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Mark Williams, Executive Chef, Brown-Forman, Interview 2006

On March 8, 2006, I interviewed Mark Williams, Executive Chef at Brown-Forman in Louisville, to learn more about Slow Food Bluegrass, the new slow food "convivium" (association) for our region. Mark is the key organizer for the new convivium. RR: Tell me a little bit about yourself and your own journey to slow food. [I was asking about the concepts behind slow food, not the Slow Food movement or organization.]

MW: I am an army brat, born in 1959. You don't really have a home town ' in a way you're born homeless and you stay that way. I was actually born overseas, but we were stationed in the south only. My dad from is from North Carolina and my mother is from Tennessee. We lived in places like Texas, Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee. So the sense of place that I have is from a region.

My great-grandmother ran a café in Memphis. That was old, southern style cooking.

My mother was a Home Ec major in Mississippi. At the time that meant lots of convenience food for us five kids. That's a lot of what I grew up eating.

I spent summers with my grandfather on a cattle farm. My dad's family lived in Asheville, North Carolina. His parents were mountain people. Grandmother came from Scotland; she was a highlander. She lived on very small farm. She did a lot of her own gardening and farming. She had horses and chickens. She didn't have electrical appliances. She heated her home with woodstove.

So I guess I got that restaurant grease in my blood from my great-grandmother. I started working in restaurants in high school, doing after school jobs.

I started in an Italian deli in Atlanta, downtown. That was my first job. It was very interesting. Those were different tastes, things I'd never had. I liked learning about that.

I was in the music industry as an agent in the era of B52s, REM. I ended up being in that industry. I was hired to run a rock-and-roll theatre in Georgia. It closed, and then I was stuck in that small town.

There was restaurant in that town, in a mill. I ended up being a cook, then head cook. I was kind of learning about wines and spirits a little bit. I was watching TV and had found a bottle of French Rosé, and Three Musketeers was on, that old black-and-white movie. In one part there was meat on a spit, going around ' no appliances. That just appealed to me. I realized if I ever opened a restaurant, that image, that approach would appeal to me, a tavern.

I did a formal apprenticeship with the American Culinary Federation at ____ Athletic Club. There was a German chef. Contintental cuisine was still the rage. Chefs weren't glamorous then. Chefs weren't respected yet.

What was considered nice was mostly imported. If it came from overseas it was considered fancy and fine.

I went to work for Buckhead Life Group, a famous restaurant group in Atlanta. They were into these unusual varieties of fish, meats, and vegetables. Lots of their foods were coming from local suppliers in Georgia.

So I learned how to cook food from continental cuisine, but then I learned there's another world of food. Tastes were changing. People were interested in heirloom types of produce.

I was sent to California and visited Beringer Vineyards and Mondavi Vineyards, and I really started to learn about wine. I went back to Georgia and quit, and then went back to California. I thought, 'This is the place for me!'

I got a job as sous-chef at Beringer vineyards. I worked under Madeleine Kamman, of the show 'Cooking with Madeleine.' She also wrote Dinner Against the Clock and When French Women Cook: A Gastronomic Memoir. She was very friendly and grandmotherly on TV but fiery in person. She is the world's living expert on traditional foods of the Savoie region of France. She is from a restaurant and farming family.

We had a great herb garden. I was getting closer and closer to the source of the food.

I became closer to Napa farmers, too. There was a whole intense world there. I learned about that style of farming ' organic, and just plant a little extra for the bugs and deer ' always with interesting lettuces and veggies.

The whole Napa food community was a little ahead of other places. That connection with local ingredients and food was where I got a good foundation.

I started a catering company there and catered for Coppola. I ended up working at Skywalker ranch for George Lucas. We had our own organic garden there. We used a lot of local products.

Everyone had worked for Alice Waters except me. Everyone had this intense connection with local and organic foods.

I decided to move away from CA for economic reasons. I did a lot of research on the best places to move. Lexington, Kentucky came up at the top. I also wanted to be in places where there were four seasons. I knew there would be a good quality of life. I had actually lived in Louisville during high school while my dad went to Seminary.

I moved to Lexington and went to work at Boone Tavern in Berea. I got to use a lot of southern cooking, but also I learned a lot of new things about mountain cuisine

Country ham ' that was new to me. Garlic Cheese Grits (not white grits!) They are distinctive. The way people forage for foods here ' mushrooms, ramps. That's a food culture. I thought KY had a very unique traditional cuisine, to be celebrated; it is noteworthy.

Then I became chef at Centre College. I met my wife in Danville. We took a year off and went to South Africa. I guess we had millennium fever. We bought a one way ticket around the world ' that seemed like the way to do it.

On the way back we stopped in New Zealand and Switzerland. I learned about so many different food products and ideas. The quality of international products ' I was getting ideas.

In New Zealand I worked for the America's Cup races, and also worked on the set of Zena American Princess to get money to keep traveling. We kept on going around the world and it just seemed like in every place I kept seeing Jack Daniels ' in New Zealand, in South Africa, in Switzerland.

I was really at a point of wondering what I was doing back in Kentucky. I was struck by the idea of working for the company that had produced Jack. I thought I'd do with bourbon and food what I'd been doing with wine and food in California.

I was here before Woodford Reserve. I kept pestering them about work. They finally offered me a job ' conducting tours! The only other thing that happened with working in the bourbon industry was that I got an offer from a barrel making facility down in Lebanon ' they offered me a job as a bung hole reamer.

Chef John Ash for Fetzer came to sign copies of his book at the Frankfort book fair. I knew him, and Fetzer had been bought by Brown Forman. He encouraged me to get to know Brown-Forman.

There was an event for Julia Child at Woodford Reserve. I walked in on David Larsen one day and told him I wanted to be part of it. I got my toe in the door.

