This article appears in the August 2011 issue of LouisvilleMagazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.
It’s a bit odd seeing Finbar Kinsella take in a restaurant lunch on a weekday, given that he’s spent the last 18 years as lunch chef at Lilly’s: A Kentucky Bistro. Enjoying his first vacation in more than a year, Kinsella declares happily, “I’m going to have a damn beer, please,” when a Blue Dog Bakery server requests his beverage order. His easy laugh, T-shirt and shorts subtly punctuate his second declaration: “Today we relax, because in a few days, that will all change.”
Just three days before, in late June, Kinsella left Lilly’s to become chef-manager at St. Joseph’s Children’s Home in Crescent Hill. At 48, he had wrestled with the proverbial midlife “What’s next?” question for several years and shared that angst with close friends. He’d once considered opening his own restaurant — until becoming a father 12 years ago — and even he admits cooking at an orphanage had never been an option. “I wasn’t keen to leave Lilly’s, but I couldn’t get past the question of, ‘Do I need to be doing something else?’” says Kinsella, the vestiges of his Irish accent still noticeable after 25 years in the United States. He pauses tactfully to swallow a bite of prosciutto sandwich and resumes. “I couldn’t initially get my head around the idea of working at St. Joe’s, yet when I told others about it, they all thought it was a good idea,” he says. “The bad thing about me is, given enough time, I can talk myself out of anything.”
But this time he didn’t. In the final week of June, Kinsella began what he expects will be a comparably calmer culinary career at the 126-year-old orphanage. Doubtless, feeding at least 140 children daily comes with its own unique stresses, but he knows the days of customer demands for sit-down dinners for 60 — with 48-hours notice — are gone. He’s done with the 80-hour grind that is each Derby Week. And if he sticks to his commitment of walking to work — St. Joseph’s is less than two blocks from his Crescent Hill home — he’ll save more than $100 in gas each month.
And yet despite these obvious benefits, Kinsella will miss the sheer craziness and ludicrous demands of the restaurant industry, a workplace that has held his interest nearly 30 years. “What’s just absurd and hysterical about working in great restaurants is, amid all the chaos, pandemonium and swearing, you see these incredible creations being presented on china for customers — that’s still exciting to me,” Kinsella says. “I’m gonna miss that, the absurdity of the whole thing. The Food Network makes the business look glamorous, but if people knew of the chaos of the kitchen, it would scare them half to death.”
The notion that Kinsella might cook at St.
Joseph’s bubbled up after his wife, Kathy Schmitt, owner of Crescent Hill Trading Co., learned during a meeting of area business owners that the orphanage was searching for a chef to take over its food-service program. She knew Kinsella’s nurturing parenting style played a role in their 12-year-old son, Ronan, eating food such as risotto with truffle oil, steamed broccoli and fried oysters during his toddler years, and she figured such skills could be useful at St. Joseph’s.
Kinsella admits he had interviewed for a few other jobs during his Lilly’s tenure — but only to, he says, “stay in the game. I was truly never serious.” Yet his early May meeting with Jim Gratton, St. Joseph’s operations director, was different. Having interviewed several candidates with previous work in institutional food service, Gratton was taken aback, then intrigued, by the lone application submitted by a fine-dining chef. “At first I did wonder why someone with his experience was applying here,” Gratton says. But as the two men discussed St. Joseph’s aims to increase the quality and freshness of its food by drawing on local providers — and how Kinsella might help achieve those — they hit it off and scheduled an official interview a week later. After Kinsella spoke with St. Joseph’s leadership team, Gratton says, “They all looked at me and said, ‘You saved the best interview for last.’”
Once hired, Gratton took Kinsella to meet some of the 40 children living on campus. (Those 40 eat three meals every day, while more than 100 others attend the St. Joseph’s child development center Monday through Friday and receive breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack.) “When I introduced him as the new chef, one of the girls asked if he could make Brussels sprouts. I honestly thought that was a weird thing to ask for, but Finbar quickly said, ‘Yes I can, and you’ll love them.’”
Hiring Kinsella and dismissing the contractor formerly in charge of its food service will save the orphanage $80,000. Neither Kinsella’s work schedule nor his salary will change, but he says he’ll enjoy improved insurance benefits along with what he cites as the largest advantage: the new challenge of cooking for so many children.
“For the 40 residents, this is their home, so my hope is to cook food for them that will be as tasty as they might get if they were in their own homes,” says Kinsella, whose staff includes four assistants. Acknowledging that St. Joseph’s menus won’t include the pricey-precious ingredients he’s used to working with, he adds, “But that’s not the point. Sure, I’ll miss working with foie gras and beautiful fish, but those are extravagances for restaurants, for special occasions. The job here is to cook fresh, wholesome food, nourishing food.”
Kinsella moved to Louisville in 1986, trailing an American girlfriend he met in his native Dublin, Ireland. Armed with a culinary degree from the City and Guilds Institute of London, he worked at a small bar that his girlfriend’s parents owned on Broadway near Fifth Street. Her parents even helped Kinsella get a kitchen job at prestigious Vincenzo’s Italian Restaurant when his relationship with their daughter dissolved a year later.
During his three years at Vincenzo’s, romance bloomed anew with a server named Kathy Schmitt. When the couple later planned a traditional church wedding, they never expected they’d be forced to twice deliver their “I dos.” In 1989, though, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service learned Kinsella was working illegally, a tip he suspects it received from a co-worker. Kinsella’s multiple attempts to obtain a green card had failed, he says, forcing him to seek employment below the government’s radar. Schmitt remembers hearing the news. “Paula (Fischer) called me from Vincenzo’s, saying, ‘They gotta Feen-bah, they gotta Feen-bah!’” she recalls, chuckling at her re-creation of the Italian manager’s accent. When Schmitt arrived at Vincenzo’s, where Kinsella was being held, an INS agent told her, “We’re not going to do all the paperwork tonight, but you need to promise you’ll be at my office at 9 a.m. tomorrow.”
