Under the Toque: Longtime chef Corbett remains a ‘Louisville Original’

Under the Toque: Longtime chef Corbett remains a ‘Louisville Original’

Chef S. Dean Corbett runs two restaurants, has a third in the works, hosts a local television show, produces a variety of gourmet products sold in local Louisville, Ky., retail stores and supports several charities.

In addition, he was—until recently—an avid Harley Davidson enthusiast.

“I have a 29-month-old and another baby on the way,” he says of the sale of his customized Harley. “That kind of took the wind out of my sail on that one.”

Corbett’s various activities and hobbies are indicative of his cooking style: eclectic, sometimes risky, but like the sale of his prized possession, practical and wise. Corbett himself describes his style as “whimsical.”

After beginning his career nearly 30 years ago in Dallas, Corbett partnered with his father, Jack Corbett, in 1985 to purchase the floundering Equus [3] restaurant, which today is a thriving culinary destination for the residents of Louisville. It has been described by The Courier-Journal as not “just one of the city’s better restaurants: It’s absolutely one of the best.” In 2000, Corbett opened Jack’s [4] Lounge, in honor of his late father.

Currently, he is developing a new concept, to be called Corbett’s.

You host a local television show, “Secrets of Louisville Chefs Live.” How has that experience been?

It was more difficult in the beginning because I was so new at it. I’d see myself on TV and say that I was mumbling or needed to accentuate the words more. We only tape once a month, about two shows each. We’re on our third year and have taped about 65 shows. It’s been great for business and it’s fun, more like a hobby for me.

BIOGRAPHY

Title: chef-owner of Equus and Jack’s Lounge in Louisville, Ky.Birth date: Feb. 21, 1962Birthplace: Portland, Ore.Education: North Texas State University and the University of LouisvilleCareer highlights: being chef and owner of Equus and Jack’s Lounge; serving dinner for President Ronald Reagan; hosting the television show “Secrets of Louisville Chefs Live”

How do you find time to manage your restaurants with your television show and numerous charities?

I have a tremendous staff. Some of them have been with me since day one. I’m a micromanager, but I’m learning very quickly to delegate because of this new project [opening Corbett’s]. I could have done something like this a long time ago had I delegated. Right now I’m here with seven different checkbooks for seven different businesses. I don’t know if I can keep doing this, so I need some people to help me.

What is your culinary philosophy?

I’m very big into the flavor aspect of food. I tell my chefs, let’s first get through flavor and balance so that it works, that the protein is enhanced, whether it’s citrus and hot, or sweet and sour working together.

How often do you change your menu?

About once a month. We have to change it more frequently during some of our slower months, reduce it actually. It’s smart business. We try to use everything in its peak.

Does choosing to work with ingredients in peak season lead you to work with local purveyors?

I deal with the farmers in the spring and summer only. We have a former sous chef who cultivates microgreens and baby lettuces year-round in a greenhouse, but otherwise we have to fly them in. In 1985 there was nothing, no farmers. I was strictly at the mercy of the produce distributor. The industry has taken control of that situation and created such a market, especially with chefs being so particular about the ingredients they need. This makes purveyors take it to the next level.

How would you describe your menu at Equus?

It’s definitely American regional, a little more progressive in the presentation and seasonally inspired.

How will Corbett’s differ?

It will be similar to Equus, but we’re going to take a few chances and really have some fun with the plate presentations. There are eight or nine items of Equus’ menu that we couldn’t take off if we wanted to. The sea bass and crab cakes have been on since the 1980s. As much as we like to play around, we wouldn’t dare. People feel very strongly about their favorite items. At Corbett’s you may see a few Equus items, such as the shrimp Jenkins, [which is fried shrimp flavored with brown sugar, rosemary, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce and bourbon] but in a totally different presentation with different shrimp and a similar sauce.

CHEF’S TIPS

For fresh fish, pick those with clear eyes.

When grilling avoid using sugar in marinades, which can cause fish to stick.

Do you think Louisville-style cooking has a strong following?

Louisville-style cooking is alive and well, especially with people having fun with bourbon, hot brown, shrimp and grits. This is the greatest food town, demographically, for its size in this country. It’s unbelievable.

How do you cater to diners during events like the Kentucky Derby?

Our clientele is primarily out-of-towners. I’ll be booked in January for the Derby. Corbett’s is booked for the Ryder Cup already, and it’s not happening until 2008. We do have a set, five-course tasting menu during that time and some little treats, like bourbon truffles. We’ve been doing that for 10 years, and it has been very successful. Most people are just relieved to have a seat during that week.

What led you to create the Juvenile Diabetes and Autism Dinner?

A friend of mine’s daughter had [diabetes], so we decided to do a small dinner at Equus. This was 12 years ago, and the dinner has always honored a person in the community who has been very charitable. We had a dinner and a silent auction and we probably made about $14,000 then. The dinner now makes $250,000.

You just got back from New York. Was this business or pleasure?

As much as we were there to enjoy the food, we were more examining different places, looking for obscure things. For instance to-go bags, water glasses, chargers for the dining room, to see whether there were teaspoons on place settings and to look for any ideas in flooring or specialty lighting.

Tell me about your involvement with the “Louisville Originals” group of independent restaurateurs?

It [started] as a survival method. The whole group was formed to emphasize to the public that these places are all owned and operated by independent residents, not chains. For three years I was the only “Original,” the original “Original.” There are probably 60 of us now. It helps the cause of keeping independent restaurants in the public eye versus competition with the chains.