What currently excites you the most about Louisville's food scene?
Laura Rountree: Something interesting is how much focus is being put on food service workers. I have friends in food service who have come down here and [volunteered] for their food. It’s not like they’ve said it, but I know what you get paid in food service. I think it’s a shame that restaurants are doling out this really nice, fancy food, but their workers can’t go to the doctor when they’re sick.
I think there’s definitely a conversation [happening] about providing a good living to our food service workers. I think that’s really tied into food justice. If you’re a restaurant and your focus is on sustainable food systems and food justice and you’re not paying your workers a living wage then I don’t really know what you’re doing.
There are restaurants with concepts similar to The Table in other cities where diners can pay for their meals or volunteer their time to cover their check. How has running a restaurant like The Table in Louisville differed from your expectations?
Rountree: I remember talking to [the chef at One Bistro in Miamisburg, OH] and asking, ‘How do you plan for the day?’ His answer was ‘It just works out.’ I never really got a satisfactory answer, but the funny thing is, is that it really does just work out.
The thing that’s been really surprising to me is that, I would have been happy if just the neighborhood, Portland, supported us, but the response that we’ve been getting from the city and the press, has just been… I was not expecting that. I never expected to do [Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives].
What's your favorite dish on the menu right now?
Rountree: I really like our Autumn salad. The dressing on it is a toasted sesame dressing. Apples and onions, shredded pumpkin that we get from Gross Farms. And it’s got greens. I try to do one really hearty salad on every menu that has a lot of chewing involved it. And that’s the one. It’s just a good chewing salad.
What are you looking forward to in 2017? Either for The Table or for our city's dining scene as a whole.
Rountree: We’re working on developing a job training program. It’s going to be culinary training, but unlike other culinary training programs a lot of the folks we have in here really lack some of the basic skills you need to be successful at a job. Either no one’s really taken the time to work with them or we have people who have been incarcerated and there’s a whole different set of survival skills that aren’t necessarily helpful in the workplace. So, people exhibit behaviors here that would get them fired from pretty much any other place, but we have time to work with them. Our goal in the end is for people to be placed in steady, good paying jobs.
How has The Table engrained itself in the culture of the Portland neighborhood?
Rountree: We treat people with respect. They have an ownership over this place. We’ve had 900 people sign our volunteer slips this last year, which is crazy. So, 900 people have put their hands on this place to help build it. Some of the people that have been coming in often, when they talk about The Table, this is their job and they work here and this place belongs to them.
Portland feels very electric with possibility. I feel very welcome in this neighborhood. I didn’t really spend time down here until about a year and a half ago. I’ve got nothing but good things to say about how I’ve been treated by people in this neighborhood.
Who is a chef (or chefs) that are doing interesting things in Louisville that you think we should keep an eye on in 2017?
Rountree: The Seafood Lady, I mean all the hype, it’s so right. I am so happy for her that she’s doing so well and that she’s being recognized because the food she puts out is so, so good. It’s definitely worth standing in line for and eating out of a box in the parking lot.
I’m really excited to see people like Louisville Grows and the things that they’re doing. We’ve gotten produce from them before. The people from Catholic Charities, some of the refugee groups, have really extensive farming expertise. And so Louisville Grows has harnessed that. They’ve given them a plot in the south end and they’re growing all kinds of stuff and selling it. ValuMarket down there buying it and there’s a few restaurants buying from them.
The ability to change people's mindsets through a good meal must be one of the greatest rewards of heading the kitchen at The Table. Can you speak to that a little and how it's inspired you as a chef.
Rountree: I can’t control what happens when people walk out of this restaurant or what their lives are like. But they can come in here and have a meal that makes them feel like they are being pampered and they are being taken care of. Something beyond that basic level of needs. Give them enjoyment and leisure. Treating themselves.
I think we forget that a lot when we talk about low-income neighborhoods. We always want to talk about crime and drug addiction and nutrition, which are important, but I think we forget that people need to enjoy themselves.
To learn about The Table and support the work they’re doing in the community, please visit their website.
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