is now the executive chef of both Atlantic No. 5 and RYE. Andrew McCabe has been the head chef at RYE for quite some time now, so Andrew has the lead on the menu direction at RYE. When we first started, I think we were looking so deeply to be inspired by Kentucky; however, that soon changed, and he started infusing Kentucky flavors and ingredients into different cuisines.
LEO: How did you come up with the concept for the vibe of the dining room?
MTK: I worked on some great spaces in New York that had really pulled off their concept so well. They really inspired me to the point that sometimes I feel that I’ve fallen short a little bit. However, I am frequently reminded that people do love the atmosphere at RYE.
LEO: What was the best thing about opening up RYE?
MTK: The best part is growing a family. Since we started, we now have seven managers, five of whom have been there since opening day. It’s an experience that I never thought I would get out of a restaurant, but to have that loyalty makes me so happy.
LEO: What would you say was the worst, most difficult thing about opening up Rye?
MTK: Wow, this is hard. The best learning experience I’ve had is that in the first year I obsessed with about how busy we were — never busy enough! However, by my second year, I had a realization and decided to put my energy into the people who were coming in the door. I took that message to the team and told them that all we had to worry about is making the best experience possible for everyone who comes in the door and everything else will fall into place. Busyness does not mean success.
LEO: What would you say that it takes to open up a restaurant?
MTK: It takes commitment. I learn this lesson every day. The other aspect of it is passion — you have to love it. Many people say, “Don’t do it,” but I say that if you love it and are in it for the food, I want you to do it because I want to come experience your place.
Dustin Staggers of Roux, newcomer to the city’s oldest restaurant cluster
On moving from Tampa to Louisville, Dustin Staggers says, “I knew that if I could make it in this food town, I could learn everything I would need to know to be a success.” Good call. Since he arrived, Staggers has run the kitchen at 60 West Bistro and Martini Bar, revamped the kitchen and menu at The Monkey Wrench as their executive chef, recently opened the New Orleans-inspired Roux (the newest arrival on the city’s first restaurant row) and this week is set to open yet another eatery, Rumplings, a noodle shop on Highland Avenue.
LEO: What’s behind the name of “Roux”?
Dustin Staggers: I’m really bad at naming things, from businesses to dishes. My dishes are usually things like “blackened redfish.” My creativity is limited to what’s inside the pan. One night, I was taking a shower and the name “Roux” popped into my head, and it seemed to fit perfectly. It’s clearly an important component in Creole cuisine, so I bounced it off a few people and they all loved it.
LEO: How long had you been thinking of this concept before you were able to actualize it?
DS: A couple of years. … Even back when I was at 60 West, I had some ideas and wanted to step out. Although in retrospect I’m glad I waited because a) I don’t know if I was well-known enough; b) none of the locations were as good as this one; and c) this building itself is perfect for what we are doing. When you walk in the door, you feel as though you are in a different place.
LEO: How did you select your Bardstown Road location?
DS: I got lucky. The availability was not really supposed to be well known. Anyway, as soon as I found out that it was available, I drove by, and as soon as I walked in, I knew it was the right place. The many rooms have that New Orleans feel, very intimate.
LEO: Are you running the kitchen alone?
DS: I have a co-executive chef, Griffin Paulin. He was a sous chef at Hammerheads and came on while I was at The Monkey Wrench just to pick up some extra hours. We went out, had a few drinks and hit it off immediately. So when I went about opening this concept I asked him to come onboard. We are actually the co-owners of the noodle shop that’s opening up this week.
LEO: When did you finalize the menu? Did you go into it with a set menu in mind?
DS: Most of the menu, I’ve been doing for a long time. I made some tweaks to it. I spent about three weeks in New Orleans, so I could focus on the minor details. I changed a few dishes as I went back and forth, but 90 percent of the menu has been done for quite some time.
LEO: How’s it going?
DS: It’s been insanely awesome. We’re doing better numbers than I even anticipated, and I’m a realist because I was a businessperson before I was a chef.
LEO: What is the toughest thing about opening your own place?
DS: Dealing with permits. As I said, I was a businessperson before becoming a chef, so I knew what I was getting into. People say this is one of the hardest businesses to be in, and it is. But there are plenty of restaurants that make good money, and if you put out good food and have the right location, I think you can make it in this business.
LEO: What is the best thing about opening up your own place?
DS: I’ve always owned my own business. I like the burden that if this fails or succeeds, it’s on me. I don’t have anyone else to blame. I’m in the kitchen, on the line, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, so to be able to do that and have the burden to succeed as a business, I really enjoy that.
LEO:What would you say it takes to open a successful restaurant?
DS: More money than you think that you have. If you think you have enough money, you don’t. There are always tons of unforeseen issues that come up.