When my wife, Jaclyn, and I celebrated something, we called Corbett’s and requested Table 2, a four seater with its back to the bay window. The restaurant’s rich decor, impeccable service and food felt ahead of its time for Louisville, while, at the same time, connecting us to culinary skills of long ago through fusion, comfort food and an occasional Portuguese, French or Spanish flare.
Although I worked with Dean Corbett on a potential book project and professionally photographed his food, when I learned of Dean’s death yesterday of a heart attack, I didn’t think of work. I remembered date night: Jaclyn and I sitting at Table 2 with full view of the restaurant, bar and flickering fireplace to celebrate our anniversary, the birth of our first child, my first book, Jaclyn’s doctorate graduation and perhaps the most common celebration for us—just waking up.
No restaurant before or since dipped into my credit card statements like Corbett’s. I once tallied how much I spent—$10,000 over a couple years—and realized it was best to not keep track of my spending there. I somehow splurged here with a rare bottle of wine, a taste of Pappy and hey, let’s have that buttercream dessert, while I clinched pennies everywhere else. It’s because I loved Corbett’s!
When Corbett’s went out of business, we had a dining void in our life that could never be replaced. But we all knew it was a matter of time before it closed.
As Louisville’s East End developed and the national trend went away from high-end restaurants, Dean refused to cut corners and he wouldn’t dare serve a plate of second-tier food. Only the best.
At the time, we had just decided on a title for the cookbook—Real American Food: How To Cook with Your Seasonal Local Ingredients—and you could find my photography on Corbett’s websites, advertisements and magazines. Dean and I were ready to take on the publishing world, and I firmly believed his local food angle would spark a revolution in this country when it came to cooking.
Alas, the book didn’t happen, and I went on to publish Whiskey Women.
After that, I was just Dean’s customer. We never worked together again. But our friendship and my respect for him never wavered. I would later champion him as one of this country’s first chefs who helped bring bourbon back. He hired Joy Perrine, now in the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame, and cooked with bourbon in a way nobody had before, using it in brines, sautés and desserts. Dean was instrumental in bourbon cooking, one of the many reasons why he joined the Honorable Order of the Golden Toque and appeared on the Today Show, Cooking Channel’s Foodagraphy and more media mentions than I can recall. He spearheaded the Bourbon & Bowties fundraiser and was in the thick of nearly every Louisville charity.
But more than all of that, he was an impeccable family man, a cook and restaurant owner. He mowed the lawn, scrubbed the floors and prepped the food, because he cared, and he invited his customers to his home to break bread with his family. Dean believed food connected us, and it showed in his restaurants.
One day, I hope my wife and I are re-seated at Table 2 and Dean comes by, with a Bud Light in hand, and tells us about his specials. I’m sure it will taste a lot like it did on earth—like heaven.
Fred Minnick is the editor-in-chief of Bourbon+
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