Olé Restaurant Group, a multi-concept Latin-inspired restaurant company, will step away from its own ethnic roots to open a barbecue-centric Southern restaurant in Louisville in February 2016. When that happens, not only will the restaurant will be the group’s fifth concept and sixth unit, a rumored seventh restaurant is in the works.
For months principal owners Fernando, Christina and Yaniel Martinez succeeded in keeping the lid on plans for what will be named Red Barn Kitchen (RBK). But when it was leaked on Facebook Sunday that Reed Johnson, sous chef at Wiltshire Pantry Catering, would be its new chef, the secret was out.
And that still isn’t the whole story since Fernando Martinez cannot reveal RBK’s location. So far, the lips of those in the know are sealed because the location will be in a restaurant that’s still in business.
“We don’t want to do anything at all that would harm their business by saying we’re going there,” said Fernando Martinez. “They still have a lot of customers, so it’s not as though there are any problems there.”
As for the rumored seventh restaurant?
“I’d prefer not to talk about that now,” Martinez said. “We can talk about Red Barn.”
As the story goes, Martinez, like many Louisvillians, recognized the need for more and better local barbecue options. And as he began planning a menu, he learned of Johnson’s passion for smoked meats and whole hog barbecue. The men met and discussed their shared interests, and before long the pair deepened the discussion with the basic idea for RBK.
“There will be a big barbecue influence, but we also want it to be a Southern-style place with classic southern dishes like meatloaf and fried chicken — but with our twists,” Martinez said. One example would be duck confit and waffles garnished with a fried duck egg and maple syrup. Another will be a barbecue-influenced shrimp and grits. “We always like to take things and make them ours.”
Martinez, who just finished a Sunday taping of chef Michael Symon’s “Burgers, Brews & ‘Que” show, said he likes a few of Louisville’s barbecue spots, but he said it’s rare that any make national “best of” lists. He said he hears both chefs and diners wishing there were more barbecue choices, so he sees an opening.
“We play to people’s passions and we work in our take on it,” he said. Yet that doesn’t mean he and Johnson will ignore the foundations of barbecue in the process.
“I’m not a barbecue expert, so that’s where Reed comes in,” he said. “And we’re planning to travel to North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and other places to try the best barbecue in the country.”
Johnson, who will remain at Wiltshire Pantry until Sept. 23, said while it is “an incredible honor” to be asked to join ORG, he called Wiltshire owner Susan Hershberg “one of the best employers I’ve ever worked for.”
During his time at Wiltshire he’s polished his craft over the coals doing barbecue caterings and competing in certified Kansas City Barbecue Society competitions.
“I’m really excited that Fernando is really passionate about whole hog barbecue, but we have to work out how we’ll do that with everything else,” said Johnson, a native of Madisonville, Ky. “The goal is to open a great Southern joint with things like fried chicken and sliced-to-order country ham plates. We’re planning on a desert counter in the front where you can buy whole pies and cakes.”
Taking care not to discuss the location, Johnson did say they may face a challenge squeezing large smokers into the existing space.
“There’s still so much to look into, but we may have to build a smokehouse outside,” he said. Johnson also said he and the Martinezes are examining multiple smoker types for RBK, “but the truth is I like running on old traditional stick burners to get the bark I like. The problem is you need something with a good thermostat to run 24-7 to be foolproof and to be able to leave the restaurant at least some of the time.”
Johnson said he’s a fan of fruitwoods and shagbark hickory, but that his trip with Martinez will likely influence the final wood choices.
“It probably will be a mix of fruitwood and hickory since we can get those here,” he said. “And I’d love to source old bourbon barrel staves because of the flavor they impart. But those are much harder to come by.”
Given that Martinez crew is busy preparing to open up Artesano Tapas Vino y Mas and a second Mussel & Burger Bar in October, he’s not expecting his wife, Christina and operating partner Rick Moir, to produce a bar menu just yet for Red Barn.
“Since we’re in Kentucky, you can expect a lot of bourbon cocktails for sure,” he said. “But just like with Reed, I like to find skilled, passionate people and let them do their thing. I’m sure whatever they come up with is going to be great.”