But perhaps nothing prepared the Madison, Ind., native for his life as a chef like playing trombone in his high school marching band.
“You’re standing on asphalt in the middle of August, at attention, and the director’s yelling at you to straighten up,” McCabe says. “It’s a lot like a kitchen.”
He did start out working in a kitchen, but the metaphor extends to the full restaurant operation, which also is intense and requires focus and teamwork.
“Trying to get all these people to move together at the right pace, at the right time,” he continues. “Trying to execute things as perfectly as you can, but you have to rely on the person next to you at the same time. As many jokes as there are about marching bands, that actually laid a really nice base for this profession.”
After getting a first taste of the restaurant business as a kid helping out in a family friend’s restaurant and later working in a hotel restaurant, where a mass exodus of the kitchen staff led to him cooking, McCabe came to a crossroad as a teenager.
The three things he loved to do, he says, was ride bikes, play music (he had graduated to playing bass in punk bands) and cook.
He quickly realized he couldn’t make a living riding bikes, and when he tried and failed to get into what he loosely described as a “semipro drum corps,” he figured he would follow his passion for cooking, which came in part through his dad’s love of cooking.
He moved from nearby Madison to Louisville, attended Sullivan University, and “was lucky enough to fall into a job at Le Relais,” he says. It would turn out to be the job that really took him through the transition from cook to chef, in many ways.
He learned under Chef Daniel Stage and broadened his mind in the process, learning aspects of cooking he’d never considered before — from techniques to ingredients.
This experience helped prepare him for two years spent in Chicago working as chef in a pair of Michelin-starred restaurants in Blackbird and the since-closed L2O. He returned in 2011 and began working at Proof on Main, which is when he began talking with Ryan Rogers, who would open Feast BBQ in New Albany soon thereafter.
This relationship led to McCabe moving to Feast, and later Royal’s Hot Chicken, another HiCotton restaurant. Bar Vetti marks McCabe’s entry into partnership, and the Italian concept — located in the historic 800 Building downtown — offers an immediate twist as a no-tipping restaurant.
The menu states, “As a non-tipping restaurant, we promote an equitable wage for all of our employees.” If the menu, packed with six signature pizzas, five pasta dishes, bar bites, and shareable plates, seems familiar yet fresh with its wide variety of locally sourced ingredients and imagination, the no-tipping is something uncommon in Louisville.
“The old system just doesn’t add up,” McCabe says of the decision to make the move. The goal is to make sure employees make a consistent, livable wage, and so far, the policy has been well-received.
“The response has been fantastic,” he says. “We see guests get their check, do a double-take, and sometimes even walk up to the bar or a server and say, ‘Where’s the line (to add the tip)?’”
In addition, Bar Vetti aims to provide a nurturing place for employees to learn the restaurant business and grow — sort of a pay-it-forward for all he learned under various chefs. Part of that is reflected in a new series called Bar Vetti + Friends, wherein guest chefs come in the second Monday of each month to do a sort of menu takeover.
The chef will take away four or five items from the regular Bar Vetti menu and replace them with original creations, with the aim to more or less fit the restaurant’s Italian focus.
The next Bar Vetti + Friends will feature Anthony Lamas of Seviche on Monday, May 14. Guests are scheduled from other cities as well, including Chicago, Cincinnati, Nashville and Washington, D.C.
The concept has been a big success, McCabe says, and part of the benefit is that Bar Vetti employees get to work with new chefs and learn even more while on the job.
As with all chefs and restaurateurs, the hours are long, but the results prove rewarding. Still, they don’t leave time for much else — like music or riding bikes. But McCabe does sing the praises of his girlfriend Lori, who comes into the restaurant with him every other Sunday to make pizza dough.
“She is incredibly supportive and so understanding of the hours and madness of opening a restaurant,” he says, also offering a shout-out to his cat, Tommy, which is blind and deaf. In fact, when the subject of Tommy arises, McCabe lights up almost as much as when he talks about food. (He even took Tommy to meet Santa Claus at Christmastime.)
“He’s kind of amazing, because he finds his way around just fine,” McCabe says. “He only turns left — it’s kind of like NASCAR. He works his way inward and eventually learns the room.”
Sounds about right for the theme. McCabe got help learning the ropes, he’s offering the same help to his co-workers, and even Tommy gets into game: “It’s super rewarding seeing someone learn and grow,” he says.