Tonight Volare's executive chef Josh Moore is preparing a Southern Inspired Italian Feast at New York's James Beard House. Louisvillians not making the trip to New York—and some did—can experience the seven-course meal on July 25 when Volare hosts a James Beard re-creation dinner. Guests will witness a changed Volare too: with Moore out of town, the restaurant closed for three days to "freshen its look."
Before leaving town, Moore chatted with Eater Louisville about the Beard dinner, his farm, Volare and a recent dinner at Napa Valley's The French Laundry.
How did the James Beard Foundation dinner come about?
Last year I started the farm thing, I guess 2006. I bought my farmhouse 2005, started here in '05. '06 I started with like a dozen tomato plants. And I'm like it would be cool to grow a little bit of something for the restaurant. You know I lived in the Highlands and the city my whole life. I never really farmed or gardened. My dad lives out in Shelbyville so he always raised tobacco and cattle and all that, so I kind of always saw that on the weekends. I started out with a dozen tomato plants and every year I've added to that. My place is 10 acres and I'm up to over an acre of garden alone—and then about an acre of fruit orchard and berries and acres of produce out at a time. For me, to be able to go from seed to fork with something is awesome. Every restaurant in the city, every chef in the country is farm to table, but for me it's my farm to my table. Just the amount of pride and enjoyment that I get out of it.
Our guests, they come in all summer long and they come in and they want me to talk to the table, talk about what's growing and what's in today. It's just been really cool. And last year I had a lot of good press with that. So the Beard House got that and some other career piece, so they contacted me about doing a dinner just kind of focused all on the farm. So, the kind of thing we talked about, I take produce up from the farm, to New York, and I do the dinner. So it's going to be cool. Sysco actually asked if they could drive a refrigerated truck from the farm to New York. So, they're doing that. They're going to come out and help me harvest, load the refrigerated truck, drive everything up on that Sunday and then get ready. But the garden has expanded so much now—I probably have 30 heirloom varieties, 180 different plants, just tomatoes and probably another 50 or 60 different vegetables.
What are you planning on serving at the Beard House?
Things that are going to be ready as far as the veg and the entree. Swiss chard is gonna be ready, celeriac and Yukon gold potatoes. I'm gonna do a little celeriac Yukon tartine with gorgonzola crumbles and a little bit of bechamel base in between the layers. Swiss chard will be ready. Baby squash will be ready. I'll have a ton of those at that time. I'll put out a variety, like little white patty pans and cucumbers for the dinner this year. They're really cool. They look like lemons, but taste like cucumbers, but they're a little more tart, a little more acidic than a regular cucumber. Stuff like that. I planted a bunch of different types of basil this year, a little romanesco. My plants look beautiful and they are starting to get little heads on them so those look good. Things I've already brought in this year: cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, swiss chard, tomatoes. I've been bringing in a few, theyr'e really starting to come on. There's about a 1,000 pounds of green tomatoes on the vines right now so that's gonna be awesome.
When did you first serve produce that you grew yourself at the restaurant?
Were you nervous at all about that?
No, I was really excited about it.
What was it?
It was tomatoes. Started out just tomatoes. And I guess cherries. Tomatoes and cherries. When I bought the farm there were already some fruit trees and I've planted a lot since then and expanded it, but the tomatoes always do well in the summertime. I call it just a Mediterranean summer salad. I do at least 10 different varieties of heirlooms, cucumbers, red onions, feta cheese, red wine/champagne vinaigrette, fresh basil. It's just a nice light salad, really focuses on the flavors of the tomatoes. So I will run that all summer long with the heirlooms. It's been awesome.
And the berries, I got into the berries a couple of years ago. I'm up to about 30 blueberry bushes and about 20 each of black raspberry, red raspberry, blackberry bushes. So they're all doing really well. I've been making little individual blueberry tarts the past couple of weeks with all of the blueberries coming in. When the cherries come one they're already done of course. I do these little grappa duck egg custard tarts with tart cherries, flaky sable crust and housemaid vanilla bean gelato and I make a real custardy gelato. It's excellent. I'm doing that at the Beard House. The dessert there is going to be a little trio. One of the things is going to be those little cherry grappa custard tarts and I froze the cherries. So I'm excited about that. And I'm doing the sugar apple. It's something I do for birthday guests instead of cake or whatever. It's a blown sugar apple filled with pound cake and berries served with a creme anglaise. So I'm gonna do the big apple in the Big Apple. A little overambitious of me. I'm stressed about it, but I'm going to blow 90 little hand blow sugar apples to take up to the Beard House. So that's going to be stressful, but awesome. I found plastic Christmas ornament boxes online so I'm gonna order those and I'm going to pack each one. You know plastic bag, ziploc bags, wrapped them up, bubble wrap and then package them in there. There is a big sugar piece I did for Valentine's. It's all poured sugar, pulled sugar. The cupid doll, the parts are poured sugar.
