Oak & Brew

Chef Thomas Hiestand doesn’t have to say he’s passionate about great food. You can hear it when he talks about everything connected to the food experience. Chef Thomas comes to the Kentucky International Convention Center from Chicago, the official culinary partner for the Kentucky International Convention Center (KICC).

Along with Elizabeth Lessner, general manager of Levy Convention Centers, the pair plans to dazzle visitors to KICC with items that reflect regional flavors and the individual tastes of the people hosting events at the facilities. And the menu options are virtually unlimited. “Nothing is out of bounds,” notes Hiestand. “We create custom menus based on the hosts’ tastes and their relationship to food.”

Even choosing the menu is a culinary event with an intimate tasting table that looks out at a kitchen massive enough to serve dinner to you and 15,000 of your closest friends or colleagues. In fact, with a sous chef, three culinary supervisors, up to 15 kitchen stewards and the servers, Chef Thomas says they may serve 150 meals for staff alone.

Food to go

The food extravaganza isn’t just in the sit-down meals. On-site eatery Oak & Brew serves grab and go items in the morning and then turns into a bourbon bar later in the day with sampling sessions available from area distilleries. And then there are the pop-up cafes, which may offer up warm pretzels, melt-in-your-mouth chocolate chip cookies or whatever specialty items the hosts want to have.

The key to even the simplest offerings is freshness. Muffins, breads and other items are baked in KICC’s kitchen and not frozen then re-warmed. Produce comes primarily from local growers and Chef Thomas says he’s already taken advantage of the berry season to make brambleberry jam. He also notes they’re working on a rooftop garden and he hopes to produce their own honey in the next year.

Sustainability is important to both Hiestand and Lessner, and they’re justifiably proud of recycling efforts through on-site composting areas and the Louisville Pure Tap water stations throughout the building where visitors can refill and reuse their water containers. They also ensure that food never goes to waste by donating extras from events to The Healing Place, a Louisville-based program that helps people recover from drug and alcohol addiction.

That attention to detail extends to every aspect of the food available for KICC guests. For Hiestand and Lessner, that means bringing in food and beverages unique to the area. “Visitors to Louisville may not have the time to sample all the city has to offer,” says Lessner. “We want to bring the local culinary experience to them.”

They’ve already embraced partnerships with several area companies to showcase regional food and beverages. The coffee served in the morning at Oak & Brew is from Red Hot Roasters, a local roaster specializing in small batch organic coffee, and local and regional bourbons are on offer in the evening along with beer from Gravely Brewing Company and Falls City Beer. They’re also partnering with Mayan Café so guests can add a pop-up restaurant featuring tacos, chips and guacamole.

“This is a gorgeous facility and we want to share,” explains Lessner, who says they plan to develop classes that will be both delicious and educational. She envisions intimate chef-prepared meals with a “lesson” from a master brewer on the perfect beverage pairing and other small demonstrations that highlight the food and the facility.

Hiestand and Lessner are just getting started. New to Louisville, they say they’re still exploring their new home and, with great food and drink always at the top of their minds, the list of local partners is sure to grow. Both say they’re already “Kentucky Proud” and will continue to make sure that’s reflected in the culinary experience guests from around the world will enjoy.