There comes a day in everyone’s lives when it’s time to celebrate. Be it a promotion, an achievement, or simply gathering amongst friends to honor the beauty that is you, everybody deserves to get decadent and commemorate in joviality once in a while. For me, last week, it was reaching a deadline for a project of epic proportions, and, hey — we all end up spilling half a bottle of wine on a white tablecloth and sexy dancing in the middle of Vincenzo’s dining room, right? No? Just me? Regardless, my friends and I were treated like service industry royalty by service captains James McKinney and his assistant Max Raymer at the award-winning downtown Louisville culinary icon named for brothers Vincenzo and Agostino Gabriele.
James McKinney is a delightful collision of his down-home Tennessee roots and charm and his New-York-City-style tenacity and wit. A loving father of two and a hospitality-industry star quarterback, McKinney has an unprecedented passion for creating the perfect dining experience for his guests. “I will elevate your quality of life,” he says. McKinney was the recipient of the 2013 Rose Award, which stands for Recognition of Service Excellence, an award gifted by the Louisville Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. Rose Awards are presented to employees among the Louisville hospitality industry that distinguish themselves through “enthusiasm and exemplary service.” While McKinney received his award at another fine dining locale, before he began his career at Vincenzo’s, exemplary service is exactly what we received, which began with Vincenzo himself seating us amongst the decadent ambiance of a candlelit Italian dining room.
McKinney and Raymer greeted us with an organic introductory spiel, dressed accordingly in matching three piece suits, and before even cracking menus, I knew we could ask for their suggestions rather than spend our time perusing. I was correct, and sipped a Bulleit Rye Manhattan, spicy and balanced, before Max suggested a bottle of the Altos Las Hormigas Malbec, 2012 — based on our taste, of course. The wine list at Vincenzo’s is so extensive that each bottle has a number correlating its location, yet both McKinney and Raymer, a self-proclaimed “wine guy,” were able to talk knowingly about each we asked about.
Food service began with the tantalizing process of table-side service — Raymer wheeled a tablecloth-covered cart out and McKinney finished each course of our meal in a sauté pan, directly in front of us, whilst chatting and entertaining us. He even exclaimed, “A little Rihanna!” while stirring tortellini, which could only mean this was going to be a sexy meal. It was. Legend has it that McKinney has even flambéed the meals of a table of 20 guests, individually, delivering impeccable service and receiving a standing ovation from the party. Just elevating our quality of life is all.
Throughout the evening, more courses (and wine) arrived. I felt like a privileged East End white child on Christmas morning. We requested a merlot, which Max quickly intercepted. “Do you trust me?” he asked, and we all replied with a resounding “Yes!” He brought us the Justin Justification 2007 and let us sample a glorious swig while James perfected our main courses, heat permeating from the cart just a few feet away. I was getting pretty toasty by this point, sure, but the sheer perfection of this experience almost brought a tear to my eye. Goddamn, these boys are good.
The icing on the proverbial cake was the dessert experience, which James had told us about as we sat down early on — choosing each course carefully based on the one prior. A flambé with apples, walnuts, Woodford Reserve Double Oaked and Gran Marnier over vanilla ice cream was the quintessence of fall dessert perfection, served in a wine glass, which I drunkenly continued to try to drink, long after it was in my belly. The dessert had bourbon; clearly this wasn’t my fault, guys. While fine dining amidst five-star critically acclaimed hospitality workers, chefs and decadent elegance may be an experience that’s few and far between for most of us — and obviously this barkeep doesn’t rightfully know how to behave — I suggest celebrating and treating ourselves as often as our wallets allow. Work hard. Play hard. You deserve it. Or, at least, that’s what I tell myself …