How long did it take to do that?
That really wasn't that bad, like four hours, five hours maybe.
How long are you spending in New York?
I'm going up early Monday coming back Wednesday afternoon.
So your first restaurant job was with pastries?
I started at Vincenzo's when I was 14, I was able to slide in early. But it was a blast. I helped on offsite caterings and then I started talking to Agostino [Gabriele, Vincenzo's chef] and was like "I really want to be a chef and blah blah blah." I'd always done pastries. My grandmother got me into baking when I was really young. So I got in the door there with that and while I was in, I talked to Jay the pastry guy and they got me in on pastry work. It was sort of like, "Chop this chocolate. Slice all these cakes. Make these recipes." It was grunt work, but it was awesome. I was in love with it.
Do you have any back up? Have you thought about stuff not getting there or anything going wrong?
Not really. I feel good about all of the product being there and getting there. A lot of it I'm taking up because I have the refrigerated truck. So that's gonna make it nice. And the Certified Angus Beef. The beef course, they're supplying that from Beard House. Pretty cool.
I used prime beef for years and years and years and years. Just the way the market has been on beef in the past few years, just issue after issue, a lot of red tenders, not great marbling. I've been complaining to my purveyor about it and they're like "Have you tried CAB [Certified Angus Beef]?" We did the counting: A whole case of prime versus a whole case of CAB and it was night and day. The CAB, the specs were so much tighter on it, better quality overall, so I switched to CAB a year and a half ago, two years ago, like solely on the menu. And they asked me earlier in the year to be their ambassador chef for this region so all of their CAB TV spots, newspaper articles, whatever I'm their spokeschef for it. So they flew me out to Amarillo back in April. I spent half a week out there from ranches, to feed lots, to piking facilities, and it was just really cool, very educational. They're really supportive of their ambassador chefs. They like the tattoo [Moore point to a tattoo of a cattle on his forearm]. As soon as they saw that: " They were like done deal"
How many years have you had that tattoo? Did you get it on your way to meet them?
I've had that for about three years. That's my favorite one of all of them. So they've been awesome to partner with and even the venue, partnering with Artesa [Winery]. You look at a lot of the James Beard venues and some are ok but not great. You're trying to get support from people, but they'll only give you so much.
I was in Napa like two weeks before Derby. I was like "I need a break before Derby", so actually McCormick Spices sent me up there. They actually have a condo in Carmel, which was cool. So I was like if I'm going to be in Carmel, I've never been to Napa, I've never been to anywhere on the West Coast. So I rent a convertible and drive to Napa for a couple days. I drove up there and Artesa was one of the vineyards I stopped in on a whim and did a tasting and was just really impressed with their portfolio. They ship a lot of their wines to Kentucky, so I just tasted their portfolio and was really impressed. Talked with the President of Artesa, Keith, I'm doing a James Beard dinner, blah blah blah, and I want to partner with you guys. So they are actually donating all 90 bottles for the dinner, which is huge for one vineyard to do that, especially high end stuff. They're even donating a couple things that they don't even ship outside the vineyard, that you can only get onsite. So I will be able to showcase those things in New York.
Also I am going to do a recreation dinner here and they're going to ship the wine to New York and I am going to bring it back with me. I actually have quite a few customers of the restaurant, great customers who I have built a relationship with over the years who are flying up to New York or driving up to New York for the dinner. So that's pretty cool. It just says a lot about my relationship with the guests and that was like the Napa trip. The Saturday before we left, we left on Sunday, so that Saturday I was out talking, I try to hit the dining room every night and talk to guests. I'm kind of the PR face of the restaurant, which I enjoy. I love being out and public and I enjoy working with charities and doing stuff. I talked to some good customers of mine and I was like I'm going up to Napa and he was like, "Do you want to go to The French Laundry?" I was like "of course!", but the waitlist and this was kind of a last-minute trip. And he was like, my nephew is the sommelier, let me call him. So the next day I got an email: Dear Chef Moore, We have your reservation set for Monday. And I was like "sweet!"
How was that experience?
It was amazing. It was expensive, but it was amazing. They treated us great. Complimentary bottle of champagne when we sat down. They added several additional tasting courses that were not on the tasting menu, we got to do tours of the garden and the kitchen so it was really cool. Beautiful place, the food was top notch.
