Culinary Mentor John Foster Returns to the Restaurant Biz with New Ashland Ave. Eatery
Chefs don’t often leave the restaurant business and return to it. They gJohet out because it’s physically demanding and rarely lucrative. When they leave, it’s usually for good.
Sure, some reminisce about the rapid-fire excitement of a busy Saturday night when all goes like clockwork. But only few allow those memories to become reality – chefs like John Foster.
Perhaps that’s because Foster’s departure from restaurants in 2006 was really just a sidestep to become a chef instructor at Sullivan University’s National Center for Hospitality.
“Since I was in the kitchen and was working with young chefs, technically I really didn’t get out of the business,” says Foster, sounding like a teen wiggling his way out of a curfew violation. “The truth is we just wanted back in, to do it while we’re young enough. Mostly young, anyway.”
Foster, who now chairs Sullivan’s culinary program, opened The Sage Rabbit (438 S. Ashland Ave.) last month with wife, Nance Everts, who was also his partner in Harvest, a groundbreaking farm-to-table restaurant they co-owned from 2003 until 2006. When they sold their interest in the restaurant (it closed six months later), their goal was to spend time with their young children, so both became teachers.
Now, however, with two employable teens in the house, the couple, both in their 50s, wants to re-enter the industry as a family, even revive some of what they started at Harvest.
“Once we were far enough removed from it all, we missed the fun,” Foster says, adding that Everts will manage the front of the house at Sage Rabbit. “And now that our boys are old enough to work with us, one will be cooking and the other will wash dishes.”
Foster’s vision for The Sage Rabbit is a simple chef-driven concept drawing on local sources and seasonal menus printed daily. Food and bar menus alike will morph to reflect local food supply.
“For me, it’s a return to my roots of cooking with very straightforward, clean flavors from the best-quality produce and proteins I can find,” Foster says. Sounding like the chef-instructor he is, he adds, “I use classic cooking methods to bring out the best attributes of food by letting the ingredients speak for themselves.”
He says to expect “a little bit of the chef’s edge and ego” to find its way into the food, but that’s what guests pay for: the professional’s inspiration writ flavorfully on the plate.
“But just some, because when you have too much of that ego, it overwhelms the food,” Foster says. “The key is to not cover up the food with five sauces and ingredients piled six inches high.”
Described by Foster as “not spacious,” the restaurant will seat 100 inside and about 35 on the patio. It will serve lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday. The arrangement will allow him to continue teaching at Sullivan in the morning and come to the restaurant after his classes end at 10 a.m.
“I’ve promised the school that if it ever becomes a question of whether I can do both, I’ll go with the restaurant,” he says.
John Foster’s impact on the Lexington culinary community extends back decades. From 1990 to 2000, he was the executive chef at Dudley’s Restaurant, where he changed the focus of the restaurant’s ingredient sourcing to local farms.
“He was instrumental in doing that 20 years ago, long before it was what everyone did,” says Dudley’s owner Debbie Long. “He was also a great teacher who produced as many young chefs as any chef in Lexington.”
Jeremy Ashby, chef and co-owner at Azur Restaurant & Patio, says peers in town call Foster’s students and charges “Foster’s kids, because he’s taught so many in this city. It’s impressive what he’s done in local restaurants and at the school.”
Foster left Dudley’s to become the corporate chef for Joseph-Beth Booksellers, which wanted to expand its Bronte Bistro concept. But he left the bookstore chain in 2001 to consult and consider his next project.
He and Everts opened Harvest in 2003, and it garnered rave reviews. But when their relationship with another co-owner deteriorated, the couple sold their shares in 2006 and returned to teaching.
Foster says initially they were glad to be out of the business “and enjoying normal hours like most people do.” And while he loved teaching new chefs, he also yearned to cook again in a real restaurant kitchen. He and Everts began pondering another restaurant, one they insisted they’d own by themselves.
“When I’m in there now training and working to get The Sage Rabbit going, I think, ‘Gosh, this is hard work!’” he says. “But when I’m doing it, I feel the same old energy I felt in the kitchen before.”
Ashby says he’s eager to visit Sage Rabbit, admitting he wants to see if they can pick up any tricks from Foster, especially when it comes to using local foods year round.
“John’s not stupid, he knows Kentucky doesn’t have full availability of all those goods year-round, except for meat and dairy,” Ashby says. “So trying to build a larder and keep it all seasonal is possible to an extent, but it’s a serious challenge.”
Ashby says his research of Foster’s restaurant will begin with fork and knife and follow with a deep study of his menu.
“I’m really interested in seeing how he prices the middle items,” Ashby says, referring to a menu’s non-premium priced options, portions that often have lean margins but are created to sell in high numbers. “But he’s so knowledgeable and talented that I expect to learn some things. I’m ready to eat there.”
Asked whether another farm-to-table restaurant might draw customers from places like hers, fellow farm-to-table restaurateur Ouita Michel, who cooked under Foster at Dudley’s as early as 1993, says no. But she does believe the addition of restaurants like The Sage Rabbit could eventually create shortfalls of local ingredients.
“When I first started doing this, local ingredients were everywhere, never any problems,” she says. “But you have so many chefs doing now what John is trying to do, and at some point, I think we’ll see shortages. … But really, that’s a good problem to have.”
And could local restaurateurs face a shortage of customers as Lexington’s restaurant boom continues? Long doesn’t think so, so long as fans of independent restaurants continue to support them as they are. Competition has grown exponentially since she opened Dudley’s 35 years ago, yet her restaurant has continued to thrive.
“It has gotten busier, but in a lot of ways, it’s gotten better as more restaurants have come in,” Long says. “And John’s a very talented chef. I’m sure he and Nance will do well. That’s good for all of us.” cc