Southern eatery offers new challenges for the Martinez restaurant family

Chef Fernando Martinez knew he’d be challenging himself by delving into Southern cuisine with his latest restaurant Red Barn Kitchen, but he wasn’t quite as prepared for the challenge of renovating the former Joe’s Older Than Dirt space.

“The property was in really bad shape,” he said. “We had to take the kitchen down to the studs. …Now, it’s a dream kitchen.”

Olé Restaurant Group, which Martinez runs with his wife Christina Martinez and cousin Yaniel Martinez, hasn’t built out a restaurant from scratch before, Fernando Martinez said, calling it the “most stressful project.” He declined to say how much the company invested in Red Barn Kitchen.

Now, most of the renovation is behind them. The indoor chairs and tables are set up; the walls are painted; the decor is in place; new lighting was installed; and the kitchen was completely redone. Workers are still organizing the outside patio, installing some equipment and making final touches.

Martinez said they wanted to keep the “spirit of Joe’s” and the barn look of the building but clean it up and bring it up to code. Red Barn Kitchen will seat about 450 people, and 150 to 180 of those will be inside. Still, the arrangement feels spacious, not crowded.

Red Barn Kitchen will open July 18. It will start with dinner only, operating from 4:30 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The restaurant later will add lunch hours and then weekend brunch. It also will feature live bluegrass and country music regularly.

Olé Restaurant Group tapped Reed Johnson to be executive chef at Red Barn Kitchen. Johnson grew up barbecuing mutton and pork in western Kentucky with his family. He previously worked as sous chef at Wiltshire Pantry Catering and executive chef at Against the Grain Brewery & Smokehouse.

Barbecue developed in poor regions where certain types or cuts of meat were cheap — at least at one time, Reed said. In western Kentucky, mutton is the cheap meat, and in Texas, beef is easily accessible. Kansas City barbecue ribs were created because no one used to want pigs’ ribs, so the slaughterhouses there gave the ribs to their workers, he said.

“The best food cultures in the world come from peasants,” Martinez added.

Johnson and Martinez said the menu of 20 to 25 items is a true collaboration of the two chefs. They’d meet and cook in the former Cena kitchen below Olé Restaurant Group’s Mussel & Burger Bar in Jeffersontown, concocting two to three pages worth of recipes and then narrowing it.

“(Martinez) knows what he wants,” said Rick Moir, general manager at Olé Restaurant Group. “Reed’s been the same way.”

Menu items include shrimp and grits, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese topped with fried cheese curds, a country ham pork chop, barbecue pork, corn and tomato relish, ribs and a BLT with pimento cheese and fried green tomatoes. Average ticket prices will range from $15 to $25 a person.

The menu is a la carte, and while people can share menu items, Red Barn Kitchen will eventually introduce an offering called “Feed Me Chef,” a mixture of dishes that can feed four to 10 people depending on the size.

The bar also will have 26 craft beers, with plans to add another 30 in the future, as well as Budweiser and other national brews.

Red Barn Kitchen is Martinez’s first Southern cuisine restaurant, but it’s not unusual for the Cuban-born chef to cook food from a variety of cultures. Olé Restaurant Group also owns and operates Artesano Vino Tapas Y Mas, Guaca Mole Cocina Mexicana, Mercato Italiano and El Taco Luchador. The restaurants range from Mexican and Spanish to Italian and burgers.

Martinez said he never wanted to only cook Cuban food.

“Where’s the challenge in that?” he said. “I challenged myself to study cuisine in general, whether it was Southern or South American or French food or Italian. …I’m always experimenting.”