When Debbie Long moved her iconic restaurant from Dudley Square to Short Street five years ago, she changed the name to Dudley's on Short. But aside from spiffy new digs in a new neighborhood, not much else changed.
Customers adjusted seamlessly, eased by the familiarity of the food.
Now, Lexington's culinary scene is exploding, and Dudley's is about to add fuel to the fire: Long has hired a new chef, Mark Richardson, straight from The Carlyle in New York.
Long estimates that at least 25 local restaurants or bars have opened in Lexington in the past five years, increasing competition for patrons and servers alike, and even established eateries are looking for ways to stay competitive.
When executive chef Eric Fowler left in February, Long decided to try something different. For most of the restaurant's 34 years, she had promoted from within.
"I thought this may be an opportunity to bring something new and fresh in, from outside of Lexington," Long said. "That's when the search began. It took longer that I thought, ... but sometimes you wait and you get what you hope for. And Mark is what we hoped for."
Richardson will revamp the menu, but longtime Dudley's fans don't need to worry, Long said.
"What I loved about Mark is that he's from Kentucky and so he understands the tradition," she said. "One thing he said to me that really sold me was, 'Don't turn your back on the tradition that got you there.' I loved that. A lot of people coming in from the outside would want to change everything."
Richardson, 41, a Pikeville native, sums up his philosophy this way: "It's about paying respect to the past: the past chefs and cooks that have been here and the great place that Debbie has built. It would be a disservice if we came in and wiped everything clean. ... They built a great place for me to come in and build on that."
Richardson grew up watching his mother, Margaret Chapman, and grandmother Nancy Slone cook family dinner staples: pot roast, fried chicken and biscuits. He went to Pennsylvania Culinary Institute in Pittsburgh, then he came to Lexington to work at Emmett's under chef Ouita Michel.
"I think she's fantastic," he said.
After that, he worked for 14 years at Four Seasons in Scottsdale, Ariz.; Chicago; Boston; and San Francisco, where he was executive chef for almost seven years. Most recently, he was executive chef at The Carlyle.
"New York is the food capital of the world, I think, but San Francisco is on its heels. I think Chicago is there, but Chicago is more the 'innovative' place," Richardson said. "But San Francisco is a food lover's paradise, from the farmers market to any restaurant you could walk into on the street. ... Everyone who lives in San Francisco's spoiled. There I was using heirloom tomatoes until probably the end of October. ... It's a magical place."
Now he has come home to Kentucky.
"I wanted a little more," Richardson said. He had been thinking about his next move and was considering opening his own place, when Long, a friend of his sister, Heather Davey, called him.
"I want to make an impact," he said. "Not only cooking, but in a city like Lexington, where it is such an up-and-coming great food town. I really believe that."
He has scouted Lexington Farmers Market, which is right across the street on Saturdays, meeting local growers and finding out what is available.
"People ask, 'Why Lexington?' ... Well, a lot of reasons," Richardson said. "I think just the food scene itself in Lexington is getting ready to catch fire and explode. And I want to be part of that, that founding group that really puts Lexington on the map.
"I wanted to come somewhere where I could do that and still be creative and have fun."
Richardson loves to cook everything. He has been buying what catches his eye at the farmers market.
"One week it was Swiss chard, rainbow Swiss chard, that was absolutely perfect," Richardson. Another it was local honey.
What does he hate to eat? Mayonnaise.
"I have since I was a child. I was tortured with it by my sister, who snuck up behind me and gave me a pie of it in the face," he said.
His "Death Row" meal?
"Pasta and meatballs."
"My significant other is 100 percent Italian from Brooklyn, and every Sunday is pasta day," he said. "It goes back to more of that memory, creating memories, and the love of everyone gathered around, eating and drinking and talking. Being together."
The other thing that brought him to Lexington: his 3-month-old son, Luca.
"I wanted him to grow up around family," said Richardson, whose sister lives in Lexington. Now he and Luca's mother, Victoria Cataldo, are looking for a neighborhood to settle down in.
"I want him to have those big Sunday dinners, too," Richardson said. "That's where my passion for food comes from is my mother and my grandmother cooking on Sundays, and the memories that created around the food. And the love around the table."
At Dudley's, he is slowly reworking the menu, although menu favorites will remain.
He is still looking for his signature dish.
"Right now I'm looking for local people to bring me some items," he said. "We've got a great local guy looking for some heritage hogs. I want to get in a whole hog, and we're going to utilize everything. I've got another guy looking for a whole lamb as well. As chefs, the whole idea is to go back to whole products and utilize them as much as possible. ... I want to make sure we're supporting our local farmers and utilizing whole animals."
And he wants people to try new food.
"It goes back to creating memories as well. I want people to say, 'Remember that last time at Dudley's, we had that pickled pig skin?'" he said.
Is that a real thing that he plans to fix?
"I have made it before," he said. "It's delicious."