This Kentucky chef operates three successful restaurants, including the new Mezzo in Midway. What does he crave when colder weather sets in? His mom's awesome butterscotch pie.
Chef Mark Wombles grew up in the country not far from his Heirloom and Mezzo Italian Café and Provisions restaurants in downtown Midway.
As a child, he remembers helping his mom tend to the family's huge garden; harvesting corn, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, carrots, herbs, potatoes, turnips … you name it, and they probably grew it.
"Literally everything we ate was from the garden," Wombles recalled recently, as we're sitting at a front table at Mezzo overlooking Midway's Main St. on a sunny fall afternoon.
But, when the leaves start to change and there's a cold nip in the air, Wombles memories are more likely to turn to his mom's homemade butterscotch pie.
"It's awesome," he says. "I would end up eating half a pie by myself late night from the fridge. She would always make it in the fall and around the holidays, especially for Thanksgiving. It's really simple, but a lot of the really simple stuff, if done correctly, is so good."
Wombles applies a similar well-executed simplicity to the food and atmosphere at Mezzo, which opened in March next door to the more upscale Heirloom restaurant. Heirloom has been a local favorite for a decade, while Distilled, Wombles' other fine-dining destination at Gratz Park Inn in Lexington, has been going strong since 2014.
"Mezzo is more of a happy casual place, and we keep it playful with the Italian theme," Wombles says. "Our pizza is awesome. Like seriously good. We keep it proper."
Chefs make every bit of the pizzas from scratch, like all of the food at Mezzo, and cook them at high heat in a large wood-fired oven that's the centerpiece of the open kitchen. A wide variety of Italian-themed salads, appetizers and entrees round out the lunch and dinner menus.
A Kentucky native, Wombles is a graduate of the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. He worked for James Beard-award winning chef Michael Mina at his flagship restaurant, Aqua, for several years before heading back east, where he cooked at the Maisonette in Cincinnati, as well as Jonathan at Gratz Park in Lexington and Bistro La Belle in Midway. All of which have since closed.
His father, Henry, noticed a commercial space for sale in Midway and suggested that his son open up his own spot. If you're a regular at Heirloom or Distilled, you've likely had the pleasure of meeting Henry at one time or another.
For as much time as Wombles spends at his three restaurants and for as much as he loves to cook, however, he and his young family typically eat out for most every dinner, he says. Mostly at casual places with the kids, but he and his wife like to try other upscale establishments, too. Which prompts the question, do people feel ripped off if they order a high-end entree and it's not fancy?
"I think people do feel more ripped off with food than anything, if it's not done correctly," Wombles says. "That's why we have so much stress on us as chefs and as restaurateurs, in general. Dining out, especially at a nicer restaurant, is a special event and people want it to be perfect, and we go to great lengths to make it perfect."
Even with something as seemingly simple as a butterscotch pie.
Mark's Mom's Butterscotch Pie
1 cup light brown sugar, packed
2 cups milk
4 T. cornstarch or flour
3 egg yolks
1 tsp. vanilla
4 T. butter
Mix all the dry ingredients together. Pour a splash of milk into dry ingredients and stir. Add beaten egg yolks and butter. Heat remaining milk to scalding. Pour over other ingredients and cook until thick.
3 egg whites
Dash of salt
1 tsp. vanilla
¼ tsp. cream of tartar
6 T. sugar
Bring egg whites to room temperature. Add vanilla, cream of tartar and a dash of salt. Beat to soft peaks. Gradually add sugar until stiff. Pour filling into pre-baked piecrust and top with meringue. Bake at 275 degrees until golden brown.
Photography by Savanna Barnett
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