For chef Jonathan Searle, moving from 21c Louisville's Proof restaurant to Lockbox, the future Lexington 21c Museum Hotel's restaurant, will be something of a homecoming.
Lexington is where Searle learned to cook professionally, and even though he enjoyed Louisville, it never truly felt like home, he said.
Searle has moved back to town and has begun working on menus for Lockbox. The 100-seat restaurant will open shortly before the 21c Museum Hotel begins taking reservations early next year, said Sarah Robbins, senior vice president of operations.
In the meantime, Searle is reconnecting with farmers.
"I spent Saturday at the (Lexington Farmers) Market, catching up with some old friends ... and meeting some new guys who were talking my ears off about pork," Searle said in an interview last month. "We're going to be going into the winter when we open, so right now I'm just trying to find the best piece of beef, the best pork, all these things I can find around here. ... This is the fun part, getting to connect. These are the guys that are going to be in your kitchen every week dropping things off."
Searle remembers some purveyors, like Mark Henkle of Henkle's Heirlooms & Herbs, from his days cooking at places like Dudley's, Bellini's and Bourbon 'n' Toulouse a decade ago.
Back in those days, Searle was a college dropout from Ohio. After studying at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, he figured out theology wasn't the career for him, so he moved to Lexington and turned to cooking.
"Food is always connected to gatherings for me, from my childhood," Searle said. "My family are all firefighters ... . My dad was the firehouse cook for a while, and everything's about food with those guys."
Growing up, they didn't have much money but were always looking for great things to eat.
"I'm blessed that I got to grow up around real food," Searle said. "We'd go out with our dog and hunt 'sponge' mushrooms ... and pick asparagus growing on the side of the road."
Now he knows those were $40-a-pound morels they were sauteing in butter and one of the most sought-after spring vegetables they were eating on toast.
But that esthetic of using what's available will play out in his restaurant as well.
A lot of the meat and produce Lockbox will serve will come directly from Woodland Farm, Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown's operation outside Louisville where they raise bison, among other things.
Searle's menus will showcase "microseasonal" delicacies as they are available, he said. For that, he will need to rely on local farmers. Searle plans to build menus with items that can be a little bit flexible to incorporate a range of available fruits and vegetables.
There also will be some dishes that stay forever, that diners can count on, he said. Exactly what those will be, he doesn't know yet.
"The diner's going to dictate that," he said. "That's not for me to say."
At Proof in Louisville, for instance, the menu items diners apparently can't do without are the bison burger (of course) and (surprisingly) the charred octopus.
"We sell ... how many pounds of that a week?" Robbins asked.
"Too much," Searle said.
He remembers making order after order of it every night. "You get to the point where, honestly, you don't want to eat octopus."
"It's really the sauce," Robbins said. "You could put it on your shoe and be like, 'It's delicious!' Butter, garlic, fresh oregano."
Since moving back to Lexington, Searle also has been scouting the local restaurant scene, visiting County Club, Azur, Smithtown Seafood, National Provisions, Table 310 and his old friends at Bourbon 'n' Toulouse.
"It's exciting seeing all that. A couple of things were here when I was here and so many things have jumped up," Searle said. "I think there are really smart ideas coming out from some young people. Fresh thoughts. Restaurants that would stand up anywhere you put them."
The Lexington restaurant community has been very welcoming, he said.
"Not only old friends, but people I'm just meeting are being very embracing. Saying good luck and let's do something together. ... That's probably one of the most exciting things about getting into the community and starting cooking here."
Searle is eager to help other young people get into the culinary and hospitality world, too. Unlike a lot of chefs, he has no formal cooking school training, so he understands how crucial on-the-job mentoring can be.
"That nurturing aspect has always been a big part of (cooking) for me," he said. "This is not just knives, and food and techniques."