Chef Jonathan Searle, our Kick-Ass Kentuckian of the Month, is crushing it with Lockbox at Lexington's newly opened 21c hotel. Here's what to expect.
Chef Jonathan Searle has made a huge impact in recent weeks with the debut of Lockbox, the gorgeous new restaurant at Lexington's recently opened 21c Museum Hotel. Searle began his culinary career in Lexington—at the since-shuttered Bellini's and at Dudley's Restaurant—before accepting an executive sous chef position at Proof on Main in Louisville. He thought that move might eventually take him to Chicago or New York, he says, but after five years there learning from some of the top chefs in the business, he's ready to helm his own place and thrilled to call Lexington home.
How's the opening been so far?
It's been wonderful and people have been super welcoming. We'd hoped for good things, but we're doing more than we thought we'd be doing at this point, which is great.
How do you approach your menus?
My food is pretty stripped down—there's no smoke and mirrors. The menus will also change micro-seasonally; I like to say fluidly.
You may see a dish that has the same skeleton, but using different ingredients. For example asparagus is here for maybe three good weeks, so when that happens you'll see it all over the place and then it's gone. That's the fun part.
I think the biggest thing I've learned is just to trust the food. Cook it well; don't overthink it; don't overwork it; and just cook from the heart. It sounds romantic, but it's really true. You can kill food by thinking about it too much and making it too precious. Good food is good food.
Is that a reason why locally sourced ingredients factor heavily in your cooking?
The chefs I've worked with were all really conscious about things that have become more prevalent now, like farm-to-table cooking. Working around people who already believed in that, and seeing the farmers at the back door each day, it became part of my process from day one.
That's just the way we should be as chefs. It shouldn't be a label or a buzzword. If you want to do your best work, you should source the best products, which typically don't travel very far. It's also about supporting the hard-working people producing those products and stimulating the local economy. That's just as big as saying "I serve local food."
It's important to have a sense of humor about yourself and have fun with what you're doing. Eating is fun.
What I do is the most serious thing in my life, but it's also important to have a sense of humor about yourself and have fun with what you're doing. Eating is fun. Being out with people and communing with one another is fun. So the menus are built to be interactive and approachable—not taken so, so seriously.
How does it feel to be back in Lexington?
I love it. It feels better month-to-month, honestly. I've always loved this town.
I was talking with Will [Pieratt] and Kevin [Heathcoat], who own Bourbon n' Toulouse, recently and Kevin described Lexington as having this boomerang effect, which was very true for me. You might move somewhere else because that's what you need to do at the time but, as you get a little older and your views and lifestyle start to change, something draws you back. I think the quaintness here is incredibly charming. This is where I want to be.
Where'd you grow up?
I grew up in a small town in Central Ohio. It's a pretty rural area—a lot of hunting and good ol' boy stuff. I went to California after high school and spent the summer traveling around, but I was restless there. I came back and went to school at Kentucky Christian University in Eastern Kentucky, it's out by Grayson Lake about a half-hour from Ashland. I just loved the lay of the land there. We also spent a lot of time in Lexington. I was completely drawn to the culture here and had established a small community, so that's where I moved when the time came.
What attracted you to cooking?
There's always been a very food-centric culture in my family—food was at the center of most everything we did. Grandpa was a truck driver, but he'd have his Paul Prudhomme book out cooking all the time when he was home; a lot of Cajun and creole food. There were also these vegetable relish trays most every meal where he'd make fluted mushrooms and hand-carved radishes—all these crazy 1970s French-style garnishing techniques. My hunter-gatherer dad was also influential. I decided in my mid-20s that cooking is what I wanted to do.
You've obviously been very busy lately, but what do you like to do when you're not in the kitchen?
I can't wait to get back to Louisville and see what my chef friends have been doing there, and also to eat around Lexington a bit more. I want to get out to Local Feed [in Georgetown]. I've heard that place is great. I also like to buy records and listen to rock 'n' roll.
This is home now. This is the town for me, and I want to help Lockbox really become a part of the community. Right now the focus is on giving everyone the best experience we can and growing from there.
Lockbox is located at 167 W. Main St. in Lexington. Visit lockboxlex.com for more.