In Louisville, Chef Bobby Benjamin Finds Inspiration in His Neighborhood’s Meaty History
Located at the east end of downtown, Butchertown is one of Louisville’s oldest neighborhoods. It was established in the early 1800s when German and Irish immigrants first settled along Beargrass Creek. As the name suggests, many of its residents were skilled with a meat cleaver or worked in some fashion to support the area’s robust butchering community. But in 1937, the crushing Ohio River flood devastated the neighborhood (70 percent of the city was under water at the time), and many of its grand structures fell into disrepair.
As things tend to go in the South—where aging barns commonly become boutique breweries— everything old is new again, and today Butchertown is one of the hottest zip codes in town. New residents and a culturally diverse community are flocking to its tree-lined streets and renovating the grand buildings that date back more than one hundred years. One of those structures is home to Butchertown Grocery, a stylish restaurant housed in a former family-owned grocery store.
The restaurant’s chef, Bobby Benjamin, respects the ghosts of the place and finds inspiration in the time-weathered walls. “When you’re cooking in a place with history and culture, it excites you,” he says. “The setting helps me connect more with the kind of food that I’m preparing. In a modern setting I wouldn’t feel the same way; I’d feel the need to cook differently. This building helps me cook with my soul.” The 36-year-old chef earned his stripes in top kitchens across the country, including renowned regional establishments like the Oak Room and Union Common in Nashville.
But helming Butchertown Grocery (along with partners Patrick Hallahan, drummer for My Morning Jacket, and political lawyer Jon Salomon) allows Benjamin to summon his softer side and serve rustic dishes that suit the restaurant’s cozy leather banquettes, vintage-inspired mosaic tile floors, and exposed brick walls. Here his menu runs the gamut from the Pig and Goat burger with Benton’s bacon, pickled red onions, and green goddess dressing; and chicken and waffles with chiles, fried rosemary, leeks, and fresh mint; to bone marrow brulee; and classic steak frites. The entrees are rounded out with plenty of small plates to pass around family-style. Brunch means Butchertown’s take on eggs benedict, with braised kale, pork belly, and béarnaise on a biscuit. For the late night lounge menu, Benjamin offers up crave-worthy snacks like a wagyu dog topped with spicy relish, mustard aioli, and freshly fried chips.
When you’re cooking in a place with history and culture, it excites you. The setting helps me connect more with the kind of food that I’m preparing.
“I started cooking when I was a kid,” Benjamin says, “because when I cooked it made my family happy.” He’s always gravitated toward the fresh, seasonal aspects of Mediterranean cuisine. Back then, seeking out special ingredients was part of the process. “These days everyone is more exposed to fresh ingredients. When I was a kid that wasn’t the case, so when you did find something in season, it made a big impact.”
When the temperatures begin to fall and Louisville evenings turn brisk and cool, Benjamin starts dreaming about braised meats, roasted squash, and pungent aged cheeses. “Suddenly it’s not hot anymore,” he says. “I want a glass of red wine.” He considers autumn the true beginning of his cooking cycle, a time after the season of caprese salads, but before heavier winter fare. It’s when he’s most inspired by the seasonal bounty and experiences a culinary recharge. In particular, he longs to play around with dough and homemade pastas, and prepare luscious fall vegetables. It’s also Benjamin’s favorite time to gather friends and family for a feast. The meal begins with roasted acorn squash with golden raisins, ricotta, and cane syrup. “I like the play of the boozy, brandy-soaked raisins, creamy ricotta, and sweet syrup,” he says.
There’s nothing more gorgeous than a small piece of short rib coated in a rich, glossy sauce.
That’s followed by one of his favorite dishes, gnocchi with wild mushrooms and brown butter parmesan sauce. “I could eat gnocchi all year long,” he confesses. “I used to work for an Italian chef in Los Angeles who used to say if you make gnocchi, you know you’re going to fall in love,” he laughs. “But it’s kind of true. You know you’re doing something special for your guests. Making them is a very sensual process—it means something to you.”
A bottle of pinot is uncorked for seared duck breast with parmesan polenta, braised cipollini onions, broccolini, and duck jus. “This is an Italian classic,” Benjamin says, “and a comforting, family-style dish that’s as rewarding and satisfying as a rotisserie chicken.”
Root vegetables, like parsnips and carrots, find a home among braised short ribs. “There’s nothing more gorgeous than a small piece of short rib coated in a rich, glossy sauce,” Benjamin says. Finally, there’s caramel apple cheesecake with graham cracker shortbread crust and pecan streusel. “There’s not enough awesome cheesecake out there anymore, and this might be the best cheesecake I’ve ever had in my life,” he says. As he lovingly crafts the food he’s going to be sharing with others, he treats each dish like a gift. “I want to prepare things people don’t take the time to make anymore. It’s all about the best ingredients and proper technique, and then I give it to you on a plate—real simple.”