Full Plate: Ostra’s Adam Burress on inspiration, food and fatherhood

Adam Burress is part owner of Hammerheads, Game and Migo, but he says he focuses most of his time on his latest restaurant, Ostra. | Photo by Kevin Gibson

Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of interviews with local chefs.

Growing up, Adam Burress was accustomed to eating food that, well, wasn’t quite exquisite.

He remembers eating fast food for dinner, frequent trips to Cracker Barrel and frozen pizzas.

“Way overcooked hamburgers,” he says, “everything just doused in ketchup.”

So, yes, it was somewhat unlikely he would go on to become a chef and have a hand in opening four restaurants. But that’s exactly what he did, his most recent endeavor being Ostra, a seafood concept in Clifton.

There was even a time when he wanted to leave his hometown — he actually grew up in Oldham County but considers the Louisville area home — but he slowly but surely carved his path by an ironic route. His first job was as at Taco Bell. It wasn’t long before he would leave fast food in the rearview mirror.

He started as a dishwasher at the now-defunct Westport General Store. During his time there, he moved to the line, helping to cook, and his love of food began to blossom. This would lead him to attend Sullivan University’s culinary arts program, after which he helped open Blu Italian Grille downtown and also worked at Seviche and Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse.

When talking with Burress, however, he doesn’t dwell long on recipes or techniques, but is quick to engage in broader topics — one of them, of course, being food and what it means to us. Particularly, he is passionate about the importance of food as something more than nourishment, and he believes fast food, or as he puts it “food convenience,” as a by-product of industrialization has had a highly negative effect on society.

Food is more than just sustenance, Burress believes. | Photo by Kevin Gibson

“It detached us from one of the most important crafts a man should know,” Burress says. “Everything else hunts or gathers. There are just so many people who have no idea how to prepare food.”

Another effect is that with family dinners devolving into stopping for a quick burger or everyone eating something different for dinner in separate rooms. It’s too easy to heat up a frozen meal, but the shared experience is lost in the process, be it families cooking together or simply sitting down for food and conversation.

“It detaches us from intimacy,” he says. “Food is easily 50 percent of our daily pleasure. Our brains ignite when we eat food.”

In a town that views chefs as celebrities or rock stars, Burress has long been on the radar of Louisville dining enthusiasts, from the soul-pleasing barbecue and other items at Hammerheads, to the wild varieties at Game, to the inspired twist on Latin fare at Migo. Ostra is yet another unique dining experience.

But he doesn’t credit his education for his culinary leanings. He says Sullivan gave him the platform, and he’s been building it ever since, with influences and encouragement from other chefs he’s worked with, from Harold Baker to Anthony Lamas to Jayson Lewellen, the latter of whom Burress says “inspired me a lot.”

More importantly, Burress feels like he “gets” food somehow, which is not just what makes him love being a chef but also what drives his creativity.

“You can’t teach certain things,” he says. “You can take painting classes all day long, but are you ever going to produce a masterpiece? Some people are just a little bit more inclined to understand it on a different level.”

Another inspiration is Burress’ 2-year-old son, Pax; the name means “peace” in Latin, he says. He adds that since he’s become a father, he feels he’s been more inspired than ever in his work.

“You just have this tremendous amount of gravity placed upon your everyday existence” as a parent, he says. “Yet, you also fall in love on this level that opens up lot of creativity and extra energy to move forward. It kind of inspires you. It’s definitely tough sometimes, but it’s awakened me.”

Burress says becoming a parent has changed his perspective. | Photo by Kevin Gibson

But he has promised his girlfriend, Bianca, that he won’t be opening a fifth restaurant — at least not anytime soon. Especially with a second child on the way for the couple.

“I’m going to focus on Ostra for a while,” he says. “I have this beautiful family life. I’ve got all these businesses, but I’m also a man for personal time. I’d like to say I’m done playing restaurant, but who knows?”

One thing he knows is that the place he once considered leaving — “I used to want to leave Louisville just because I grew up here,” he says — he’s now rooted in. He appreciates the people of Louisville and the support they’ve shown his endeavors. But he knows he’s just keeping a seat warm for someone else — his chef mentors helped him, and he’s more than willing to help other young chefs during their rise.

“I will eventually be replaced,” he says. “That’s why we do what we do. That’s why we have kids. You don’t own the bar, you just hold it till somebody else comes along whose strong enough to take it to the next level. Everybody needs to grow.”

He pauses, and with a slight smirk says, “I want good new places to eat, too. I’m tired of my food.”