Always interesting with those places because you wonder is it going to live up to expectations. It's always wonderful when they do.
It's still a $900 dinner for two people.
There's a time and a place.
I don't know if I'll hit The French Laundry every time I go to Napa, but it was definitely worth it. I had a good time.
How much time a week do you spend actually working your farm?
Gosh. Probably 25-30 hours a week between everything. It's 10 acres, so mowing and weed eating and the garden. It's a lot. It's one of those things, like in the wintertime I kind of rest. December through February is like my of relax watch TV period. Summer is what it is. I know it's going to be busy and stressful. Then you throw the Beard House on top of that in the summer and that makes it even crazier. And WDRB is coming out to the farm on the eighth. They're going to tape the garden, the farm, harvesting. Then they are going to come here [to Volare] the ninth and we are going to cook whatever we harvested in the kitchen.
And then, also on the eighth, Secrets of Louisville Chefs. I pitched an idea to them back in early spring. You know what would be really cool and I know this is something y'all haven't done, it might be a fun idea. I have a real good relationship with them over the years I've done all the battles they've done and different stuff. They're just great, great guys. I was like why don't you guys come out when I plant and tape the planting of the produce and then come out when it's time to harvest, tape the harvest, go inside, cook a meal in the kitchen and then [co-host] Tim Laird can do a big cocktail thing in the bar room. So they're excited. They're coming out the evening of the 8th. I've got WERB in the morning, so they can do their little show the evening.
And then Dan Dry is going to come out and shoot harvesting for the Beard dinner on the 14th. I've talked to the Beard House and something cool they have is a TV that you can put a slideshow on. I'm going to do a slideshow of the produce that everyone's eating for dinner harvested the day before. I'm trying to really incorporate some cool stuff in, like I'm trying to do little jars of honey as little guest favors for all the guests that come to the dinner. I've put out bees back in spring. I've been wanting to put out an apiary for years. This year I put up two hives, 400,000 bees. That's a big step, but awesome. It's really cool to watch them and just learning: you know they go three miles from there hive. It's really wild. They're producing great, making a lot of honey.
What's going on the restaurant while you are gonna be in New York?
We're completely redoing the outside of the restaurant. Freshening it up. Freshening up a few things inside. We're going to do something dark and some brick work. We're still looking at conceptual drawings of stuff. When you walk outside there are big splotches on the back of the building where they are giving us paint options. It's gonna be cool. We have a lot of planned stuff we want to do over the next couple of years and next year is our 10-year anniversary. We're going to do a big blow out for that. Especially in this town, 10 years in the restaurant business. It's really something to celebrate.
I was talking to Sal Rubino yesterday at The Café who has 17 years there. I was like, "What secrets do you have? What advice do you have?" Because, 17 years, that's like nine restaurant lifetimes in this city.
I always say anyone can open a restaurant in this town. It is keeping one open that's the hard thing. It's such a foodie community and there is so much support for independent restaurants here and there is not in a lot of other cities. So it's easy to open a place and get some buzz going and get some write ups. But, you do have to find that balance too between being fair and perceived as a value to people and keeping your price point up for quality. It's like in '08, '07 when the economy started to get kinda bad, you know a lot of places in town were completely changing their concept, going from fine dining to bistro, really changing who they were to try to lower their prices and compete with the economy and I'm like I don't want to do that. It's going to be a temporary thing. Everybody knew that going into it. Things will bounce back. It might take some time. I don't want to change what we've worked so hard to build here.
We are one of the more expensive places in town. We are. Business First, I think we're in the top 20 of the most expensive. But at the same time, people who come here know the quality of the products we use. They perceive us as a value and the level of service and the level of food you get here are one of the top notch in the city. I don't what to cut my portions. I don't want to change my quality. I don't want to do anything to try and lower prices. So instead I implemented the bar menu. We were one of the first places, especially in fine dining, to do a small plates menu. Venice they have cicchetti bars so I called it cicchetti menu. So, you know, four, five, six dollar small bites, little small plates. We don't do it in the dining room so we don't lessen or cheapen the dining room, but for the bar it's great. It's bar-style food but it's still Italian, it's still focused on local and good ingredients, small dishes. It really went over great. We started that and we started half-priced wine at the bar seven days a week, which has been huge. It was a great idea and I'm glad I did that instead of changing who we were.
It gives people the option to come in and enjoy it.
And our clientele that came in all the time didn't mind. You know prices and everything. It's nice for them to come in sometimes chill at the bar and watch a game on TV. Order a little prime burger and little lamb meatballs and call it done. So it's been a good thing.
[Photos: Whitney Harrod Morris]