LOUISVILLE CHEF KATHY CARY WEAVES LOCAL INGREDIENTS INTO A COZY MOTHER’S DAY MEAL
You could argue that every day is Mother’s Day for Kathy Cary. Her legendary Louisville restaurant, Lilly’s, was named for her daughter who quite literally grew up in the restaurant’s kitchen. Baby Lilly was given broccoli stalks as toys before she could walk. She entertained herself for hours seated in a large serving platter watching the hustle and bustle of kitchen activity unfold around her. She rode around on her mother’s hip as the dishes came together. For the past twenty-five years, Lilly the child and Lilly the restaurant have been maturing steadily side by side. Each time Kathy Cary opens the doors to her neighborhood bistro, her identity as a working mother is literally shining on the pink neon sign above.
Pretty early on, Lilly’s became one of the hottest tickets in town and still is. The restaurant opened in 1988 with a commitment to the farm-to-table movement before such a term even existed. Cary patronized local farmers and purveyors and supplemented what they were able to provide with produce from her own organic garden. She took Kentucky classics—country ham, catfish, beer cheese, Bibb lettuce, and the Hot Brown—and tweaked them with her own unique style.
In 1993, Cary became the first Louisville chef ever invited to cook at New York’s James Beard House. This led to a multitude of articles and appearances on the Today show, Martha Stewart Live, and the Food Network series Ready…Set…Cook. Gourmet once described eating at Lilly’s as “like supping in the dining room of a gentleman farmer.” Or in Cary’s case, a gentlewoman farmer, which is largely accurate.
It was in the kitchen of Cary’s own mother, Cissy Nash, that the cooking bug took hold. As her mother took cooking lessons from Camille Glenn, a Southern culinary legend, young Kathy lent a hand, devouring her mother’s cooking magazines along the way. By the age of twelve, she was hooked. In high school, Cary began teaching Saturday cooking classes out of her mother’s kitchen. She launched a catering business at the mere age of nineteen while at George Washington University, whipping up dishes in her tiny student apartment, then paid her way through Cordon Bleu classes in Washington, DC, by helping out in the kitchen.
Love brought Cary back to Kentucky. Actually, in proper order, you’d have to credit the Derby, which lured her home, followed by revelries at a downtown bar, where she met a certain Will Cary. She eventually made the decision to move home, wed, and launch La Peche Catering, followed eight years later by Lilly’s.
When Cary isn’t cooking at her Bardstown Road restaurant, answering the phones, planning menus, making grocery lists, sourcing from local farmers, making television appearances, or traveling for international culinary inspiration, you might find her walking her dog on her mother’s farm (a rare pleasure).
ALL IN THE FAMILY
On this particular Mother’s Day, she orchestrated a casually elegant brunch at home for her mother, with a guest list that included husband Will Cary, son William Conrad, daughter Lilly, nephew Charlie Farnsley and his wife, Mindy, niece Julie Evans, and the youngest member of the party, Julie’s three-year-old daughter, Molly. Two of the guests were actually born on Mother’s Day, giving the occasion even more cause for celebration.
Cary thoughtfully placed her grandmother Tee’s silver bowl as the centerpiece, adding yet another generation to the day’s celebration of mother/daughter traditions. Irises and tulips brought spring indoors, as did plenty of roses—in Cary’s words, “red roses in honor of those mothers present and white ones in memory of those no longer with us.”
What follows is a collection of dishes born of Kentucky products, expertly conceived and crafted by Cary’s hands. Fresh asparagus, Bibb lettuce, local buttermilk, farm eggs, quail, pork, Weisenberger grits (made out of corn meal from Weisenberger Mill in Woodford County, about an hour from Louisville), spring berries, and of course, bourbon. “Cooking with bourbon,” says Cary with a laugh, “is a way of life in Kentucky.”
So raise a glass, or in Cary’s household a “bourbon spring fling,” to all the mothers—past, present, and future. And to Mother Kentucky, and to Mother Earth, who provided us with such delectable bounty, gathering us around the table to enjoy each other’s company on such a fine spring day.