7 Questions With … Chef John Varanese, who celebrates 10 years of his Clifton mainstay

John Varanese opened the Clifton restaurant in 2007. | Courtesy of Varanese

Surviving a decade in the competitive Louisville restaurant scene is no easy feat — just ask the many who have tried and failed over the years. John Varanese opened the Clifton mainstay Varanese in 2007, and this month, he celebrates 10 years of culinary success with two special events.

Known for its creative menu, innovative cocktails, monthly wine dinners and live in-house jazz music, Varanese recently was voted Best Restaurant in Clifton/Crescent Hill by Louisville Magazine readers and also took home the top entrée award at last weekend’s Taste of Frankfort Avenue.

Varanese features creative dishes like diver scallops. | Courtesy of Varanese

On Sunday, Aug. 20, the restaurant will celebrate its 10th anniversary from 5-11 p.m. by hosting live music by Jeff Sherman’s four-piece jazz band and guest vocalist Gail Wynters and offering half-price bottles of wine and appetizers, free cake and a champagne toast at 9 p.m.

This event is free and open to all.

And then on Tuesday, Aug. 22, the chef will host a five-course Retrospective Dinner that’ll feature his favorite menu items from the past decade, like curried lamb empanadas, shrimp ceviche and grilled marinated prime rib.

Varanese will talk about his successes and challenges to running a restaurant and provide some insight on what it takes to run three eateries at once. (Varanese also opened River House Restaurant and Levee at River House in 2016.)

This event is $40 and begins at 7 p.m.

Insider reached out to Varanese to find out what the secret is to his success. He says it’s fairly easy — to always move forward. Whether that’s looking into remodeling the restaurant or kitchen space, or redoing the garden or planning a new event, there’s always something that can be improved.

“Every day I always try to get better at every level, because if you aren’t moving forward, you’re going backwards,” he says.

Varanese has been surprised that so many concepts can thrive in Louisville, and he likes that we diners are so adventurous. “But if you don’t keep your knife sharpened, it can be a short run at it for many,” he adds.

The Varanese team includes Erik Abraham, John and Callie Critchelow | Courtesy of Varanese

In another 10 years, the chef sees himself continuing to develop a devoted team who will carry on his vision — and in fact, his team is key to keeping up the restaurant’s quality and traditions. Both executive chef Erik Abraham and general manager David Allen have been with Varanese from the beginning.

At the end of the day, it’s customer satisfaction that Varanese is most proud of. His favorite part of running three successful restaurants is “knowing you have put something together that is great and people want to come and enjoy that experience time and time again,” he says.

Before he cuts into the 10-year anniversary cake, we asked Varanese a couple more very important questions …

What’s the most surprising thing on your Bucket List?

The chef feels the need — the need for speed!

Until a few years ago, it was helicopter skiing, now it’s flying in the back seat of a fighter jet. I’m definitely a thrill seeker — maybe because I already get to play with fire and knives on a daily basis.

What poster was on your wall in junior high?

I didn’t really have any. I shared a bedroom with two bothers and never spent much time around the house. I was already cooking in an Italian restaurant at the age of 13, and I played sports all year round.

If you were mayor, to whom would you give the key to the city?

My parents. I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without their discipline and support throughout the years.

What are your preferred pizza toppings?

House-cured, thick-cut pepperoncini, fennel sausage and wild mushrooms.

If you could be any age for a week, what would it be?

Age 24. That was probably the height of my physical ability. Only catch, I would want the financial well-being I hope to have 10 years from now, so I could enjoy everything I have sacrificed to follow my dream and develop my career.

Watch out, John, Mario can cook.

What famous person do people say you resemble the most?

Mario Lopez … at least when I was younger.

Who would you most like to be stuck with in an elevator?

This one stumped me. I spent more than 20 minutes thinking about it, and then it lost my attention.