Luckily, Schmitt’s mother knew an immigration attorney, who advised Schmitt and Kinsella to marry that evening. A hastily arranged courthouse wedding followed, with her parents, a sister and a brother-in-law on hand as witnesses. Now married to a U.S. citizen, the heat was off Kinsella when he arrived the next morning at the INS office. “When we told them we were married, they realized they’d been pipped at the post — which means, essentially, ‘We almost got you but didn’t!’” says Kinsella, his accent suddenly vivid upon using the old Irish saying. His lawyer convinced the INS to grant him a temporary resident’s card, and the couple celebrated their planned church marriage five days later, knowing they had dodged a bullet.
Kinsella left Vincenzo’s to cook at Equus for chef-owner Dean Corbett, then a rising star on Louisville’s culinary scene. Corbett recalls the time as the most fun he has ever had in a kitchen. “Bill Doty (another cook) was hysterical on his own, and then you put that nutty Irishman in there and you’re laughing all day long,” Corbett says. “Hiring Finbar marked the first time I thought, ‘I’ve finally found someone ruder than me.’ He’s so smart and has such a sharp wit. And he’s the first person to ever call me ‘a bleedin’ eejit.’” Corbett, who wasn’t formally trained, says Kinsella also taught him classical cooking techniques. “Finbar knew so much more about the technical aspects because of his schooling,” he says. “His knife skills are off the charts, and he taught me so much about the way soups and sauces are supposed to be made, things customers don’t always recognize.”
By 1993, Kinsella had caught the attention of Lilly’s chef-owner Kathy Cary, who persuaded him to take over her lunch service. Not only did he master the challenge of serving an average of 50 customers daily, mostly by himself; he removed the responsibilities of ordering and inventory from Cary’s shoulders. Duncan Paynter cooked alongside Kinsella at Lilly’s and says Cary regarded Kinsella as her right-hand man. “In a place that busy, it’s always helpful when someone else can do so much like he could,” says Paynter, now sous chef for Crushed Ice Events, a local caterer. “The guy who’s replacing him will have big shoes to fill because he was involved in so many details. Lilly’s will be a different place without Finbar.”
Kinsella attributes much of his lengthy employment at Lilly’s to his collaborative working relationship with Cary, a boss he says included the entire kitchen staff in the creative process. “A great thing about Kathy was that she wasn’t the type of chef who said, ‘Here’s the new menu; now cook it,’” he says. “She’d say, ‘Let’s talk about a new menu,’ and from those discussions, dishes would evolve.” Kinsella’s loyalty was well rewarded: Cary took him on four trips to New York City, where they cooked at the venerable James Beard House. He also joined her on a journey to California to cook for famed author Sue Grafton and even on a family vacation to Arizona with her own clan.
“I’d like to think I was a pretty good boss, mostly because I gave Finbar the freedom to express his creative energy,” Cary says. She insists two Kinsella specialties — fried oysters and grits and fish and chips — will remain on her lunch menu. David Scales, Kinsella’s replacement, who moved here from Washington, D.C., and took over lunch in mid-June, will get the same long leash, Cary says. “In the 18 years we worked together, I saw Finbar more than I saw my own family and husband: five days a week, nine hours a day,” she says. “You’re living your life with someone who’s not even in your family.”
Says Kinsella: “Eighteen years in one place is like a million in chef years. In this business, if you get four good years out of somebody before they’re gone, that’s a long time.”
That his culinary creative fix will come more often in his home kitchen than workplace doesn’t bother Kinsella, and he says his move to St. Joe’s is a lifestyle change, not a career move. “I’m not in the restaurant business any longer. I’m in foster care and child care,” he says. “It’s not like going from Lilly’s to Seviche. And the change has been something I’ve felt perfectly natural doing.”
Interestingly, Kinsella credits his old bosses, Corbett and Cary, as invaluable in championing his move to St. Joseph’s. Even after giving his notice at Lilly’s, Cary recognized his apprehension and told him it was evidence of a good choice. “I said, ‘If you aren’t scared, it isn’t the right move,’” Cary says.
Leaving Lilly’s may have been the right move, but doing so wasn’t particularly easy on June 11, his final day. Hoping for a swift and unemotional departure, Kinsella transported his personal effects — CDs, work boots, his own knives — piecemeal to his car throughout the day. “I always left my work boots at the restaurant, so the finality of taking them with me that day was really weird,” he says. As they did for nearly two decades, he and Cary worked together alone that final morning and had their farewell chat before others arrived. “It was very sweet, actually, but I knew it was all very real when I said, ‘OK, Kathy, here are my keys,’” Kinsella says.
His final shift completed, the handshakes and goodbyes behind him, Kinsella set off for his Saturday night, couple-of-beers ritual down the street at Molly Malone’s. This time, however, he took the long way through Cherokee Park to get his head together before going inside. “Just a stop to decompress,” he says. “There’s been comfort in that familiarity.”
As much as she’d grown to depend on Kinsella, Cary admits she was surprised how easily she accepted his leaving. But had he done so a few years earlier, she admits, “I would’ve panicked; I would’ve freaked out. But I’ve been in this business so long now that I know I can’t afford to give away that kind of energy anymore.” She also wanted to do nothing to sully Kinsella’s exit, nothing to dampen the mood of the good feelings he was leaving behind or darken the promise of what lay ahead. Still, she couldn’t resist adding one acerbic comment — laced with sugary sarcasm — about his going. “The only thing I’m mad about,” she said, “is you’re leaving before me! Damn! You beat me out the door!”
Photo courtesy of: John Nation