I've been here five years now. I do lots of experimenting with bourbon and other products. There's history and tradition, and there's innovation as well.

Lexington is one of the top chain restaurant cities, you know. There's Fazoli's and the Yum Brands restaurants and ... [mutual sighs... ]

RR: So how did you get interested in Slow Food with capital letters, the international movement?

MW: It started with reading different magazines. Three years ago I went on vacation back to Napa. I was showing my wife Coppola's winery, which used to be Inglenook. We were in the gift store. My wife bought a packet of rare seeds. I saw Carlo Petrini's book on Slow Food. We purchased them and walked out and saw Coppola and Eleanor in sun. He asked about that package and I showed him the seeds and book. I told him some about Kentucky. He started telling me about the Slow Food organization. He was interested in the 'moonshine,' as he called it.

Slow Food seems to be about savoring food and protecting the context that produces food, both the physical context and the cultural context.

RR: How do you think Slow Food fits in Kentucky (a KFC state)?

MW: I think this is a great place for slow food. It's more than food; it's a movement. With Slow Food you take something away with you when you read the books, become involved in events, and you get the philosophy. It's such a broad movement, and you can be anything from conservative to ultra-liberal. It started with a group of friends trying to preserve family ties around the table.

A traditional place like Kentucky can be thought of as branch of the mainstream. Slow food is an addition to the way of life here, not an exception.

You have to be careful that people don't think you're like PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] -- although Slow Food did begin with stopping McDonald's from being built in Rome. I have to be careful to let people know we want it to be open to all the community.

Slow Food Bluegrass is covering a broad region. In a lot of places you'll have about a 20 mile radius. Like Slow Food Atlanta. We are such a large region that I'd like to have lots of mini-conviviums. That will make it easier to have conversations and encourage people to work with local farmers.

I am really interested in Slow Food in schools. We have these contract feeders, these big corporations providing most of what children eat. Nutrition is not even given that much consideration.

We have serious health issues. We need to start getting people to think about what they are eating, where it comes from, and the real cost of food. The small farms. They are in a bad place now, but I see the future. More and more people will demand good quality healthy food for their families, and I think the market for organic food has taken off in the US. But right now people just have to kind of hang in there. I want to do whatever I can to help the small farmer survive.

I see my role as a group leader as going after the food education aspect of it, letting people know, the farmers/and producers out there, working closely with the _________?

RR: Whom does Slow Food Bluegrass intend to serve? Who should join?

MW: Everyone!

Let me tell you who the founding members are:

· Lois Mateus, Senior Vice President at Brown-Forman, who is an organic cattle farmer ' and there's going to be a Grassfed Beef Festival in Harrodsburg in June.

· Steve Wilson, who is founder and president of KY Bison Company. He is a partner in 21 C Hotel and Proof Restaurant.

· Drew Mirpont, Myriad Restaurant group in NYC, and also behind _______________

· David Larsen, who cooks for Woodford Reserve

· Bill Best ' He's Mr. Tomato! He is founder of the Sustainable Mountain Agricultural Center. He specializes in heirloom beans and tomatoes, and certainly knows more about them than anyone. He received the Keeper of the Flame award from Southern Foodways and is featured in their documentary, 'Seed Saver.'

We have 35 members now. It's new; we just started in January.

What attracts people to slow food is the whole quality thing, that they are interested in really good food and wine, and a lifestyle that is less hectic and frantic. And more... I always think about that John Prine song about planting a little garden and eating a lot of peaches.

Slow Food supports the Slow Food in Schools programs. There's the RAFT, rescuing the endangered foods of America. In Kentucky we have great foods like county ham and single source bourbons.

Slow Food membership includes the publications, the international one that comes three times a year and Snail that comes four times a year from Slow Foods USA;

I want a lot of people to take part in events, to be at events, to help plan them. There are over four million people in KY; so far we have 35 members. I'd like to see us grow by 100 people per year.

I want us to grow in communities so people in Lexington and other areas don't feel left out. We'll get it set up and work with different groups in different areas.

There is a symposium in Berea on April 21 and 22 for earth day, and we'll have an info booth. We may even get an opportunity to talk about the organization. Also on April 22 we will be doing cooking demonstration in Louisville at Louisville Stoneware. Slow Food and Earth Day International work together. Bill Best will be at that event.

I want to work with Boniface Catholic Church in inner city Louisville. They have a program for at-risk kids. I want to try to work slow food in that school's model program.

I will be at the Farmers Market downtown in Lexington on April 15. I'll be doing cooking demonstrations with a Lexington chef.

I want to work with Ouita Michel at Holly Hill Inn on a Southern Bread Symposium. She wants to make it free.

We will do at least six events a year. They will include food education, fund raisers, and open events. Our events won't be of the type where you have to decide whether to travel and spend money.

We're working on a Kentucky traditional candy making class at Ruth Hunt. We will do farm visits ' producer visits. We're working on getting permission to use a mini-bus to go on road trips to get around in.

It's kind of a spread out region. I would love to go to Bloomington, Indiana to visit a Slow Food restaurant there, and visit the Tibetan Center and Peace Garden.

I see our convivium as being family friendly, aimed a great deal at getting to know people. We will have a lot of good community kinds of get-togethers.

It will be a good place for people from other areas who want to connect with people who have more of an international outlook, as well as the local people seeking things other than fast food. Maybe people are going to want to connect with the farmers themselves.

RR: It all sounds so delicious, Mark. How do people join Slow Food Bluegrass?

MW: The easiest way is to go to www.slowfood.com and click on the 'How to Join' link, and follow the instructions. It costs $60/year, and there are lots of benefits. We want people from our area to choose Slow Food Bluegrass as their convivium.

RR: Thank you!

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