The landscape of central Kentucky is dotted with barns—it is, after all, horse country. And while some sag under the weight of years unused or with roofs flapped open to the elements, the twenty or so barns on the Hermitage Farm in Goshen, a quick hop north of Louisville, are all in good working order. Especially barn number eight. With stalls still intact, this particular barn has become the heart of what is now a restaurant and event space set on a working thoroughbred horse farm—Barn8.
Conjured by Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown, founders of the 21c Museum Hotels, Hermitage Farm houses the restaurant Barn8, as well as a state-of-the-art greenhouse and garden, a significant bourbon program, and an interactive art exhibit.
In operation since 1936, Hermitage has housed a number of Kentucky Derby and other stakes race winners over the years and still boards them. You can take a tour, or simply watch the horses graze in the wide-open fields surrounding the restaurant. Since taking over the farm and placing it in a conservational easement a few years back, Brown and Wilson have also added artwork to the property, including large-scale sculptures from their personal collection.
The greenhouse and garden that surround the restaurant grow a good amount of produce for the kitchen, including several varieties of herbs, plus radishes, fennel, peppers, and even persimmons and paw paws. One of the greenhouse’s climate-controlled rooms is dedicated to citrus with Meyer lemon and limequat trees in bloom. Horticulturalist Stephanie Tittle oversees the garden program and works hand-in-hand with the kitchen team to ensure the steady flow of harvested goods onto the menu.
A Taste of the Land at Barn8
The produce grown a few feet from the kitchen is just one brushstroke executive chef Alison Settle is using to paint a locally focused menu. Bison, chicken, pork, and beef are all raised on farms nearby, including Woodland Farm, the 1,000-acre property where Brown and Wilson reside and have several breeds of heritage livestock. With those two resources, Settle can source about 75 percent of her menu from within just a few miles.
Brown and Wilson tapped the budding chef when she was working at Red Hog, an artisan butcher shop and restaurant in Louisville. Prior to that, the Kentucky native learned to cook as an au pair in Germany before coming back home to work for beloved chef Ouita Michel. After eating just one meal at Red Hog, Wilson called Settle to offer her a job at Barn8. Covid delayed the restaurant’s opening from March until May of 2020, but since then, Settle has quietly set out to shape a story around Kentucky agriculture, while building a (mostly female) team of expert artisan producers in the kitchen.
The broad, black-and-red-trimmed barn might be dressed up with curtains to separate some of the stalls. Otherwise, it’s unceremonious. The rustic traits of its original use still in play and red picnic tables out back.
A tucked-away shotgun bourbon bar runs down the length of the barn and houses 115 different bottlings of good, brown liquor, a number of which are also for sale in a shop near the entrance. Barn8 has the capability of aging bourbon on-site, as well. You’ll see barrels stacked behind the host stand, and custom bottlings by Woodford Reserve and others along the shelves. Several of those bourbons find their way into cocktails, like the HogTied, a take on the Manhattan, or the Hickory Old Fashioned dashed with syrup made from foraged hickory bark.
The Dinner Game Plan
Those are good places to start before tackling a bread basket. It overflows with house-made options that play with different types of flours. They change often but hope for the perfectly textured sourdough baguette, or the sunflower seed anadama, a dark, dense Appalachian-style loaf studded with crunchy seeds.
From there, go directly to the carrots. It’s a dish Settle might adjust with the season but has already become too popular to take off the menu. You might find them rubbed with spices and charred, splayed out over a cooling dill-flecked labneh, which marries the heat and smoke. The best part is dragging a piece of sorghum cornbread through it all.
Other vegetable-driven small plates follow, including Settle’s favorite, burrata. She may dress it up with pickled strawberries or Montmorency cherries from Woodland Farm depending on what’s fresh that moment. “It’s satisfactory and fills your belly,” she says of the dish.
Settle’s own palate has been influenced by living abroad, so she doesn’t subscribe to the theory that food should be place-driven—white shoyu, tobiko, black garlic, and massaman curry are all part of her pantry, as are house-made fresh and extruded pastas.
“It’s important to me that anything we serve here is about trying to make local, healthy, seasonal food taste like something you can’t stop thinking about. I want people to leave here thinking, ‘I can’t wait to have that again,’” she says.
Dishes like a duck leg confit eaten in late spring do just that. The tender fowl was set against a ginger rice heavy with fiddleheads and garlic scapes. Bright and flavorful, the dish captured the fleeting season. A housemade pasta curled up with a carrot-top pesto and dotted with ricotta salata also soared with the addition of pickled sundried tomatoes.
For dessert, dishes like Le Cheval de la Grange, smoked oat milk and roasted hay panna cotta topped with oat, sunflower seed, and granola, plus an apricot and raisin compote, are a nod to the equestrian surroundings.
After the meal, there is no shortage of beauty to enjoy, from a stroll through the greenhouse to the ArtWalk, a boardwalk pathway into a wooded area behind the barn where an immersive light and video exhibit shines across the trees and leaves. If you time it right, the sunset over the fields can be spectacular.
All of that beauty is not lost on Settle, who as a younger chef, toiled in window-less kitchens. At Barn8, she can take a step away, walk over to pet a horse, and meander through the garden before or after a grueling service. “That’s something that not every kitchen person gets,” she says. “When you get off your shift and you walk out to hear the coyotes howling, that’s something pretty special.”
- by Erin Byers Murray